LIT-TV: A Two-Day Symposium Exploring Contemporary US Television and “the Literary”

Organisers: Dr Arin Keeble (Edinburgh Napier) and Dr Sam Thomas (Durham).
Keynote: Professor Stephen Shapiro (Warwick University)

We are seeking proposals for a symposium to be hosted by the School of Arts and Creative Industries at Edinburgh Napier University on May 5-6, 2018.

Contemporary US television is frequently conceived of, promoted and analysed as “literary”. Following the game-changing impact of The Sopranos (1999-2007), The Wire (2002-2008) can potentially be identified as a paradigm case here: it was originally pitched to HBO as a “novel” for television; it has been famously compared to the serial works of Dickens; it has received enthusiastic endorsements from writers such as Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith; its creator David Simon has been suggested by some commentators as a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature; it has been studied and taught in university English Departments.

Beyond The Wire, there are examples from across the genre spectrum of an intriguing, multifaceted interplay between screen and page. Cult favourite Justified (2010-2015) is deeply rooted in the distinctive prose of Elmore Leonard and pays tribute to the creator of its principle characters in reverential yet playful ways. Sons of Anarchy (2007-2013) fuses extreme pulp violence and melodrama with the narrative frame of Hamlet. Shows as diverse as Breaking Bad (2008-2013), True Detective (2014-) and Orange is the New Black (2013-) feature strategic allusions to all manner of literary texts. A recent spate of productions, including The Man in the High Castle (2015-), American Gods (2017-) and The Handmaid’s Tale (2017), are based on influential novels — inspiring much discussion about the new possibilities for literary adaptation and even, in the case of the latter, acts of political protest.

Tied to profound changes in the production and reception of television, these series demonstrate a range of entrenched associations with literary culture. The relationship between television and the literary is also a crucial factor in recent debates about prestige, canonicity and contemporary value systems. With these points in mind, critics such as Greg Metcalf have gone so far as to assert that television now has the capacity “to create what we think of as literature” (The DVD Novel, 2012).

Cutting against this, however, is a wave of scholarship that focusses on how such programmes might resist and/or diverge from the literary tag, often by embellishing narrative possibilities that are unique to television. In Complex TV (2015), for instance, Jason Mittell argues that “such cross-media comparisons obscure rather than reveal the specificities of television’s storytelling form”. In ‘Breaking Bad’ and Dignity(2015), Elliot Logan claims that the celebrated series challenges the way in which the “literary” is held up as an ideal for television to aspire to.
In many respects, the analysis of contemporary US television therefore speaks to a rich cultural history that encompasses both cross-pollination and opposition, while at the same time opening up compelling questions about present and future relationships between narrative media.

Ultimately, the two-day symposium seeks to contribute to emerging scholarship on the nature and value of televisual storytelling vis-à-vis the literary. Plans are also underway for a special issue of a high quality refereed journal, based on selected and expanded papers from the conference.

We invite proposals for 20 minute papers addressing (but not limited to) the following areas:

  • Parallels, converges and (dis)connections between literary and televisual narrative form
  • Seriality
  • Literary sources / adaptation / allusion
  • The relationship between televisual and literary genres (crime, dystopia, the gothic, social realism, and so on)
  • The relationship between televisual and literary places / regions
  • Television and literary heritage / tradition
  • Theoretical paradigms for (re)thinking the relationship between television and the literary
  • Value / cultural capital / canonicity
  • The legitimacy of ‘literary tv’ as a concept in culture and criticism

Please send abstracts to littvconference2018@gmail.com by December 1, 2017

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