Of Sequels and Serials: The Serialized Novel Is Back (Or Was It Ever Gone?)

Starting

When you think of a novel, you think of a thick book, bound tightly, surrounded by an attention-grabbing cover, a sparkling spine…and bursting with meaningful ink. You picture hundreds, no, thousands of book spines displayed in perfect rows along miles of shelves in libraries and bookstores. You see gold leaf titles embossed on red and green leather stretching into imaginary libraries of the gods. This is the world of books: volumes, editions, series, bestsellers, paperback, hardback, pocketbook, coffee table book…these are entities that you can pick up and thumb through, read at your leisure and use as paperweights when you’re finished with them.

But not all books started off as potential paperweights. Some of the best novels started off a chapter at a time in magazines and newspaper supplements. You had to wait a week or more to read the next chapter.

No one seems to be sure exactly when this started, but most fingers point to Dickens, who published The Pickwick Papers in 19 installments between 1836 and 1837. It wasn’t his best novel, and some critics point to its serialization as the reason for its rambling unfocused nature, but he did much better in 1860 with his serialization of Great Expectations.

So, what is a serial novel? Wikipedia defines it as “In literature, a serial is a printing format by which a single larger work, often a work of narrative fiction, is published in smaller, sequential installments. The installments are also known as numbers, parts or fascicles, and may be released either as separate publications or within sequential issues of a periodical publication, such as a magazine or newspaper.”

Whew!

My definition of a serialized novel: “I’m going to publish one episode of The Weekly Man every day for two and a half months or until I go crazy.”

So much for my definition.

But let’s look at other novels that tiptoed into the literary world a ‘fascicle’ at a time: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Madame Bovary, A Tale of Two Cities, Crime and Punishment, Treasure Island, The War of the Worlds, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Phantom of the Opera, Ulysses, The Secret Garden, A Farewell to Arms, In Cold Blood and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

There’s something about being involved in an ongoing activity that attracts us: the weekly poker game, the weekly date night, the daily horoscope…how many TV series can you count on your fingers and toes? Here’s a hint: A lot more that you have fingers and toes! And more on the way. It’s not enough to give us a one to two hour movie anymore; it has to be a series of ten or more episodes culminating with a victory by the good guys and followed up by another series next season after it’s learned that the good guys weren’t really victorious because…look…the problem’s back for another season.

When you think of it…baseball, hockey, basketball…these are all serialized episodes in a team-writing story of victory and loss culminating in a grand finale called the championship game.

We’re very much a serial society. If something pleases or interests us, we want more of it. It’s not enough to go back and re-read a book or re-watch a movie or sports event; we want more. This explains all those bad sequels to movies that weren’t all that great to begin with. How many sequels did Dumb and Dumber really merit? It boils down to the “want more of this” urge that proliferates in a world where everybody milks the moment to squeeze out a little more.

But with the serialized novel, we’re talking about one story spread over equal intervals leading to one inexorable ending, not the kind of story “add-on” that comes with sequels.

Unless, of course, the serialized novel has a sequel.

Hmm.

Come to think of it…a sequel to The Weekly Man. It would be the world’s second free daily serialized coffee break novel.

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