Hillary Kelly is a contributing editor at Washingtonian and a books and culture writer in Washington, D.C.
In 1847, an English cleaning woman was extremely excited to learn that the boy lodging in her employer’s house was “the son of the man that put together Dombey” — that is, the son of Charles Dickens. The woman could neither read nor write, but she lived above a snuff shop where, on the first Monday of every month, a community of friends would gather to read aloud the latest installment of “Dombey and Son,” which had begun serialization on Oct. 1, 1846. By that time, the monthly installments of Dickens’s novels — which started with “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836 — were such a staple of British culture that an illiterate woman with no access to the actual book knew the author’s work intimately.
More than 150 years later, the publishing industry is in the doldrums, yet the novel shows few signs of digging into its past and resurrecting the techniques that drove fans wild and juiced sales figures. The novel is now decidedly a single object, a mass entity packaged and moved as a whole. That’s not, of course, a bad thing, but it does create a barrier to entry that the publishing world can’t seem to overcome. Meanwhile, consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode, a series of Karl Ove Knausgaard ’s travelogues or a public-radio show (it’s called “Serial” for a reason, people) — so there’s reason to believe they would do the same with fiction. What the novel needs again is tension. And the best source for that tension is serialization.
“The Pickwick Papers” wasn’t the original serialized novel — the format had existed for at least a century prior — but it was the work that truly popularized the form. The first installment had a print order of 1,000 copies; by the time the final entry was published, circulation had reached 40,000. Buoyed by the success of “Pickwick,” Dickens serialized his work for the rest of his career, and scores of other notable Victorian novelists joined the publishing craze. William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair,” Wilkie Collins’s “The Woman in White” and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories all emerged as serials. Old and new magazines, such as Blackwood’s and Household Words, competed for established and emerging voices. The constant influx of unresolved plots and elliptical section breaks stoked a fervor for fiction in Victorian England. It wasn’t until book production became cheap and easy, and new mediums such as radio arose to fill leisure time, that serialization slowly shriveled away.
Why can’t the same techniques that once galvanized readers be revived? Today, when a novel is released, it relies on a series of tried (but not always true) advertising methods. The book is accompanied by a simplified synopsis targeting a specific audience, inflated with blurbs from “influencers” and dropped onto reviewers’ desks with the hope that enough serious critics will praise it that it will wriggle onto a prize list. Even greatness doesn’t always guarantee success. As the Telegraph noted in its look at “Why great novels don’t get noticed now ,” Samantha Harvey’s “Dear Thief” received universally glowing reviews — and sold only 1,000 copies in six months. Publishing houses have a brief window to push a work into the public’s consciousness. If the pilot doesn’t light, the novel doesn’t move. But with a constant stream of exposure over a period of six or 12 or 18 months, a novel would stand a far better chance of piquing the public’s interest.
In many ways, the novel is already designed to be delivered in serial form: Chapters and section breaks bring full stops to the narrative, while flashbacks and shifts in perspective and narration create time and space for momentum to build. At the heart of our compulsion to keep reading lies tension, both of the plot-driven, “Gone Girl” variety (Was Amy Dunne kidnapped, or did she disappear?) and the more thematically driven kind (Will protagonist Henry James ever psychologically recover from his utter humiliation in “The Master”?). The most riveting novels have both: We still read “Pride and Prejudice” because we hope Elizabeth Bennet will marry Mr. Darcy in the end, and we want to discover what type of person she becomes in the process. But when we can freely turn to the next chapter in our novels, we can quash any suspense with the flip of a page. Slicing a novel into bits and slowly doling it out to the reading public takes control of that tension away from the reader, allowing it to ferment and blossom.
Young-adult literature has already embraced the spirit of serialization. With the first Harry Potter novel came a guarantee of six more, which meant five more periods of suspense and nail-biting, six more book launches and millions of fans pondering clues in the interims. Then, with the debate about what Pottermania “meant” for reading and publishing came the flood of more young-adult series: Twilight, the Hunger Games, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, Divergent, etc. Series, of course, have been a staple of the reading masses for decades, but their recent successes serve as a reminder of their power to tantalize and seduce. In many ways, the series is simply the prepackaged version of the serial. It provides the same tension and inspires the same devotion, but it keeps readers waiting years instead of months or weeks. “Game of Thrones” fans, for instance, have been waiting four years for the sixth installment, “The Winds of Winter,” with no publication date in sight.
Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. Yes, not every novel can, or should, be serialized. As novelist Curtis Sittenfeld worried, “I imagine serializing would force me to commit to certain plots even if I subsequently decided they were weak.”
Yet it requires the same characteristic any worthy novelist already seeks: momentum — a value that needn’t come at the expense of integrity. While the plot of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is nearly as bloody and scheming as a “Game of Thrones” book, we all know that Anne Boleyn loses her head; it’s the inner workings of Thomas Cromwell’s mind that keep readers delighted and critics astounded. We still laud many novels that began as serials: George Eliot’s “Middlemarch,” Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady.”
“Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” the critic Adam Kirsch says, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.”
Here’s one way: Publishers could release novels — either completed upfront or written month to month — on their own imprints or through periodicals such as People or the Paris Review. Newsstand sales might cover whatever extra costs this would incur, and, for an additional fee, subscribers might receive the finished paperback before the final chapter lands. Instead of a short do-or-die advertising push, novels could build word-of-mouth support over several months.
Some sites are already trying this. Mousehold Words lets readers ingest Dickens and others in their original serialized form. Amazon introduced a Kindle Serial program about three years ago and stocks a variety of titles, mostly sci-fi and thrillers. St. Martin’s Press has also released a short list of books in serial form in the past few years. And DailyLit, which e-mails portions of books to readers on a daily or weekly schedule, was bought in 2013 by the serialized-fiction outlet Plympton.
But these enterprises all revolve around breaking up and digitally delivering old content or providing an outlet for niche writers. To reinvigorate readers and ignite conversations, beloved authors and notable magazines would need to set themselves to the task: Imagine a Stephen King novella terrifying the readers of Time, a new Jeffrey Eugenides epic unfurling through the pages of the New Yorker or Jennifer Weiner’s curious, energized female protagonists occupying a prominent section in Elle. Imagine if HarperCollins had slowly unveiled Harper Lee’s much-anticipated second novel over a period of six months. Novels wouldn’t be bulks to trudge through or badges of honor to pin to pedants’ chests. They’d be conversation notes, watercooler chatter, Twitter fodder. A part of the zeitgeist, perhaps, instead of a slowly fading pastime.
If the tech-speak murmurs are true, “snackable content” now drives the Internet. And even if they aren’t, it’s a concept worth pursuing. If Dickens could sell portions of “Martin Chuzzlewit” week by week to thousands of fans, serialization stands a chance of working now, for us. As Sittenfeld remarked, “I love ‘Great Expectations,’ and surely what’s good enough for Charles Dickens is good enough for me!”