Guest Post: Matthew Pearl on Serial Thrillers & a GIVEAWAY!

Matthew Pearl, author of the bestselling novel The Last Dickens, is stopping by Book Chatter and Other Stuff today and I couldn’t be happier! As you may recall, as part of his TLC book tour, I reviewed his book and really enjoyed it. Click here for the review. Today, Matthew talks about serial thrillers. Would they work in today’s society?

Dickens: Serial Thriller

In the 19th century, many novels were published serially in installments. Charles Dickens is the most cited and probably most famous example of a serial novelist.

I’m often asked about the impact of serialized writing since I used Dickens as a focus in my new novel The Last Dickens. I’ve noticed in these questions a nostalgia or at least a curiosity about serializing stories. Novelists back then would often live at the edge of their deadline for the next installment, or just a few installments ahead of publication (it’s hard to imagine most novelists these days, myself included, being so good at deadlines!). Readers would line up on the last day of each month in London for Dickens’s latest installments, sometimes published in a magazine or journal, sometimes on its own as a stand-alone supplement. People would grab it and start reading. Imagine the suspense they felt, not having been able just to turn the page to see what would come next.

Writers were in suspense, too. Dickens kept a close eye on sales, professional reviews and public reaction to each installment, and sometimes one or all of those influenced his decisions on where the story should go.

The truth is, it’s harder and harder for us to relate to those readers. We live in an on-demand age. We can download entire books with the press of a button on the day of publication. People often talk about reading an entire novel in a single day or a few days. In fact, I notice attention spans might be reaching the point where some consumers insist they should be able to read a novel in a few days, or they don’t read it at all. We’re now accustomed never to wait for our fiction—at least once publication day rolls around.

That’s what is especially interesting about The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the jumping-off point for my novel. It was Dickens’s final novel and he died roughly in the middle of the writing process. In response to the existing fragment, there are as many scenarios as one can imagine as to where Dickens might have been going, from the straightforward to the bizarre. Whenever we read Edwin Drood today, we enter the same positions as those readers in September of 1870 when the last known installment was published. In other words, The Mystery of Edwin Drood freezes for all time the feeling of reading a novel in installments, a sensation we’ve largely forgotten.

That’s what appealed to me so much about using The Mystery of Edwin Drood as the basis for The Last Dickens. I wanted to dramatize the way the reader, publisher, and author all converged in this very real-time process of finding satisfaction from an incomplete novel. I’ve hoped to dramatize that into a quest, by Dickens’s real life American publisher, James Ripley Osgood, to find the ending to the book. The Last Dickens, essentially, picks up the story inside the limbo of the unfinished serial. My novel is even separated into six sections I title “Installments.”

As much as we might feel a rush of satisfaction trying to read a novel in a day or two, maybe we long for the community spirit that came from everyone reading installments at the same time. There is at least one excellent website channeling Dickens by serializing short stories each week, including Year of the Pig, one of my own. Another site, offers to email or send a feed of serialized installments of many classic works of literature and some newer books. DailyLit’s idea is that people’s lives and schedules today are so fragmented, that reading in installments actually fits our modern rhythms better than full length books.

Television shows, one of the modern serialized forms of entertainment, may have entered a new epoch with the rise of series on DVD as well as the hoarding of episodes on digital recordings through Tivo or DVR. How many people (including myself) have spent a lazy day watching half a season or more of The Wire, Deadwood or Curb Your Enthusiasm? A funny thing. If you have the patience or willpower to wait before starting a show, you can avoid ever waiting to see how the next episode or the whole series will turn out. This is a fairly recent phenomenon. Serial adventure shorts used to be a mainstay of cinemas in the 1950s, and were converted in spirit into full length features like Star Wars and the Indiana Jones series in the 1970s and 80s, in which we sit through a complete story all at once (though obliged to wait for sequels and prequels).

Unfolding news stories, which we can’t get ahead of because they’re still happening, may be our last pure vestige of serial narratives, with journalists the new serial writers (Dickens himself started in journalism). Perhaps this is why news stories so often are presented in sensational narrative formats, and why certain otherwise narrow occurrences—murder mysteries, missing persons, personal scandals—that might have been found in any one of Dickens’s novels are elevated to national and international headline status. These stories often don’t directly impact many people, but we crave the real suspense that can only come from installment reading (or viewing).

Do you think we maintain the spirit of nineteenth century serials anywhere else in our culture? At some level, do we long for that feeling of anticipation rather than immediate gratification, or have we become just too busy for that? Any memories of how a serialized story became important in your own life as a reader or audience member?


