“The serial self”: the Influence of Autobiography on contemporary television and internet series

BOZAR, December 14th 2018, 11:00

Today we witness a sharp rise in autobiographical series, probably with Girls as the most popular example. Writer Lena Dunham, who plays the main character Hannah Horvath, has often been confused with her creation. Actor, stand-up comedian and screenwriter Louis C.K. also wrote several series – Lucky Louie (2006) and Louie (2010) – around a character that resembled him very strongly. In the Australian series Please Like Me, screenwriter Josh Thomas plays the main character Josh. Closer to home, Leander Verdievel made a beautiful series, Gevoel voor Tumor (Sense of Tumour), about his battle with cancer. And what about the reality formats that focus on specific personalities, like the tragic TV chef Anthony Bourdain? In the world of YouTube, finally, it is the personality of the YouTuber or vlogger that carries the series.

Nothing seems easier than writing about yourself, but autobiographical writing entails a lot of choices. How close does one stay to reality, or can fiction and reality be mixed? How far can one go in playing with reality and fiction? How can the audience relate to a character that originates in a very personal experience? What are the consequences for a maker (and his or her environment) who is identified with a character and a series? Can you control what happens with your person in the public arena? Since the second half of the twentieth century we see in all domains of storytelling a huge increase of autobiographical narratives. This has even been called a ‘memoir boom’, that today is still ongoing. In television, reality formats remain popular, but also in quality TV series autobiographical stories have become more important. The medium raises interesting new questions: can an autobiographical series be created by a team and how should it be serialized? The rise of YouTube, finally, has brought us examples of autobiographical narratives that are no longer narrative in the strict sense of the word.  YouTubers and vloggers today are hugely popular and offer interesting role models and formats for young makers.

The questions that we would like to raise on December 14th address the complicated relation between autobiography, series and television/internet. What happens to series when they become autobiographical, and what happens to autobiography when it becomes serial? Which new forms and ways of writing are arising and why are they so popular today? We will pose these questions to a specialist in autobiography, Prof. Julia Watson (Ohio State University), who co-authored with Sidonie Smith the standard work Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (second edition, 2010) as well as to Marida Di Crosta (Lyon 3) who researches autobiography and television series/vlogs. These speakers will bring their ideas to a broad audience using case studies. They will also enter into dialogue with young makers and screenwriters, like Leander Verdievel, creator of Gevoel voor Tumor about his experiences with cancer, Israeli creator Tom Salama, who just finished Miguel, about his experience as a gay man who wants to adopt a child. Joining them at the table will be Caroline Taillet, creator of the web series La théorie d’Y and last but not least, feminist YouTuber Marion Séclin. During the day Leander Verdievel and Marion Séclin will also conduct workshops.

For more info:


Keynote lectures:

Miroirs audacieux. Entre télévision et Internet, l’émergence d’une forme Web-narrative sérielle et autobiographique? (Marida Di Crosta, Lyon 3)

Regard-caméra, plans rapprochés, « Je narrant », adresse directe au public… Emblématique des formes audiovisuelles spécifiques au Web, le vidéoblog déploie des stratégies de narration et d’implication du public particulières spécifiques aux écrans connectés, tout en renvoyant aux formes d’énonciation et de représentation éminemment télévisuelles. L’analyse de quelques productions sérielles et Web-sérielles récentes permettra de montrer les inventions et influences réciproques – sur le plan de l’écriture de soi particulièrement.

Between the Edge and the Abyss: The Serial Performances of Anthony Bourdain (Julia Watson, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Studies, The Ohio State University)

Because an American television serial on a major network requires the collaboration of several writers, directors, producers, and camera crews, a serial autobiographical show seems at best a viewer’s illusion about the projection of a personal image and speaking voice concocted by many hands and brains. Under what conditions might a genuinely autobiographical TV series be made? And how is the late Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown both an example of autobiographical issues and a remarkable, indeed unique, fulfillment of their possibilities?