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Soap Opera Redux: The Returning Popularity of the Saga

Pam Jenoff

Bestselling author Pam Jenoff discusses our enduring love affair with sagas and shares her advice on what a successful saga needs if it's going to engage readers and draw them in.

For many of my younger years, I watched a soap opera called Guiding Light.  I’m convinced from my years at Cambridge that this was not a unique American thing, as many of my British classmates would curl up in the Junior Common Room for EastEnders or Coronation Street).  It was fun to watch the drama of families unfold and travel alongside their joys and sorrows. 

Sadly with the rise of reality television, most American soap operas have gone by the wayside and only a handful remain.  But in remembering fondly how I enjoyed that hour of escapism every day, I am reminded of how much I also appreciate what is perhaps the corollary in books:   the saga.

Merriam Webster defines “saga” as a long and complicated story with many details.  But it is so much more than that.  Romances starting and building or crashing in flames.  Empires built and destroyed.  Loyalty, rivalry and betrayal.   Rags-to-riches stories.  Wars fought and won, then lost then won again.  Looking back at my reading over the years, I was subconsciously drawn to sagas in reading as well as television:  books by John Jakes (North & South) and Fred Mustard Stewart (The Mannings), chronicling multiple generations in early America were among my favorites.  I’ve also enjoyed sags by South African novelist Wilbur Smith Wilbur Smith (The Courtney Novels).

Apparently, the saga is enjoying a resurgence.  The Guardian, in recently reporting on the publication of MP and reality show contestant Nadine Dorries’ The Four Streets, set in 1950’s working class Liverpool, noted that sagas, which for a time had been eclipsed by misery memoirs, now show increasing popularity and sales (citing among other examples Downton Abbey).  This has caused me to think about, whether newfound, returning, or perennial, why the saga is so popular.  Here are a few suggestions:

A Long-Term Relationship.  Readers, once they have become vested in characters, don’t want to say good-bye.  They want to know what happens next to the people they have come to “know.”  I suspect this is why I often get e-mails asking if a sequel is in the works for a particular book.  The saga, with its longer story arc (sometimes spread over multiple books in a series) allows readers to have that desired long-term relationship.

Intergenerational Appeal. The soap opera I once watched, Guiding Light, had been on the air (combined radio and television) for more than 70 years.  It was something that I could bond with my grandmother ever when she was in her nineties.  Sagas, which tend to have characters of all ages and varied backgrounds, offer something for a wide range of readers.

Escapism.  The saga in fact originated with tales of epic Scandinavian quests.  Modern sagas also tend to have larger-than-life characters facing great obstacles and finding the strength to overcome them.  By following along with these characters we can vicariously live their great adventures.

Ken Follett.  Seriously.  Taking nothing away from Downton Abbey (which I watch religiously), Follett has been writing glorious sagas all along and we’ve been reading them and loving them without stopping to think about genre.  His name came out above all others when I polled folks on social media before writing this post.  Pillars of the Earth was a particular favorite of mine.  His books are complex and heart-wrenching and multi-faceted and intergenerational, and they teach us so much while we aren’t even looking because we are so enthralled.  He’s paved the way for all the great sagas that are coming out now.

I’m glad the saga has come back, hopefully to stay.  It is more than the down-at-heels story of the misery memoir, but the chronicling of life over time with all of its setbacks, sorrows, joys and triumphs.

Now if someone would only bring back my soap opera…

How do you feel about sagas? Are they resurgent?  What are some of your favorites?

Pam Jenoff is the UK and internationally-bestselling author of seven novels, including The Kommandant’s Girl and The Winter Guest.  A former diplomat with the State Department, she lives outside Philadelphia with her husband and three small children where, in addition to writing, she teaches law school. Find out more on her website.