Thanks to TLC Book Tours for asking me to be a part of this tour.

Check out the rest of Mathew’s tour stops here.

To visit Matthew’s website, click here.

To purchase the book, please visit Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or an independent bookseller of your choice!

Note: the trade paperback comes out October 6th! Pre-order it now!


Random House has offered to give away one copy to a lucky reader. This giveaway is open to the U.S. and Canada. There are two ways to enter. Please follow the instructions carefully because I want every entry to count!

1. At the end of Matthew’s post, he asks a few questions. Answer one (or more) of his questions for ONE entry. Make sure that I have a way to contact you.

2. For another entry, Tweet about this giveaway and be sure to include @TiBookChatter so I can track it. After you Tweet, post a separate comment here telling me you did so.

This giveaway will run until Friday, October 9, 2009. The winner will be selected randomly and announced on Monday, October 12, 2009. I will contact the winner for his/her mailing address so be sure to include a way for me to contact you.

Good luck!!!

35 thoughts on “Guest Post: Matthew Pearl on Serial Thrillers & a GIVEAWAY!”

  1. I think we do maintain that spirit of the 19th century serials. Like he mentioned, TV is the main thing, but I also think in magazine publications there are certain things we look forward to once a month. I'm a big fan of Daily because it sends me a piece of a story everyday. I don't have to have a book in front of me and it allows me to read at work without being seen with a book in my hand =)
    luckistarr4 AT gmail DOT com

  2. Yes, I have in fact sat down and watched the whole season of Sex in the city. I don't get HBO, so I just wait till it comes out on DVD.

    I like having a book in hand though, I tried Daily Lit and hated it, I Kept thinking, I need the next one, what are you waiting for? I will read a book in one day or one night. That is just me, no patience.

  3. I think unfortunately today that society is too focused on instant gratification.

    I don't need to be entered because I'm on the tour, but this is a great post.

    I took a class in which we read one of Dickens' novels in installments as it would have been read. Some students were incredibly frustrated, while others looked forward to the next installment.

  4. Excellent guest post!!

    I don't use Tivo or a DVR so I do have to wait for the next installment of my favorite shows and I really love the anticipation of it! I was also thinking of news stories before you mentioned it; how the world can be riveted to the news, waiting to see what will happen.

  5. I don't watch much TV, so I can't relate that way. But I picked up The Green Mile when Stephen King released the first installment. I believe it was released in six installments, and I was excited when each one came out. Being a reader who prefers instant gratification, there was something alluring and teasing about a book that I couldn't race through; that I couldn't read a book over the course of a few days something that had taken King a year to write.

    I don't know that people today have shorter attention spans. I think that there's just so many things for someone to do, that people's attention is fragmented. I'd be interested to see how well The Green Mile did in the beginning before it was bound in a full book.

    On the other hand, I wonder if a serial novel would work even with voracious readers. The problem I'm thinking I would run into is that I read so much, and if I can only read 50 or 75 pages at a time, will I remember all the details, or will they get lost in the other books I read in between the serial novel?

    I don't have an answer, I'm just thinking out loud! 🙂

  6. This was a really though provoking post. I'm definitely guilty of de-serializing tv shows and I agree with Trish that I'm not sure I would remember enough of a novel if it was released serially and I was reading numerous other books in between.

    No need to enter me, I've read "The Last Dickens" already.

  7. I think serialized publication lives on today in the form of Twitter novels. Several authors I know are currently writing entire novels, posting them bit by 140 character bit on Twitter. It definitely gives the reader the feel that they are experiencing the same thing as the character at the same time.

    I actually blogged about this today over at my own blog, and I hope you don't mind my mentioning that I got the idea last night as I was reading The Last Dickens — you're an inspiration, Mr. Pearl!

  8. I can't think of any examples anymore of waiting for a continuation – how sad? This does remind me of the whole WHO SHOT JR in the 80s; haven't had that much excitement for a TV show since.
    BTW, loved The Dante Club and bought The Poe Shadow last month – looking forward to all your books. 🙂

  9. I may be showing my geekiness, but the site where I wrote my first novel is full of serialized works. The Sims writers (writers who take pictures within the Sims games to illustrate their stories) nearly always serialize. For some of them, it's because EA has a limit on the number of pictures that can be in an album. For others, like me, it's because we like the format of publishing a little bit and getting feedback to make the next little bit better before we continue. There are several forum communities of Sims writers where they can get not only readers, but help from other writers.

