The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014


Patricia Okker and , Nancy West ,

For many, the idea of a “novel” conjures up associations with an individual book, an individual reader, an individual pleasure. Neatly contained within its bindings, the novel affords a book lover both private and personal pleasures. She can carry an entire novel wherever she goes, and the very neatness of its containment ensures that she decides when to take a break or when to read voraciously through the night, perhaps with a flashlight in hand to avoid detection.

While this link between novel and book can seem immutable, millions of readers, especially in the nineteenth century, have enjoyed consuming their fiction through serialized installments apportioned over weeks, months, and sometimes years. Novels were issued in parts or numbers, each wrapped separately for distribution and purchase, or in monthly, weekly, or daily periodicals. Regardless of which type, part-issue or periodical publication, the serialized novel requires a prolonged reading experience, which brings different delights than the bound novel. A commentator in Harper's New Monthly Magazine (Dec. 1855) compared the serial reader to a gourmand slowly digesting a multi-course meal: “Readers who complain of serials have not learned the first wish of an epicure—a long, long throat. It is the serial which lengthens the throat so that the feast lasts a year or two years. You taste it all the way down” (128).

Although a global history remains to be written, serialized fiction has long been an international phenomenon, exhibiting striking similarities across nations. The rise of the serial novel corresponded with specific technological developments, the advent of a consumer culture, urbanization, increased literacy rates, and increased leisure. The basic narrative of the genre's evolution remains constant whether one considers Japanese newspapers during the 1800s, British periodicals in the 1840s and 1850s, or Shanghai magazines during the early 1900s. Publishers experimented with serialization to reduce initial expenses and disperse the prohibitive cost of books to consumers over time. As reading became measured by the clock and calendar of the workweek, the serial novel provided an ideal way to spend leisure time.

Given its extraordinary popularity, range, and longevity, serialization has generated a rich body of scholarship, especially within the field of British literature. Early criticism was largely devoted to recovering the history of serial publication by major authors such as Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. By the late 1980s, critics began turning their attention to social and cultural issues, with an increasing emphasis on both theoretical concerns and the community of readers created by serialization. Some scholars, such as Jennifer Hayward, have addressed the commercial strategies of serialization. Richard Hagedorn, Linda K. Hughes and Michael Lund, and Laurie Langbauer have taken a more philosophical and theoretical look at serialization, examining its relation to capitalism, nineteenth-century conceptions of time, and the meaning of the “ordinary.” Recent critics have devoted considerable effort toward uncovering the less prominent authors and more marginalized audiences of serial novels. Other critics are now looking at serialization within the context of specific magazines. This latter group of scholars—Susan Belasco Smith, Deborah Wynne, and Patricia Okker, among others—draw attention to the materiality of the periodicals in which the novels appeared and highlight the juxtaposition of serial installments with magazine features, including cartoons and advertisements. Yet, despite this breadth of scholarship, much work on the serial novel remains to be done.

Serialization in England and the U.S.: Beginnings through the 1870s

Often associated with the nineteenth century, serialization originated much earlier. In England, books of all sorts (including the Bible, John Milton's Paradise Lost, and A Compleat History of Executions) were serialized as early as the seventeenth century. Initial attempts at serializing fiction in separate parts or in periodicals emphasized short texts and/or reprinted texts. Samuel Johnson's slender novel Rasselas, for example, was reissued in various forms in four separate magazines—the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, the Grand Magazine of Universal Intelligence, the London Magazine, and the Universal Magazine of Knowledge and Pleasure—during 1759. Serializing original long fiction emerged with Tobias Smollett's The Life and Adventures of Sir Launcelot Greaves in the illustrated British Magazine between 1760 and 1761 and then in the U.S. with Jeremy Belknap's The Foresters in the Columbian Magazine between 1787 and 1788.

Despite these occasional examples, however, the serial novel did not begin to flourish until the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens's The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (published in twenty monthly parts, 1836—37) and Eugène Sue's Les Mystères de Paris (The Mysteries of Paris, published serially in Journal des débats, 1842—43) are credited with galvanizing the spread of serialization in the 1840s and 1850s in the U.S. and Europe. The French roman feuilleton, or serial story, inspired this international phenomenon, its influence still apparent in the Swedish term for serial, följetonger. Serialization's tremendous popularity in America forced more than one commentator to recant earlier defamations of the genre. A Ladies' Magazine editor who proclaimed in 1828 that there was not “so dull a phrase in the English language, as ... ’to be continued’” was serializing novels by the 1840s (Jan. 1828, 45). A decade later, serial novels like Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (serialized 1851—52) became national bestsellers. Most fiction appeared in newspapers or magazines, although Dickens is a good reminder that independent monthly publications remained an option from the 1840s through the 1870s, especially in England. But the serial novel made its most significant advance in periodicals, including elite literary monthlies, middle-class family papers, and inexpensive weeklies for working-class readers that sometimes boasted circulations as high as a quarter-million. Because of this range of periodicals, the serial novel extended to readers of virtually every social class.

