Every since I read Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs, I’ve been fascinated with the concept of the serial novel. Granted, I read it in book form, but his original audience had to tune in every week (or every publication) to find out what happened with the Jungle Man.
Skip ahead over a century and there are a new generations of writers, who tease their audiences with action and cliffhangers, drawing in audiences, but also criticism: who wants to wait? How can the writer leave us hanging? This is simply a marketing ploy to sell weak books!
My take? This is not a new idea. We are willing (but only because we must) to wait weeks and years for a new episode of our favorite shows (curse you, Game of Thrones!!) – should books be any different? A good story is a good story, regardless of the form.
Everything old is new again. What began as a nineteenth century publishing practice is now seeing a resurgence thanks to digital technology. Serialized fiction — the publication of a narrative in a series of installments or the literary equivalent of a TV series — is now the focus of a new startup and app and has been adopted by scores of women’s fiction authors as a way to publish their work.
In Dickens’ time, serialized fiction was often driven by costs. While many readers couldn’t afford a complete bound book, they could spare a few pennies for a newspaper or periodical containing the latest chapter of a story each week or month. These days time is the limiting factor, according to Yael Goldstein Love, co-founder and editorial director of Rooster, a mobile reading service that helps busy people fit great fiction into their lives: “They [serial installments] make it easier to see how you can fit reading into your life because this is fiction meant to be consumed in the five or ten or twenty minute block of time. You almost trick yourself into reading a novel. But in a good way.”
Isn’t serialized fiction the same as buying a book, chapter by chapter? Not exactly. Author Rachel Kadish found that writing a novel designed to be read in short, tantalizing installments brought its own challenges and perks. Her serial novel, I Was Here, tells the story of a woman whose past comes back to haunt her decades after she’d thought it was banished (the story is available on Rooster). I Was Here first started out as a novella but received extensive rewrites from Kadish to take full advantage of the serial format. “The serialized form means you need to tell a riveting story,” says Kadish. “Otherwise why would a reader come back from week to week? Dividing my story into installments required me to think hard about the rising and falling tensions within each section. The serialized format encouraged me to do more with the story’s inherent tensions and play out the plot more fully.”
Proponents of serialized fiction point to the format of a TV series to show that people are familiar with the format and happy to consume a story in episodes. This method also creates a more social experience than curling up at home, alone, with a novel for an afternoon. Everyone is watching or reading the same episode at the same time — or at least is sharing the anticipation for the next installment.
Goldstein Love notes, “Such a big part of the appeal of the serial for me is the delight of the time between episodes, anticipating and speculating about what’s going to happen next. That break between episodes makes our relationship with the characters feel more intimate because they can surprise, disappoint, and betray us in real time.”
An article in The Atlantic notes that even with our technology that allows us to watch shows on our time, 43 percent of viewers still tune in when the show airs, suggesting “we still prefer to consume our stories as a group.” Think of the experience of following Twitter while watching the Academy Awards or a Presidential Debate, or reading the same book as your friends. Conversation enhances the original narrative.
On the other hand, these days most of us prefer to watch a TV series once we can consume every episode in one epic binge. Perhaps recognizing that, Netflix released every episode of season 4 of Arrested Development simultaneously. Some readers prefer to get their story all at once. I checked out the reviews for my serial novel. Even while they enjoyed the book, a small number of readers were disgruntled with the format:
Had I known this was a story being told in three novellas, and installment series if you will, I would have waited to read this one until they were all complete and read them in a single go.
I am beginning to really detest serials, they just leave you smack bang in the middle of the action and you have to wait what seems like an age to see what happens next. I swear it is a modern type of torture and should be stopped at all costs.
With the serial format, it all comes down to anticipation. There is something wonderful about gluttonously devouring a novel in one sitting. But there is something just as special (or agonizing) as waiting for the next installment of a riveting story and discussing every twist and turn as they happen with other readers. Part of why we turn to fiction is the emotional rush that a great story provides. Love it or hate it, the serial format enhances that awesome sense of anticipation.