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A Brief History of Serial Fiction

By Brian Hoey. Dec 29, 2014. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Literature, Charles Dickens

In Rob Reiner’s 1987 cult classic The Princess Bride (based on William Goldman's 1973 book of the same name), the story begins with a grandfather’s proclamation to his ailing grandson that “back in (his) day, television was called books.” While the old man’s dictum may be an overly bold one, it’s certainly true that books used to be a lot more like television. Indeed, the serialized format that modern television viewers have come to love-hate began nearly a century before the TV’s inception with the rise of serialized novels.

Charles_Dickens_PD-1If necessity is the mother of invention, then flagging reader subscriptions should inspire great creativity. That’s precisely what led one savvy French entrepreneur to approach one of the nation’s writing superstars, Honoré de Balzac, about printing his latest novel in installments in his daily newspaper.

Of course, as per the cases of calculus and electricity, innovation rarely strikes just once. While Balzac and his newspaperman may have been the first to experiment with the serial, Charles Dickens is often credited with igniting the serial boom of the nineteenth century. The 1836 publication of his first novel The Pickwick Papers (1836), in a whopping twenty installments, served not only to catapult Dickens to considerable renown, but to push serial fiction into a place of prominence that it would retain for many decades.

Most of Dickens’ novels first saw print in serial format, as did the novels of Thomas Hardy, Henry James, and more. Too great a phenomenon to be contained in Britain and France, the practice spread across Europe and into the Americas, where daily, weekly, and monthly periodicals saw the first publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (1880) and Crime and Punishment (1866), as well as countless others. Such a reversal was this from earlier norms that Scribner’s magazine remarked that “now it is second or third rate novelists who can’t get publication in the magazine…and it is in the magazine that the best novelists always appear first.”

Moon_Is_A_Harsh_MistressFast forward to the middle of the Twentieth Century: serial fiction is no longer the norm, but neither is the form obsolete. In fact, it experienced something of a renaissance in the world of science fiction, with such staples as Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress (1966) and Edgar Rice Buroughs A Princess of Mars (1917) finding their first publication in magazines like The All Story and Astounding Science Fiction.

Far from being a tactic only of pulpier genres, serialization is still a go-to in certain situations. Tom Wolfe’s acclaimed novel The Bonfire of the Vanities (1984) was serialized in Rolling Stone Magazine over the course of more than two years, while 2007 saw the serial publication of Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road in The New York Times Magazine.

With the emergence of the internet, authors like Stephen King and Orson Scott Card have taken to serializing some novels online, a practice that is not unpopular among younger writers. What, then, does all of this mean for collectors? Certainly no one should doubt the value of their first editions. Instead, imagine the thrill of the chase amplified, in some cases, by a power of ten. Serial fiction requires a type of detective work rather different from other sorts of collecting, and the task of collecting all the pieces of these puzzles can prove risky. But great risk, as they say, can yield great reward.  

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Brian Hoey
Writer and all around book nerd, Brian puts his English degree to good use turning words into magic. A great lover of beer, baseball, and books, he can write on Baltic Porter and Katherine Anne Porter with equal ease.


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