    The main problem with this particular example is that not all of the writers keep to a schedule. Since it's essentially a hobby, and most of the writers are in high school, it's not unusual to wait months for the next installment of a story. And just as frequently, something changes in the writer's life and the story is discontinued altogether.

    I have a toddler and I'm trying to actually make a go of my writing career, so I don't have time to read all of the stories there anymore. But for a long time, I was a moderator at one of the community forums and I read a LOT of serialized stuff. I loved it. And since I'm generally busy, I usually only get to read a few pages at a time of any book that I'm reading, so I suppose I'm just one of those patient people that can wait for the end. Though I do like to know that I'll actually get an end.

  10. No need to enter me, darling. I'm dropping in to say thanks for the e-mail. I've got this posted at Win a Book for you.

  11. Nice to meet Matthew Pearl here!

    I like suspense and anticipating what comes next but I notice as I got older, I have the I WANT IT NOW tendency more. Maybe the heart becomes weaker… For books, I still love serials or series novels but sometimes, I like stand alones. For TV, I DVR a lot of shows so I can fast forward or wait for the DVD and watch all the episodes of "24" or "Weeds" or "True Blood" continuously in one weekend. Even for reality shows like "So You Think You Can Dance" or "American Idol" or even award shows, I check out spoilers before the show starts here in Hawaii. Can't help it.


  12. I think TV is the way we mostly maintain that serial spirit. For the few shows I'm hooked on, I wait with baited breath for the next week's episode…Or sometimes I rent the DVD series and then don't have to wait at all once I begin…

    As for books – I think it would drive me nuts. I struggle enough with waiting for the next novel in a series, let alone a chapter or something smaller. That would kill me.

    melacan at hotmail dot com

  13. I have to agree that serialization shows up in tv shows that leave you hanging on in suspense at the end of each episode, and then at the end of each season. Shows like Lost wouldn't be such a big hit without that kind of suspense (although I'm just assuming here since I haven't actually watched the show myself). On the flip side though, I'd rather wait until a show is on dvd so that I can watch all of the episodes at once (instant gratification) so that I don't have to wait week after week (just like he said in the in this post). I can't think of any other form other than television though where the serialized entertainment has stuck around.

    akreese (at) hotmail (dot) com

  14. I can't imagine publishing the first part of a novel before its completion. There's no way to go back and add things in.

    In a way, I think that TV shows (the ones with an overall arc, anyways) capture the spirit of serials. A lot of the time characters' backgrounds or future stories aren't fleshed out when the show begins, even in the mind of the writers. Watching a series on DVD is kind of like reading all of the installments of a serial novel together in a book.

    Thanks! j.t.oldfield[at]

    I'm tweeting about this!

  15. Wanted to stop in and say hello and thank you, to Ti for letting me onboard her blog, and to all the commenters for reading and thinking about the post.

    Kristina, I'm curious, do you read classics in serial form from Dailylit, or new stories–or both?

    Hi Serena! I look forward to talking about my writing space on your blog! That's so interesting that your class had the students read Dickens in installments. What a wonderful idea, I hope you'll write more sometime about the different responses and reactions to that.

    Lisamm, you'd be surprised by how much Tivo or DVR changes the way you watch TV, I was!

    Trish, great point about how a reader would remember what happened in a previous installment. Dickens is very skilled at hiding it, but he manages to constantly remind us what happened in earlier installments. As I wrote to Nicole on my Facebook author page, I had no idea there was such a thing as a Twitter novel. That's something someone should write an article about, if it hasn't been done yet! And I didn't know about Sims stories either, Maidenfine, that's super interesting, too. At one point, a few years before I started writing, my friend Richard and I planned on launching a serialized short story site.

    Care, yes, do you remember the Who Shot JR TV guide cover? And thanks for such a nice comment — The Last Dickens has some noticeable and some hidden connections to both novels.

    Alyce, Pam and Etirv, you all mention DVDs of TV shows. What's interesting to me about this is how recent the phenomenon is. We didn't do it with VHS tapes (probably because it would require too many tapes). My understanding is the DVD industry took a while to think of it, too.

    J. T. Oldfield, you're so right, once an installment is published, you can't change it! But later, when the serialization is finished, they could and did make small changes in the book version.

    For anyone who enjoyed the post, I also do posts on my Facebook author page, and cross post them on my Myspace, Red Room and GoodReads pages.

  16. Although I love the idea of waiting with anticipation for the next installment, I think that society today makes it too convenient not to. With all of the technology out there, instant gratification is more the norm. Great questions!

