Out of sync with print-based reading habits, this form is nonetheless perfectly in tune with the web
Tuesday 24 November 2009
Ever since a suburban adolescence that was organised around a daily race home from school to devour a self-rationed chapter or two of Armistead Maupin's Tales Of The City, I have been intrigued by the serial novel. So in September this year, I started to write one. Called Happiness Is An Option, after a 1999 Pet Shop Boys album track, it was inspired by George Bernard Shaw's line, "A lifetime of happiness! No man could bear it; it would be hell on earth". So far, the writing process has brimmed with discoveries: the format's restrictions (character and plot can't be reworked) are balanced by its fluidity: storylines can ebb and flow, feedback from readers can be incorporated (in my case, this led to protagonist Archie's estranged girlfriend Rose arriving two chapters early). And there's the responsibility to the growing readership (the first six episodes were published on Time Out) which is now in its hundreds.
The potted history of the serial novel is well-documented, dating back to The Thousand and One Nights, with its frame of vizier's daughter Scheherazade narrating hook-laden stories to avoid execution by King Shahryar. Its heyday was the 19th century, with the Charles Dickens-founded periodical, All the Year Round, publishing novels of his, including Great Expectations, and Wilkie Collins's The Moonstone, at the same time as Sherlock Holmes was taking his first cases in The Strand magazine (which had a circulation of 500,000). Nowadays newspapers and journals rarely serialise novels, but the format lives on in Japanese manga, as well as the dank online caves of the horror, SF and occult genres, pioneered by Stephen King's "e-novel", The Plant, published in 2000 (which remains unfinished).
So does the serial novel in 2009 feel anachronistic, or thoroughly modern – a way of reading literature facilitated by technology? Jenny Parrott, editorial director of Little, Brown and Abacus thinks it's problematic. "I wonder whether the biggest challenge facing us all lies in trying to capture and keep people's attention. Investing time in reading (and remembering) fiction metered out to us in regular doses might now seem a bigger ask than many of us are prepared to give. And while I'm sure many writers would love to have a go at writing in a serial form, I'm just not convinced that they would be matched by as many readers."
Chinese-Australian author Lynda Ng, who wrote the successful 12-part serial Sydney Shards, took these parameters as a challenge. "While the online medium is full of potential for fiction writers and readers, I wasn't sure if it was the place people go to read fiction. So from the start I wanted to experiment with its potential to engage the reader with greater visual and interactive techniques than traditional print. We designed a website with a distinctive style, and links to show readers the relationship between the fictional story and real-life events."
There are signs, too, that in mainstream media the tide is turning. Last year Alexander McCall Smith – apparently "put up to it" at a party by Armistead Maupin – invited Telegraph readers to sign up for a free, 100-day online serialisation of his Corduroy Mansions novel (published by Little, Brown) which has now spawned a daily sequel, The Dog Who Came In From The Cold. Wannabe authors can, at least, be encouraged by the fact that literary agents aren't against the format. Patrick Walsh of Conville And Walsh believes that serial fiction has a unique place today: "The episodic novel is the perfect form for pleasurably delayed gratification. With the internet replacing so many newspapers and magazines, serial fiction should find a natural home on the web."
So people: let's bring back the quality serial novel. What are your favourites, both on and offline?