Will the Future Be Serialized?

Stephen King doing a thing usually means it’s the thing to be done. In a letter to readers posted last Friday, King says he wants to offer, through his Web site, an epistolary novel in 5,000-word installments for $1 a download–payment to be made on the honor system. The novel, called The Plant, was begun in 1983 and is not yet finished. It tells “the story of a sinister plant–sort of a vampire-vine–that takes over the offices of a paperback publishing company, offering financial success in trade for human sacrifices,” he writes, not being overtly ironic. (“The story struck me as both funny and scary.”) This cheerfully sinister view of book executives may help explain why King feels no compunction about cutting his regular publisher, Scribner’s, out of the revenue he’ll earn if we’re as honest as he hopes we are.

So is serialization the future of the novel in the age of electronic publishing? One hears this prediction more and more in the past few months, and King gives us no reason to question it. Are we in for a return to the bravado feats of chapter-by-chapter publishing that made Charles Dickens and George Eliot and Anthony Trollope and William Makepeace Thackeray the Stephen Kings of their day–with, miraculously, a literary depth and acuity that has kept us all reading for nearly two centuries? Not necessarily. Electronic publishing has made serialization cheaper by eliminating the additional cost of printing and distributing more than one volume. But American readers are also poised to shift to e-books. Once people are freed from desktop and laptop computer screens and can download large quantities of reading matter onto book-size devices, there will be no good reason for electronic publishers to put out long works in short segments. Indeed, the argument against serialization will become stronger than the argument for it. Why settle for a piece of something when you’re already in the habit of buying the whole thing? The individual episode isn’t that much cheaper; doesn’t save that much time to download; and isn’t any less cumbersome physically, since e-books will surely possess more memory than their owners will use anyway.

Nineteenth-century British readers put up with serialization for a simple reason. They had to. Serial publication took off as a form in the 1830s (it had been around for a century) largely because the average reader was hard-pressed to lay his hands on a book. Demand was rising, because a white-collar middle class was starting to emerge–clerks and doctors and the like–but labor and paper were exceedingly costly, and no publisher wanted to be the one to start a price war. Serialization in magazines and in individual chapbooks known as “number-publications” filled the gap. These could be passed from hand to hand and from master to servant and even read aloud in pubs and villages, which did a lot to expand literacy and the books’ own readership.

Even if the British read serials perforce, there was nonetheless a powerful confluence between the form and its time. The 19th century was the era of long and winding narratives. Historians were publishing epic tomes. Historicism was the big idea of the important philosophers and political theorists, such as Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx. Even Charles Darwin endowed nature with a protracted history, which he called evolution. Sigmund Freud would soon do the same thing for the human personality. The slow accretion and revelation of detail associated with the development of character in the 19th-century novel was partly the result of serial publication, but it suited the Victorian view of things.

By the end of the century, the price of paper had come down (largely because of the invention of a cylindrical paper-making machine in the late 1830s) and publishers had begun to put out inexpensive reprints of high-end novels, as well as “yellow-backs” or railway novels. Authors began to chafe at the constraints of serial publication. Not coincidentally, these writers–men like Joseph Conrad, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy among them–represented the world as closing in on their characters, rather than opening out for them. As critics Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund write,

instead of the patient creation of an idealized home, broken families often characterized the literary work; rather than steady historical progress, chaos or regression took over many plots; instead of empire fostering growth and development, the will to power crushed individual identities; and skepticism replaced doubt about human potential, paralyzing society. Such narratives did not harmonize with the slow, sure growth and development of serial literature; instead the appropriate form for such visions of personal and social stagnation was the single volume, an autonomous whole, in which all parts found their places in unity of theme and effect.

Eventually, this darker vision would find its expression in the modernist novel–spare, bitter, and filled with ironies and dislocations–and most writers dispensed with serialization. Some popular novelists continued to publish their works in installments well into the 20th century, but magazines’ fiction slots eventually came to be filled by short stories.

Modernism and the serial novel were antithetical in another important way. Serial publication created and thrived on an intimacy between readers and writer that many 20th-century authors regarded with suspicion, since that kind of populism was thoought to be distinctly middlebrow. “Number-publications”–that is, pieces of novels–were reviewed by critics as soon as they came out in chapbooks or periodicals, just as television episodes are today. Readers had strong feelings about characters and their fate, and made these opinions known. Writers took them into account. Contemporary novelists do sometimes listen to their critics in composing their works, but we don’t entirely approve of their doing that (even if we expect television writers to pay close attention).

If electronic serialization were to take off, what would it resemble? Culturebox predicts that a lot of it would be pop fiction: thrillers, science fiction, romance. This wouldn’t require authors of those books to change much. Those genres are already being published serially–as series, that is, which is the same thing, only based on repetition rather than development. If the serious novel is to distinguish itself from genre fiction and flourish as a serial form, it’s going to have to make a better case for itself than it has so far. Serialization can’t be a publicity stunt, which is what, say, Tom Wolfe’s publishing Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone essentially was. The neo-serial novel would have to be interactive in a deep and thoughtful way, the way Greek poetry and Renaissance theater and the Victorian serial were. The callow interactivity of hypertext novels, in which novelists abdicate their literary responsibility in favor of some vague open-endedness, is not likely to have any lasting appeal.

An intelligent use of temporality would probably be the key to success of the serial novel–authors echoing in their fiction its prolonged publishing schedule by means of devices such as the epistolary exchange (King has already figured this out). They might also exploit the new reality-based realism. The success of Survivor demonstrates that readers will flock back week after week to a story they think of as real, no matter how artificial that reality may be. Serial novelists may well try to find a way to blend fact and fiction, real events and imaginary characters. All this is speculation, of course, but Culturebox hopes that some writers give it a shot. She’d love to feel some day what Henry James must have felt in 1876 when he reviewed for The Nation Book I of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda: “For almost a year to come the lives of appreciative readers will have a sort of literal extension into another multitudinous world.”