    Thanks for hosting the giveaway!

  17. Do you think we maintain the spirit of nineteenth century serials anywhere else in our culture?

    Fanfic sites–I started writing Austen fanfic about 10 years ago, and at the Derbyshire Writers Guild, authors posted chapters and fragments of chapters on their own schedule. I remember reading Pamela Aidan's triology on Darcy/P&P over a five year period, and would actually stoop to badgering her on the chat forum regarding when the next installment would be coming out.

    At some level, do we long for that feeling of anticipation rather than immediate gratification, or have we become just too busy for that?

    Absolutely – I remember last summer when HP8 was published, my kids, who had grown up with Harry mourned the fact that their would no longer be a new HP book to look forward to. They still stayed up all night reading it, but they were bittersweet when they finished it.

  18. an example of a serial that I really feel part of that is unique to modern serials and is in a way keeping the spirit of old serials is daily because you get to read a book piecemeal like you would reading installments of a novel in a magazine. i think its entirley different from a book in front of you


    great interview

  19. This was interesting to read. If I remember correctly, Stephen King played with this with The Green Mile. I think it was a hit. (I don't usually read previous comments so forgive me if this came up already).

    I personally don't like to wait … I want the whole shebang right away. But I have to admit that sometimes it is best to get it one dose at a time. Like my favorite TV show, Dexter. I get so impatient waiting to find out what will happen next but it is so delicious to have that waiting feeling.

  20. I just finished Dickens' Oliver Twist and liked the idea of the serialized form — for me it was easier to read during my lunch break at the office. I believe that Alexander McCall Smith serializes his 44 Scotland Street stories in the Scotsman newspaper in the UK.
    While I'm impatient to find out what happens in the next episode/installment of a series I enjoy, the anticipation is also half of the pleasure in the experience.
    Years ago, the comic strip For Better or For Worse had a storyline with the younger daughter falling into a river and the family dog saving her. Every morning I grabbed the newspaper to see what was happening. The dog (Farley) ended up dying after saving the girl and I cried like I lost a member of my own family. They don't do comics like those anymore….

  21. Comic strips! Great addition to the list, Suzanne. You're right, For Better or Worse is a very unusual comic, and also reinvents itself many times. I actually had a comic strip I wrote and drew for my college newspaper every day, which maybe put the serial format into my blood!

  22. I read both THE PAINTED HOUSE by John Grisham and BONFIRE OF THE VANITIES by Tom Wolfe in their original serialized versions. I loved every minute of it! I enjoyed the anticipation of the next installment. I also liked that it allowed me to live with the story and characters for a longer period of time. I didn't make the association until I read this post, but recently I read a novel that was sent to me in PDF. Not having an e-reader, I printed it out and sorted it into bundles of 5 chapters each. Every night I read just one bundle, and again I thoroughly enjoyed stretching out the experience.

    I do think that people today, in the US, at least, don't know how to savor an experience. The benefits of contemplating an idea are definitely lost as we rush along and through most experiences. It's as though we just want to know what WILL happen, and miss out on what IS happening.

    Great post – I'll be thinking some more on it!

    Thanks for the chance to win Matthew's book – I promise to take it slow if I do!

    geebee.reads AT gmail DOT com

  23. While I don't see serialization with writing, I do with TV dramas. We were military overseas and totally involved in Hill Street Blues. This was decades before satelite TV so a dear friend would tape the show and mail it to us.
    Currently we are totally anticipating the wrapup season of LOST.

  24. Yes, we do want instant gratification borne of our times, nevertheless, the anticipation that serialization gives is alive. It's only that a lot of people have so many books or tv shows to choose from, unlike before when it was easier to be caught up in something that "everyone" probably is also reading.

    From recent memory, the two series that I most anticipated were Stephen King's The Dark Tower and Rowling's Harry Potter.

    One example of novel serialization being done today is Alexander McCall Smith, with his Corduroy Mansions last year, and with the second one this year, The Dog Who Came In From the Cold.

    Ti, thanks for hosting this giveaway! I love love love Dickens so I'd love to read this book by Matthew Pearl. THanks also to Mr. Pearl!!

  25. I think the spirit of serialized stories remains in some television shows, particularly those with season long (or longer) arcs. These shows, like Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, have the longer stories that weave through the individual episodes and keep viewers engaged over long periods of time.

    Thanks for the chance to win!
    ruthann (dot) francis (at) gmail (dot) com

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