Early scholarship on serialization focused on its deployment by writers, many of whom were quite attentive to installment structure during the composition process. Anthony Trollope crafted parts of the same length, and Dickens specialized in cliffhanger endings that almost always corresponded with an installment break. Authors who favored the popular double- and sometimes triple-plot novel could extend readers' suspense by alternating between plots. Extended digressions from the protagonists sometimes prompted authorial apologies. After shifting the plot of The Hidden Hand (serialized 1859) away from the heroine Capitola for two straight weeks, E.D.E.N. Southworth commiserated with readers: “How glad I am to get back to my little Cap; for I know very well, reader, just as well as if you had told me, that you have been grumbling for two weeks for the want of Cap. But I could not help it, for, to tell the truth, I was pining after her myself” (chap. 60). Other writers fashioned installments as accompaniments to upcoming news articles and features. Readers of All the Year Round would have noticed a close correspondence between developments in Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White (serialized 1859—60) and the journal's coverage of various murder cases.

Scholars have demonstrated that the form of the installment as well as its content was not always an authorial choice. Editors frequently dictated a serial novel's appearance in a magazine or newspaper. Some editors favored the kind of craftsmanship Trollope developed, but others inserted breaks in the middle of chapters, paragraphs, sentences, and even words. In these cases, the installment unit had nothing to do with the writer's intentions; it was a matter of available columns. Other problems faced novelists publishing in periodicals. Writing in parts, especially for weekly magazines, also subjected an author to intense pressure to meet deadlines or even to an editor's presumptuous rewriting. Much to her frustration, Elizabeth Gaskell complied with Dickens's wholesale revisions to North and South (1854—55) when the novel was serialized in his Household Words.

Yet whatever assaults were waged on artistic integrity, the serial novel attracted many a literary luminary, including Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, Thackeray, Dickens, George Eliot, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Stowe, Collins, Henry James, and Thomas Hardy. Many of these novels became sensations, as in the legendary case of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (serialized 1840—41). So gripped were its readers that when the heroine fell sick, in the penultimate installment, thousands of fans dashed off letters to the novelist and implored him not to let Little Nell die. Upon learning that Dickens had killed her off, many were thunderstruck. Even Thomas Carlyle, who made a point of pooh-poohing Dickens's sentimentalism whenever he could, admitted to being overcome with grief at Little Nell's demise. Legend also has it that one famous Parliamentarian, having read the last chapter on the train, burst into tears and threw the book out the window, exclaiming, “He should not have killed her!” (E. Johnson, 1952, Charles Dickens, 1:303—4).

The Serial Reader

The audience's often intense engagement with serialized fiction has prompted scholars to consider the ways that readers serve as collaborators in serialization. Countless tales exist of authors changing course based on audience responses and actual sales. Dickens penned additional scenes for the inimitable Mrs. Gamp, in Martin Chuzzlewit (serialized 1843—44), when she proved a favorite among readers. Trollope exterminated a character in The Last Chronicle of Barsetshire (1866—67) because of a conversation overheard at the Athenaeum Club. Lamenting Trollope's penchant for recycling characters, two male readers expressed their worry that Mrs. Proudie, with whom they had “fallen afoul,” would return in another book. Finding the conversation unbearable, Trollope walked up to the two men, introduced himself as the “culprit,” and promised to “go home and kill her before the week is over” (Autobiography, chap. 15). And so he did. When enthusiasm and promising sales greeted Yusheng Sun's Chinese novel Haishang fanhua meng (1898—1903, Dreams of Shanghai Splendor), he expanded his initial plan for thirty chapters to sixty, and still later to a whopping one hundred (A. Des Forges, 2003, “Building Shanghai, One Page at a Time,” Journal of Asian Studies 62: 783, 802).

