I Love Soap Operas (And They Made Me a Better Writer)
Deborah Shapiro on the Genre's Throwback Novelistic Qualities
As a writer who’d like to be taken seriously, I probably shouldn’t confess to loving soap operas. But I do. And I’ve met more than a few literary-minded types who share this not-so-secret love, which leads to me suspect there are a lot more of us out there. Or there were. By soaps I mean the daytime, English-language dramedies that air five days a week, 52 weeks a year, on major networks. In their heyday, there were over a dozen to choose from. Now there are four: General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, The Young and the Restless, and The Bold and the Beautiful. This is not a lament to the passing of a certain way of watching television. What I want to lament is the passing of a certain way of being shaped as a writer by a certain way of watching television. I’m not by any stretch suggesting that soaps have been my sole guide to understanding how narrative works. I read! A lot! But soaps, in their structure, their focus on the quotidian (alongside the ridiculous), and how they create and sustain characters, work in ways that no other form really does—except, of course, the novel.
I’ve seen soaps rightly compared to 19th century literature, in terms of their serial storytelling and their scope; it’s not wildly off the mark to call them Dickensian. They’ve also pulled off their share of postmodern, metafictional conceits—see James Franco playing disturbed art-star “Franco” a few years ago on General Hospital. Soap writers have unparalleled powers of plot-creation, which they employ week after week, month after month, year after year. But I’ve never really watched soaps for their plots, just as I don’t read fiction primarily for plot. The story is going to be resolved one way or the other, and for me, fiction is more about language and the ways language conveys and reveals character, mood, feeling and ideas.
On the soaps, there was (and is) always going to be another cliffhanger, car crash, coma, emergent dissociative personality, or tampered-with DNA test. The great thing about soaps is that you could drop in and out of them at any time, over the course of months and years, and it didn’t really matter. As a viewer, it was easy to be promiscuous. Soap scripts were so expositional; everyone was always announcing how they knew each other and why. It took very little time or effort to catch on and follow along.
For me, it began in the 80s. My sister and I were latchkey kids, turning on Santa Barbara as soon as we got off the school bus. We were taken with Eden, the golden daughter of the wealthy Capwell clan, whose love for detective Cruz Castillo was constantly facing obstacles—some based on realistic racial and class tensions, some based on kidnapping and sharks. Later, I moved on to The Young and the Restless with my mother. She was a school librarian and we would watch episodes together over the summer, when she was off from work. There was always a lot of villainy and deception afoot, but I mostly remember the arrival of Drucilla Barber, an illiterate runaway who would later become a highly successful, Wisconsin-based fashion model. In high school, I switched to General Hospital, around the time super-smart, teenaged child of spies Robin Scorpio was diagnosed with HIV. (This was one of the most moving storylines on GH and continues to be. Robin, now a doctor living in Berkeley with her husband and daughter—and still played by Kimberly McCullough—makes regular appearances in Port Charles, most recently coming back for the Nurses’ Ball, an annual AIDS/HIV awareness fundraiser. And yes, I know this because I still occasionally watch.) In college, between classes, my roommate and I would catch Days of our Lives. This was when psychiatrist Marlena Evans was possessed by the devil and turned into a panther or took the form of other characters and wreaked satanic havoc on the town of Salem, Illinois, or simply wore demonic-looking contacts. Eventually, an exorcism was performed. Along the way, somehow I also managed to familiarize myself with the goings-on of All My Children and One Life to Live.
But while you could shift from one show to another, soaps reward the long-time viewer. You watch the same actors inhabit the same role, sometimes for years. As you observe them shed styles and selves, you share a history. So much contemporary literature deals in disconnection and alienation, the frustrations and failures of communication, the lives of quiet desperation. One thing you can say for soaps—the desperation is conspicuous and spectacular, never quiet. But even at their most cartoonish, what soap characters do is connect with each other, and the viewer, day after day. This sustained connection, however shallow or superficial it initially may be, builds and deepens over time. And in this way, there’s something highly novelistic about soaps, what they’re able to do with time and character, that has compelled me as a writer. I’m interested in the moments and the webbing of connection. And how the passage of time plays into that. I’m a sucker for the kind of flashback scenes only soaps can do, when they’re able to run snippets of old footage of the same actors, from 20 or even 30 years ago.
There’s something highly novelistic about soaps, what they’re able to do with time and character, that has compelled me as a writer.
