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
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"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.

Digital readers often have the option of downloading all the installments in a single “book” that they can read without interruption. That’s also a plus for readers who fear they may miss some chapters. The Star Tribune will offer such an option for “Giving Up the Ghost.”

Serials are becoming more popular with virtual publishing houses such as Web Fiction Guide, Novelr, Eat Your Cereal, Denver Cereal and others, publishing authors who may not even need an agent to make their pitch.

Amazon’s Kindle Serials features writers who post a new installment every two weeks. Currently, its most popular serial is “Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib” by David J. Schwartz, a St. Paul author.

It’s Schwartz’s first foray into the serial form after a more conventional book was published in 2008. “I think I was worried about it more than I ended up needing to be,” he said. “It’s intense, sort of, but it’s really fun, actually.”

The biggest difference? “Because this is coming out as I write it, there’s no going back to change things,” he said. Amazon also encourages authors to interact with readers in online forums, with the idea that readers’ preferences for a particular character or plot line might figure into the developing story line. So far, he said, “that hasn’t really come up.”

Financially, he said, the serial seems comparable to conventional publishing, with a mass market paperback to be published after the last installment runs. He plans to write another and is confident that a patient audience is out there.

“With how serialized TV has become in recent years, and comic books that come out every month, there’s definitely a readership for whom this isn’t a big stretch.”

 

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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

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