Capturing the experience of these readers remains an elusive goal, but scholars have successfully characterized the readership of serial fiction. Some have documented the fact that serial reading was not limited to women, as many early critics of the form assumed. Critics working on British serials have likewise determined the changing demographics and practices of serial readers. In the 1840s and 1850s, middle-class readers tended to borrow books from circulating libraries or to buy them in monthly parts. Working-class readers, on the other hand, consumed novels in cheap magazines. Changes in newspaper and paper tax laws in 1859 and 1860 led to the creation of family magazines that appealed to the middle class, such as All the Year Round, Macmillan's Magazine, and Cornhill. For other periodicals, more detailed analysis of their readers is needed. Indeed, the demographics of serial readers varied considerably across different periodicals, based on class, gender, region, race and ethnicity, religion, and even profession.

The serial reader tended to imagine the novelist as far less remote than writers today are thought to be. In “A Box of Novels,” Thackeray observed that installment publishing fostered a “communion between the writer and the public ... something continual, confidential, something like personal affection” (Fraser's Magazine, Feb. 1844, 167). When the American novelist Ann Stephens embarked on a European trip, her “state-room was filled with bouquets ... some from individuals to whom she was known only by her writings” (Peterson's Magazine, June 1850, 270). For many Victorians, the serial novel was woven into the ordinary and extraordinary moments of life. A single woman beginning Dickens's Bleak House in March 1852 might have been watching her first baby crawl by the time she finished the last number in August 1853. Serialized novels helped readers assuage loneliness, depression, even physical suffering. For example, the editor of Macmillan's Magazine recounts the apocryphal story of an old woman who, suffering from a fatal illness, “took much delight” in reading Collins's No Name (serialized 1862—63) during her final days. Though she was “content enough to die when the appointed time came,” she whispered on her deathbed, “I am afraid, after all, I shall die without ever knowing what becomes of Magdalen Vanstone” (Dec. 1865, 156). Interweaving one's personal life with the serial's plot took place on the other side of the divide as well. At the beginning of chap. 10 of Palaces and Prisons, Stephens announced to her readers that “between this chapter and the last” her brother had died. She continued her narrative, explaining that, “like his young life,” her work “must not be broken off in the middle” (Peterson's, Oct. 1849).

In addition to reinforcing the bond between reader and author, serial fiction encouraged a sense of community among readers. Unlike readers of bound novels, who proceed at different paces, readers of serial fiction must experience the narrative together, reading installments and anticipating subsequent ones as a group. The common practice of reading installments aloud among family or neighbors also bolstered the sense of reading within a community (see READING). Howells, for instance, recalled reading Uncle Tom's Cabin “as it came out week after week,” and remarked, “I broke my heart over Uncle Tom's Cabin, as every one else did” (My Literary Passions, chap. 11).

Initial scholarship on serialization focused on literary lions such as Dickens and elite venues like Harper's Monthly, but the form was widespread and varied. Lesser-known novelists, such as Scottish writer David Pae and American author Southworth, dominated the field. Some authors produced more than fifty novels. Serial novels appeared in every conceivable kind of periodical: general newspapers, illustrated weeklies, women's magazines, political papers, children's periodicals, and of course literary journals. The “story papers” in America consisted almost entirely of serialized fiction and sometimes included as many as eight different serials at a time. Even more astonishing are the so-called mammoth papers, like Brother Jonathan and the New World, which offered Americans original and pirated serials in a cheap, gargantuan format, with pages upward of four feet long.

Because one could launch a periodical with relatively few resources in comparison to starting a book-publishing firm, serialization was crucial in the African American press. Martin R. Delany's Blake: Or, the Huts of America debuted in the Anglo-African Magazine in 1859, though was not completed. It was reissued to completion in the Weekly Anglo-African in 1861—62. Written for African American readers and published in African American-owned periodicals, Delany's Blake opposed slavery vociferously, making it one of the most radical novels of its day. While white abolitionists like Stowe preferred childlike African American characters, Delany's protagonist leads an insurrection and is willing to kill those who oppose his missions. The fact that Delany's novel was not published in book form until 1970 is hardly accidental; indeed, were it not for the African American press it is hard to imagine that Blake would ever have been published.

