I’m fascinated to see if the serial novel is ready to make a big comeback. Think about it:
- In the previous generation, bookworms sat down quite happily with 1000-page historical fiction sagas or epic fantasy novels. Now, most days, most of us readers are in a mad scramble to get our stories in 10-20 minutes, in between the distractions of an increasingly hectic lifestyle and social media. (I could argue that there’s still a lot of value in securing evening time to just sit with a book and get lost in it, but that’s a topic for another post.)
- We’ve mostly lost faith in Hollywood — it’s all car-chase shlock, with an occasional moment of unexpected grandeur. The real storytelling … and the viewers … are shifting increasingly over to seasonal miniseries, ten-episode seasons of serial narratives such as Breaking Bad, A Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead. For bookworms and non-bookworms alike, this is rapidly becoming the dominant form in which we absorb our stories.
These are conditions that are training us to look for and enjoy serialized narratives. Does this mean that we will see more serial novels? Maybe. Hugh Howey’s Wool, published initially in serial installments, suggests that serial novels might really succeed in both sales and reader enjoyment. Amazon has their line of Kindle Serials, and some of the more interesting horror and mystery fiction out right now is being published there. (For example, take a look at Roberto Calas’ The Scourge and its sequel Nostrum).
150 years ago, the serial novel was the dominant form. You’d read episodes consisting of several chapters each, delivered in a magazine format, and at the end, it would all be collected together in one book. Serialized stories captured the hearts and imaginations of millions of readers — even as George R. R. Martin’s screen adaptation of A Game of Thrones does today. Thousands anxious for the next installment of Charles Dickens’ latest novel used to throng to the docks in Boston, to shout at the mariners on the incoming ships, “Is little Nell dead? Tell us! Is she dead?”
Serialized storytelling has a particular excitement to it. You get to live with characters you care about in their dangerous world not just for the days it takes you to devour the novel, but for weeks. You hear a little of their story at a time, and you wait, anxious for the next week. You think about them and their plight, about the decisions they’ll have to make. They accompany you through your day. They become a part of your community for a while, a part of that season of your life. And then, when the next installment arrives on your e-reader, your heart starts to race. Adrenaline surges into your body. You have to know what’s going to happen. You’ve had entire weeks to care about these characters, and now you simply have to know.
That’s exciting. I hope the serial novel does make a big comeback. It’s a beautiful form, and one that has waited lurking beneath our publishing industry, all but forgotten, like a dormant, sleeping Leviathan, for so many decades. Maybe this is when it will wake and surge upward again, breaking the waters and disturbing in its mighty wake all of our expectations about what reading a novel might be like.
We will see.
And while we wait to see what happens, I hope you will join me for my own Kindle Serial, No Lasting Burial, which is also about something lurking beneath the water. Something hungry. Something that will not stay dormant or asleep. Something that wants to come get you. Right now.
Edit: This Serial has now been collected into a completed novel.