Monday, September 15, 2008

Alexander McCall Smith: introducing my digital novel Corduroy Mansions

As many of you know, "Tales of the City" was serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle. This is an article about an online serial called "Corduroy Mansions" by Alexander McCall Smith. In the preface, he writes about the popularity of the serial through the years, and mentions meeting Armistead Maupin at a party in San Francisco, and discussing the publication of novels in the newspaper, which influenced him to write "Corduroy Mansions."

As Alexander McCall Smith introduces the first chapter of Corduroy Mansions, the exclusive serial novel he is writing daily for, he reflects on the cliffhangers, rollercoasters and pleasures that result from writing in instalments

Corduroy Mansions: the online novel by Alexander McCall Smith

All of us like a story. And if the story is crowded with characters - as Russian novels tend to be - and goes on for a long time - as modern blockbuster fiction does - all the better.
That is not to say that the novella or the short story are unpopular; they have their role, but what many people want is something that unfolds before their eyes, wraps them up in its world, and then goes reassuringly on.

Enter the serial novel.

The idea of serialised fiction is nothing new. In the 19th century it was common for writers to publish chapters of books as they wrote them.

Tolstoy and Flaubert did this, as did Dickens, who published many of his books in monthly instalments.

A Tale of Two Cities, though, came out weekly, and eventually had more than 100,000 people buying each instalment. Readers waited anxiously for the post to bring the latest chapter; in the United States crowds even went down to the docks to get their copies hot off the boat.

Enthusiasm for novels published in this way diminished in the 20th century, and by the time that Armistead Maupin published Tales of the City in the San Francisco Chronicle, to write and publish in this way was regarded as a great novelty. But an audience was there, as the popularity of Maupin's saga showed.

Some time after Maupin had stopped writing Tales of the City I met him at a party in San Francisco. We talked about publishing fiction in newspapers, and when I returned to Scotland I rashly made a comment about the merits of the genre.

The Scotsman invited me to write a serial novel set in Edinburgh, the chapters of which would be published daily. Without thinking of the implications, I accepted. Then came the small matter of writing a chapter a day.

Rather to my surprise, writing in this way proved to be rather enjoyable. I discovered that just over a thousand words was a good length for an instalment, as it was long enough for something to happen and short enough for the reader to finish it on a short bus journey or during a coffee break.

I alighted upon a formula that seemed to me to be a good vehicle for a story of this nature. Invent a house containing a number of flats, people it with a good mixture of characters, and then let them get on with it. Any author of fiction will tell you that characters don't need to be told what to do.

That serial novel, 44 Scotland Street, eventually ran for more than five years, appearing every weekday for six months of the year. Book publication followed the completion of each volume in the newspaper, giving people who had missed it in the paper the chance to read it between covers.

Earlier this year I decided that I needed a break from that particular set of characters, although I fully intend to return to the saga at some point in the future.

But serial novels, it seems, have an unexpected effect: they hook the writer as much as they hook the reader. I found that I missed the challenge of writing a chapter a day - and so Corduroy Mansions, the new serial novel appearing on the Telegraph website, came into existence.

Unlike 44 Scotland Street, this novel is being published online, which means that the audience is potentially very much larger.

I was attracted by this, and specifically by the astonishing success of The prospect of engaging in a literary conversation with even a proportion of those who visit it seems very attractive.

Yet there is more to it than that. The fact that the book is appearing on the web means that readers will be able to listen to an audio version of the story, similarly published on a daily basis and read by Andrew Sachs, of Fawlty Towers fame.

Readers will also be able to contact me with suggestions as to how the plot should unfold, as at any time in the publication of the novel I shall only be about 20 episodes ahead of the one that is published that day. This should make the novel interactive - to some extent at least. I obviously have my own ideas of what will happen, but I shall be open to persuasion.

Why do people appear to enjoy serial fiction? My experience of writing Scotland Street over five years suggests that much of the enjoyment is the feeling of involvement that this particular form of fiction brings.

When we read a novel, the very nature of the book itself conveys a sense of completeness. This is a finished work; the author has resolved the issues he raises. With the serial novel we know that this is not so, and so we feel a greater sense of immediacy. This is still happening - even the author has not seen the end. People respond to that - it reminds them of real life.

Another attraction is the sort of plot that a serial novel seems to favour. A rambling, rather gossipy story of day-to-day life fits very well with serial publication. I found that readers particularly liked the natural shape of such fiction.

They liked short episodes in which something significant was said or done; they liked the glimpses that were afforded of lives or problems. They liked the intimacy of the set on which the characters lived. We yearn for the parish pump, I suspect; in a large, anonymous world we want the society of familiar fictional characters leading out their lives under our gaze.

Of course some will say that serial fiction of the sort that runs in a newspaper, electronic or otherwise, will always be second-best to the heavy literary novel. This is unduly dismissive. It is quite possible to engage with important issues while not losing sight of the need to entertain and even amuse newspaper readers.

I have always held the view that it is possible for an author to deal with the weightiest of issues in a light and entertaining way. It all depends on brushstroke. You do not have to ladle on the impasto to make a point about human frailty or ambitions, you can do that equally well - perhaps even better - with the application of a few light strokes.

The serial novel is likely to remain in its small corner of the world of fiction, but I think that is an important corner. People continue to want stories - they are gong to continue to want to read Charles Dickens and Patrick O'Brian and Ian McEwan - all authors who actually tell a story skilfully, rather than set out to show their way with words or ideas.

The healthy state of self-published web fiction - fan fiction is an example of this - reveals how much people yearn for the basic elements of a strong narrative that engages and draws in the reader.

That is the territory in which the serial novel is likely to flourish, and even if some critics may sneer at it, it has a perfectly defensible role to play.

After all, this world is a vale of tears, and no doubt always has been. If reality is distressing, then surely it is human and understandable to seek the company of fictional characters with whom we can identify, whom we can visit on a daily basis, who we feel have something to say to us about simply getting through life.

Having begun Corduroy Mansions, I have done something that no sensible author would normally dream of doing. I have embarked on the public writing of a novel under the eyes of my readers. There will be no opportunity for revision or recanting.

I am like a man on a tightrope. Join me, please.
Read and listen to Alexander McCall Smith's online novel Corduroy Mansions exclusively at

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