Sean O'Sullivan Tribute

November 28, 2023

Sean O'Sullivan Tribute

Sean O'Sullivan

On October 17, 2023, the Project Narrative community lost one of its most valuable members, Sean O’Sullivan. The English Department hired Sean in 2006 for a position in film studies that was not designated as a Project Narrative hire. But Sean immediately became a regular at PN events and soon a core member of the PN faculty. Among his countless contributions to PN, he served as Director from 2014-2016.

Sean’s teaching and research were grounded in his extensive knowledge of Victorian literature, film, television, and narrative theory. He had a penchant for asking and answering fresh and significant questions about all these subjects. It was a pleasure to track the play of Sean’s mind across the progression of a conference presentation or a published piece of scholarship. And it was a similar pleasure to be the recipient of his questions about one’s own work. Sean published Mike Leigh (2011) in the University of Illinois Press’s Series on Contemporary Film Directors and a series of brilliant essays about serial narrative, with special attention to serial television. These essays address a wide range of issues: The Sopranos and episodic storytelling; modernist structure in Mad Men; poetic design and the serial season; the afterlives of Krzysztof Kieslowski's The Decalogue; Deadwood and third seasons; apocalyptic television in Margaret Thatcher's Britain; the limits of satisfaction in Dickens, Eliot, and contemporary serials; and the showrunner Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from a Marriage and Fanny and Alexander. His 2019 essay “Six Elements of Serial Narrative” (Narrative 27, no. 1, 49-64) is a major contribution to the theory of seriality, as it identifies, explicates, and discusses the interrelations of those six building blocks: iteration, multiplicity, momentum, world-building, personnel, and design.

Sean’s colleagues and former students offer these remembrances and appreciations.

Brian McHale: Sean O'Sullivan was the kindest smart person I've ever known -- which maybe isn't saying enough. But he was also the smartest kind person I've ever known.

Sarah Iles Johnston: I met Sean for the first time when I was on fellowship in Göttingen, and he was visiting as a speaker for a conference on narratology. We were seated together at lunch and had a lovely conversation about many things, including seriality. After that, I started reading his own work on seriality and that of other people (he generously shared bibliography with me). Understanding that the public performance of Greek myths had a serial element changed the course of my 2018 book, The Story of Myth. Many classicists have picked this point up, since my book was published. Without Sean, none of that would have happened.

Julia Watson: I met Sean when I joined Project Narrative in 2014, shortly before retiring. It was always a pleasure to attend events or meetings where he was present. Sean was warm, smart, witty, kind, and a master of repartee. He drew on extensive knowledge in many areas of visual and literary culture and posed questions that went to the heart of narrative issues. With his droll eyebrow raises and gentle skepticism, Sean was a true “Mensch.” He will be much missed.

Amy Shuman: Sean was a generous and thoughtful colleague with vast knowledge beyond his expertise in film, television, and British literature. I will remember him not only for the meetings we arranged, when I asked for his advice about particular television shows, but even more for the casual, impromptu conversations we had in the hallways and at conferences. I loved attending Project Narrative events at his house—where Rory and Eve (who were much younger when Sean directed Project Narrative) greeted us outside. Sean was so present, so engaging, so insightful. He was gone too soon, but I will always remember him.

Jim Phelan: Rather than a single story about Sean I offer something I think he’d like better: a series of selected snapshots from our interactions over the years. His brilliant job talk on Hitchcock’s Vertigo that made me excited about having him as a colleague; our bracing argument, first on email and then in person, about the ending of The Sopranos (he didn’t buy my case that it was a cop-out). Our lively editor-author exchanges about “Six Elements of Serial Narrative” that helped restore my faith in journal editing. Our thoroughly enjoyable conversation in the PN podcast about Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” recorded shortly before his being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Our sharing of Wordle results during his last months. Thinking about these and many other snapshots, I cannot determine which is greater: my grief that Sean is gone or my gratitude that he was here.

Erica Haugtvedt: I can tell I was lucky to have had Sean as my PhD advisor because I don’t recall ever going to his office in fear or feeling purposefully intimidated. Sean was a stunningly intelligent scholar whom I admire very much, but above all, Sean showed that being human came first. He was capacious in his curiosity and energetic in his enthusiasm, pushing my ideas to greater levels of insight and precision along the way--especially about seriality. Sean loved to talk, but Sean didn’t center conversations on himself. He was a consummate writer in that his feedback was appropriate for each stage of the process: he asked probing questions at the outset, suggested conceptual revisions for chapter drafts, and saved his sharp eye for detail and style for the final copyediting stages. Most of all, Sean set a noble example of how to be a scholar and a person, and I will do my best to continue his legacy.

Suhaan Mehta: Thanks to Sean, I felt seen during my first narrative conference in April 2010 in Cleveland. I was looking forward to presenting my paper, but my panel was scheduled for the final day at 8:00 a.m. I thought I would be reading out my paper to rows of empty chairs, and I was mostly right. However, along with a couple of peers, Sean was there to support me. I greatly appreciated his reassuring presence. He offered characteristically kind and thoughtful feedback on my presentation. This incident was just one example of Sean's incredible mentorship that I was privileged to receive as a graduate student at Ohio State.

Jacinta Yanders: Sean was the best sort of advisor I could've hoped for as I embarked upon the journey of becoming a PhD. Everybody knows he knew how to talk (fast!), but he also knew how to listen. He introduced me to Twin Peaks (thanks Sean!), and because of him, I got to teach about one of my favorite shows (All My Children). When I think about him, I remember the many meetings at Heirloom during which he offered productive feedback and helped to ensure I was ready and able to achieve all of my goals. R.I.P. Sean. You will be missed.

Drew Sweet: Sean was incredibly affirming and generous as a mentor. He always treated my interests and ideas as worthy of serious consideration, and he would often use them as starting points for wide-ranging discussions pulling together various seemingly unrelated details. Yet his mind was also as sharp as a scalpel, uncannily capable of putting pressure on every aspect of my work that I secretly hoped he would gloss over. It meant so much to me, as a young scholar, to encounter someone who seemed to approach scholarship the same way I instinctively did and who could help me see myself as someone capable of producing genuine scholarship. He was, in addition to all of this, a singular scholar of television and seriality and whatever else he put his mind to, and we are all worse off without his continued contributions.

Thank you, Sean, for all your contributions to our collective efforts in Project Narrative. May you rest in peace.