There have been films that do this too. I’m thinking of Francois Truffaut’s series of movies over two decades featuring his alter-ego Antoine Doinel, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. Or Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, where we check in on Céline (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) over the course of 18 years. But the pleasures of that kind of cinema have much to do with the recurrence of familiar characters. And in that way, it’s fairly soapy. The slippage between the present and the past, and the way this slippage shapes identity and meaning, is something I wanted to explore in my novel—in which, not so coincidentally, one of the main characters works as a writer on a soap.
How do soaps do this so effectively? I think it’s because, in addition to their pacing, their balancing of continual repetition and relentless forward propulsion, they also, in a way, move backwards. They’re actually more about the accrual and accumulation of history over time than they are about the next new plot twist. At their strongest, soaps bring that history to bear on the next plot twist, making it richer, making it matter more. Because it’s never really about the plot twist itself (you see them coming from miles away) so much as how the character you’ve come to know is going to handle it.
Soaps revel in the pleasure of character. And character, lately, as a literary concern, has come to feel a bit outmoded, almost unfashionable. It’s hard to read the recent work of writers such as Karl Ove Knausgaard, Rachel Cusk, or Sheila Heti and not feel that conventional modes of characterization are distractingly artificial and might as well be dispensed with. That they are cobwebs to be cleared. As if inventing names for people and putting them in imaginary situations where they do things only distances readers from what is most significant and true. As if characters are relics of a less sophisticated time. A time when people (read: women) watched soap operas. The exception to this might be the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s epically sprawling Neapolitan novels, with their intimate focus on two friends over time, amid a host of other characters. But I think part of the appeal of these books, at least formally, is that they’re something of a throwback.
In an interview in the Guardian around the publication of her latest novel Outline, Cusk—author of seven previous novels and three memoirs, whose work has drawn about as much irritation as adulation and praise—said she now thought fiction was “fake and embarrassing” and that she was “certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character—these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.” I understand Cusk’s sentiment. It all starts to feel like so much creaky machinery. Writing about Cusk’s work in the New Yorker, critic Elaine Blair put it this way: “Today, writers who are trying to expand the possibilities of the novel talk about incorporating the techniques of memoir and essay, of hewing closer to the author’s subjective experience, of effacing the difference between fiction and their own personal nonfictions.” But even the most seemingly transparent writing is a construction. And definitions—what exactly is this kind of writing and what falls into the category—are slippery, too. The trend against invented characters, if you can call it that, is hardly new or unprecedented. As Blair notes, “Haven’t we been reading about a character called ‘Philip Roth’ for years?”
The trend against invented characters, if you can call it that, is hardly new or unprecedented.
And none of these writers do away with character and description. Especially Cusk. Rather, she interrogates and complicates our understanding of it. Outline is mostly a succession of paraphrased conversations, largely one-sided, between Cusk’s reticent narrator, Faye, and the expressive people she encounters during a short stay in Greece. Faye, recently divorced, lives in London and has come to Athens to teach a creative writing seminar. Instead of deep character studies, Cusk offers us vivid sketches and evocative images that illuminate the instability of identity, of language, and shifting frames of reference. At one point, Faye meets a playwright named Anne, a kind of not-quite mirror of herself—Anne is lively, talky, present, as opposed to Faye, whose style is all precision and restraint, or depending on your point of view, chilliness. Anne recounts a conversation she had with a man on a plane who tells her all about his life and in so doing, creates an oppositional space for Anne to take up:
“He was describing, in other words, what she herself was not: in everything he said about himself, she found in her nature a corresponding negative. This anti-description…had made something clear to her by a reverse kind of exposition: while he talked, she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank. Yet this shape, even while its content remained unknown, gave her… a sense of who she was now.”
Selves come into focus only to dissolve again. How could you ever build a traditional, character-based narrative on that? The death of so many soaps, lost to talk and reality shows, seems to both anticipate and bear out Cusk’s statement regarding character in the current cultural landscape. And maybe what I’m advocating for sounds like head-in-the-sand escapism from that. A continued suspension of disbelief, when we know so much better at this point. (More than suspension, even. It’s almost a collective belief in disbelief—soaps don’t ask you to take their bonkers plot lines seriously, they only ask you to care enough to keep watching). And yet, soaps have made me laugh and they’ve made me cry and I’m not sure what I’m escaping in either of those cases. It’s left to the four remaining shows, apparently healthy enough to stay on TV, for now, to be a refuge. For a kind of comforting staginess and old-fashioned approach to character, sure. But also for those moments of connection they still continue to cultivate.