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, DailyLit.com 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?
Check out the rest of Mathew’s tour stops here.
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