European Literature Days 2018 | Day 3

Over and Done, but Things Always Go On!

It is Saturday afternoon and there is plenty of lively activity again at Schloss Spitz after the initial effects have been overcome of a long night drinking wine by some more than others. Yesterday, after two interesting discussion sessions with international and Austrian filmmakers in Krems, today is the last discussion panel of the European literature festival. The headline theme is the “Law of the Series” and the venue is packed. After a few opening remarks, while the moderator presents a short sketch of the development over the past 30 years of the market for the series – on TV and streaming websites – and finishes his talk with an outlook filled with interest and questions about the future of entertainment formats, the panellists are invited onto the stage. They are all writers working in television or audio drama and/or (female) novelists. A television producer and the head of the Drehbuchforum Wien have also taken a seat on the panel. I am deliberately not mentioning all the participants’ names, because there were too many, and this text should not have the aftertaste of a list.

However, I want to reveal that I witnessed the event live and it was deeply engaging. It is difficult to remember all the questions, which were raised, but the important ones were the following: how useful and important is it for a writer to think early on about the intended audience, – whether via streaming or on the good old television set that, according to statistics, at least young people switch on less and less to consume entertainment? Does it make any sense at all to think about this legendary, quota-defining, abstract entity of “audience/viewer”, while one is creating a story? Or let’s say more accurately: how far is it possible to calculate, anticipate, or know what they want to see? Once again, it’s possible to ramble on about artificial intelligence that actually is already available in this area. It has become reality that companies, which offer streaming services, evaluate and analyse the data about our clicks on their web pages, how long we spend on their websites; they set up profiles on whose basis it should be efficient and increasingly easy to calculate what the thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur looks at, or what the young mother as well as the fifty-year-old business man. What the city residents consume and customers in rural areas. It is a plausible option, and I’m not doing it precisely because it would lead beyond the scope here. 

The filmmakers and narrators have assembled on stage to discuss storytelling, the power of narratives in all their forms and not statistics and consumers. It is undisputed that narrative forms over the past decade have changed at a pace that is difficult to stop; and it is hard to overlook what monopoly streaming services like Netflix und Amazon have fought for over recent years thanks to their self-produced serial formats. Both among the audience and on stage, opinions are temporarily divided: is this presumably new form of following characters for longer periods of their fictional lives a fashion fad, profound and genuine narration or cheap entertainment that only better caters for the consumers’ desire that something always carries on, and something new and funny is always told? The question is also always how one narrates something and how much time it takes to create this world. Here, the conversation slides into a brief excursion into the world of daily soaps. It’s always easy to say that they lack content. However, if you take a closer look there are also dramas, stories, imagined emotions here that should and are meant to tell something about human existence – however, the producers of these formats from production to direction and also screenwriters, the screenplay author and colleagues in the writers room don’t have the time to recount stories with incredible insight. The style of the production demands a new daily instalment. Every day an episode is filmed, cut, plotted and a dialogue book form is written out... Personally, I’m not surprised that the quality suffers because of this. But what are well-narrated, serial stories? Is there a big difference between the form, the narrative style of “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire” and an epic novel like the one by Nino Haratischwilli (now I have revealed a name, after all, she sat in person on the stage) “Das achte Leben – Für Brilka” (“The Eighth Life”), which extends over more than a thousand pages? We could also have discussed Dostoevsky and Zola. Although we didn’t do.

Current events seem exciting enough. It seems exciting enough to discuss not only contemporary cultural works, but also what these mean for the economy. And to consider the unimaginable power that successful streaming providers like Netflix preside over and how they also use it, for example. Modesty is a well-known virtue of success. This is the comment of a friendly and open-minded writer colleague from Zagreb who is presently probably in the rarest situation in the European industry of having sold a series as lead author to Netflix that Netflix had negotiated with the Croatian company creating the series as “a Netflix original”. And that was despite the series already having been broadcast in Croatia and another three European countries (as a Croatian series). When this was used as a point of argument the view on behalf of the Netflix organization was: “It’s not so bad, Netflix reaches 120 countries, so 3 or 4 don’t matter.” So, the three small, Eastern European countries should be irritated because they already knew the format as an original from Croatia and not as a Netflix original, given that this doesn’t exactly count for much against the hundred-plus countries that the Croatian channel and production companies had never reached with their (own) broadcast.

At the end of the very lively discussion round, a writer from the audience asked the question whether this serial production and also consumption “in series” wasn’t just a bit dubious. She could not speak from experience because she watches too few series, but her children were completely infected by this format and recently one of her children asked her: “Is that really only ONE book that you are always writing?” (The writer has already published several books, but not one that is continuous.) So, the theme goes: “Doesn’t that continue at all?” Her children were so influenced by this style of consuming stories that they could no longer even imagine the closed form of a narrative. 

As so often in the last few days, the panel doesn’t close the session with conclusions or answers but certainly with questions that whet the appetite for even more debate. Everyone in the room is unanimous: new forms always need the courage of those who create them to be able to see the light of day at all. Without courage, without the willingness to take a risk, the paths that have not been taken yet would also remain untouched. Where too much control and fear dominates, and too much is at stake in advance about generating success or not – whether with the good old measure of quotas or the click counter on the Internet – presumably even more fear and ignorance is being bred, instead of ideas for new and surprising stories told in an unexpected light and bringing characters to life.

llinca Florian

Ilinca Florian, b. 1983 in Bucharest and now living in Berlin, is a German-speaking writer. She worked for the Berlin Grips Theatre and is a director of short and documentary films. Her debut novel Als wir das Lügen lernten was published in spring 2018.
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