Cara/Andrea here, We’ve recently been talking here about our writing processes, and how time, ambiance, computer vs pen and paper affect how we create our stories. And deadlines—those were mentioned a lot too! In thinking about the subject, it seems to me that some things have been universal angts to writers across the ages. Inspiration. Struggle. How the words flow. And yes, the dreaded deadline! It’s never easy. But on reading a recent article on Charles Dickens and his The Mystery of Edwin Drood, it reminded me that during the 19th century, a phenomena developed—one that proved hugely popular with the public—that put even more pressure on authors.
Dickens, who was forced to leave home and find work in a factory after his father was put in debtor’s prison, helped pioneer the “serial” novel, which involved publishing the book in either weekly or monthly installments within the pages of a high-circulation popular magazine of the times. Pickwick Papers, his first book to be serialized, was showcased to the public in 1836, and launched the author on his way to literary fame.
Serialization was an interesting confluence of tech and creativity. The Industrial Revolution had spread to the publishing world, and the new high-powered steam presses were making possible the mass production of inexpensive magazines and newspapers. It’s said that Dickens would gauge reader reaction to the story and in response would actually noodle with his original plot to meet. For example, word is he altered Miss Mowcher in David Copperfield, to be shown in a better light.
Now, back to "Drood." His works were so popular that The Mystery of Edwin Drood created a huge crisis for his readers. Designed to be released in 12 parts, the book, which had a very complicated plot revolving around opium dens, a romance complete with evil characters, and the sudden disappearance of the hero—had just released part 6 when Dickens inconveniently passed away without having completed the story! There have been many attempts by others to finish the book since then—including one in 1873 by a printer in Vermont who claimed to have the words dictated to him by the spirit of Dickens. Um, talk about giving new meaning to the term “ghostwriter.”
As it is to this day, publishers were on the lookout for “hooks” to attract readers, and in the 19th century, the serialized novel proved a huge draw. People who might not be able to buy books could afford the small cost of the magazine, and thus over time read the whole book. In many ways, it brought a whole new audience to the literary world, and by the late Victorian era, many of the top authors, including Wilkie Collins and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were releasing their works in this form.
England was not the only country where serial novels proved wildly popular. In France, Alexandre Dumas enthusiastically embraced the new form. The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo (which needed 139 installments) were published as feuilletons, and at times he was working 14 hours a day on several serializations at once. (Okay, shoot me now!) Flaubert followed suit, releasing Madame Bovary as a serial in 1856. In Russia, Tolstoy published Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov within the pages of the Russian Messenger.
Serialization proved to be very popular in America as well. In 1851, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published in parts by the Abolitionist magazine, The National Era, and its widespread availability helped influence public opinion on slavery. Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly developed a reputation as strong literary forums by publishing the likes of Henry James and Herman Melville.
With the advent of radio and television, the serialized novel soon lost its allure—though it’s interesting to note that in 1984, Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities was published as a 29-part serial in Rolling Stone magazine, partly, it’s said, as an homage to Dickens.
Today, given ever-shrinking attention spans, I’m not sure serials would find a willing audience. But what do you think? Would you enjoy following a serial novel? Or would you be too impatient to wait for the release of each segment. I tend to like to race through a book I love, so not sure how I would like it. However, the notion is intriguing . . . hmmm, maybe the Wenches should start a serial novel on the blog! What do you think? (ducking flying rotten tomatoes from the other Wenches! <G>)