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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Serial Fiction Rising in Popularity

Written by Jon Williams

This week saw the release of the book The Human Division by John Scalzi. While this is the first time the book has been available in its complete form, it’s possible that Scalzi fans and sci-fi readers may have already experienced the bulk of it. That’s because The Human Division is made up of thirteen individual episodes which were each published individually in ebook form, one per week, beginning in January. The book version collects these installments into a complete tale, and also includes a couple of bonus stories.

Of course, the serial novel is far from a new concept. It came to popularity in Victorian times, when a young writer named Charles Dickens was hired to write a series of loosely related adventures to accompany a number of comic illustrations. Those tales eventually became The Pickwick Papers. Dickens continued to publish his works in serial format, and in 1841, in one of the earliest instances of release date fever, a riot nearly broke out in New York as eager readers waited impatiently at the harbour for delivery of the final installment of The Old Curiosity Shop.

Many works of classic literature were introduced into the world in serial form, among them Madame Bovary (1856), Anna Karenina (1873-1877), and Portrait of a Lady (1880-1881). One of the earliest American serials was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appearing each week for forty weeks in an abolitionist newspaper in 1851-1852.

Serial literature went into a decline as the format shifted into radio and, later, television broadcasts. It never fully died out, however, and various writers have experimented with it over the years. Tom Wolfe, for example, serialized The Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone in 1984 before compiling it into book form.

One of the most notable forays into serializing a novel came in 1996 with Stephen King’s The Green Mile, which came out as six monthly installments and led to the popular film starring Tom Hanks. It’s interesting to note that the serial format doesn’t always work out; King tried to distribute a story entitled The Plant via his website in 2000. After payment for the installments proved to be sporadic, the story petered out and has yet to be completed.

Now, though, with the rise of ebook technology and digital subscription services, the serial form is coming into vogue once again. Scalzi’s success with the experiment that became The Human Division shows that there’s room in the market for tales told and consumed episodically as well as compiled later as one complete story.

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