Serial novels reveal how we're willing to wait for a good story

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 7, 2013 - 3:16 PM

"Giving Up the Ghost," a new novel by Mary Logue, will be serialized in the Star Tribune.

Rioting — while it may flatter the author for whose prose the crowd clamors — isn’t the goal of serializing a novel. Yet it’s a risk.

In 1841, Charles Dickens’ fans stormed New York’s harbor, waiting for a British ship to dock with the latest chapter of “The Old Curiosity Shop” and word of whether the orphaned Nell had died in poverty or yet survived.

So this newspaper’s launch of a serial novel in Sunday’s newspaper isn’t taken lightly.

From its ancient beginning, the form is drenched in drama. The Persian princess Scheherazade is credited with creating the idea of a cliffhanger, telling tales to an embittered, cuckolded king who would bed a virgin each night, then behead her the next day before she could betray him. By spinning stories that paused at a suspenseful moment as dawn broke, Scheherazade kept herself alive for a thousand and one nights.

(By that time, the king had fallen in love with her, thereby losing his head. Heh.)

The Star Tribune will publish the first installment of “Giving Up the Ghost,” a novel by Minnesota writer Mary Logue, in Sunday’s Variety section, then daily for 50 installments, ending July 28.

The serial is, in many ways, an old idea made new again.

“Serials keep being rediscovered as engines of readership, and of understanding,” said Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar at the Poynter Institute, the media school in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Early serials were well-suited to print, he said, “until print lost it to radio, the movies, television.” Today, most TV shows are serials. So are many comic strips. “Even following a sports team involves a certain degree of serialization,” Clark said, calling it a form of “enforced waiting.”

Print serials first appeared in 1836, when a French paper published Honorè de Balzac. At the same time, a young English author, 24-year-old Charles Dickens, decided to publish his own “The Pickwick Papers” in installments. Within a month, he had 40,000 readers and had ignited a trend among newspaper and magazines.

Soon, most books were first being published in serial form. Authors and publishers found them an economical way to test audience appeal, but also a way to build a literary reputation. The range was profound. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was published in 1851 in 40 installments in the abolitionist periodical National Era. Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” was published in Russia over the course of four years from 1873 to 1877.

Eventually, however, the entertainment culture changed with radios and movies. Book publishing economics improved. Newspapers grew more serious.

Clark speculated that serial novels were displaced when human interest stories, long disdained by traditional journalists as tawdry, finally came into their own.

“They’d been seen as a betrayal of the mission of journalism as a paladin of democracy,” he said. “But as we look back now, the human interest story greatly enriched journalism because it was able to address the kinds of topics and issues of ordinary people in the way that, say, O. Henry had.”

Plus, these stories were true.

E-books test suspense

Newspaper serials have continued, but usually in order to present nonfiction journalism projects, such as “Three Little Words,” which Clark wrote in 1996 about the AIDS crisis. Magazines toyed with the form, such as Rolling Stone publishing Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” in 27 installments in 1987.

Increasingly, though, the suspenseful cliff comes with the option of a literary ladder.

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  • Charles Dickens made serial novels popular with “The Pickwick Papers.”

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