1880s and 1890s

Near the end of the century, serialization began to change, owing to the rise of newspaper syndicates in the U.S. and U.K., and in some circumstances to wane. Some magazines began to include entire novels in single issues. Others, like Munsey's in the U.S., pronounced the short story, not the serial novel, the “one form of literary work of which the public never has enough” (July 1893, 466). The same was true in England. In the 1880s and 1890s, new magazines like The Strand and Tit-Bits boasted of “short fiction, easily read on train or omnibus” (Strand, July 1891, 1). One explanation for this shift was that serialized novels became more difficult to publish when mass-market periodicals, like Ladies' Home Journal, began to flood the magazine industry and eclipse publications with smaller circulation rates but steadier readerships, like the Atlantic Monthly. The form that had attracted readers only decades before was now a liability. Editors could no longer be sure that audiences were reading their periodicals month by month. Some magazines navigated this new terrain by offering a creative hybrid of sorts. The Strand was lucky enough to get Arthur Conan Doyle, who, through his Sherlock Holmes stories, realigned serialization with the short story. In his autobiography, Doyle explained how he came upon the idea: “Considering these various journals with their disconnected stories, it had struck me that a single character running through a series ...would bind that reader to that particular magazine” (1924, Memories and Adventures, 95). His hunch was a prophesy. After the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” appeared in the July 1891 issue of The Strand, circulation skyrocketed. When Doyle had the audacity to kill his detective two years later, many readers, some wearing black armbands, refused to read the magazine—until Holmes made his miraculous return in 1901.


The advent of mass-market publications cannot fully explain the serial novel's declivity in the early twentieth century. The form helped insure the success of the German periodical Berliner Illustrirte Zeitung, which boasted a readership of close to two million in the late 1920s and whose circulation increased by 200,000 because of a single novel, Stud. Chem.: Helene Willfüer, by bestselling author Vicki Baum (serialized 1928—29; L. J. King, 1988, Best-Sellers By Design, 12). Possible explanations for the decline of the serial novel in the U.K. and U.S. include competition from other media, like motion pictures (invented in the mid-1890s), and innovations in the novel itself. Rather than sprawling and social, early twentieth-century novels tended to be telescoped and introspective. Violent and sexual content was judged unsuitable for magazines designed mainly for family reading. Some writers, like James, found that the pursuit of psychological subtlety in their fiction made it less marketable. In 1900 the business manager of the Atlantic, which had serialized several of James's stories, begged Perry Bliss, the editor, “with actual tears in his eyes, not to print another ’sinker’ by James lest the Atlantic be thought a ’high-brow’ periodical” (P. Bliss, 1935, And Gladly Teach, 178). The poet Evan Shipman declared serialization to be “an unnatural kind of publication for anyone with an idea of form” (L. J. Leff, Hemingway and His Conspirators, 90). Many modern novelists bristled at the idea of catering to what they perceived as the crass commercialism of the magazine industry.

A fascinating example of the apparent incompatibility between serialization and the modernist novel (see MODERNIS) is the magazine publication of Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms in 1929. By all accounts, Hemingway was ambivalent about serialization. He knew that it would give him greater visibility, but he feared that it might compromise his status as a writer and siphon off dollars from clothbound sales. This latter concern was less pronounced in the nineteenth century, since the extravagant cost of bound volumes made serialization the best means of attracting a wide audience. Because Scribner's was known for its “intelligent readers” and subdued use of advertising (all advertisements appeared in the back pages), Hemingway agreed to serialize the novel. He reasoned that even if his artistic integrity suffered, passages of his book would at least not jostle alongside Kotex advertisements (Leff, chap. 3). Unbeknownst to him, Scribner's editor censored the first installment (see CENSORSHIP). Hemingway persuaded him to use a gentler hand on the second installment, but as soon as it reached newsstands in June, the Boston superintendent of police, horrified by such words as “balls” and “cocksucker,” banned Scribner's that month. And yet, despite these seeming incongruities between modernist fiction and serialization, the list of major novels first appearing in serial form is quite long. Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim appeared in Blackwood's (1899, 1899—1900); Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1904—1905) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's Tender Is the Night (1934) both appeared in Scribner's; and most surprising of all, James Joyce's Ulysses was published in the Little Review (1918—20). This list tells us that serialization did not die in the early twentieth century, but it was no longer the polestar of years past. Once the best insurance for gaining a wide readership, serialization now became a supplement to book sales. Given the much shorter length of modernist novels, serial runs spanned a few months instead of years. Authors like Dickens once valued the opportunity serialization gave them to amend their novels to better please their audiences, but writers like Hemingway objected to such give-and-take, preferring a more detached relationship with the reader.

While serialization held lukewarm appeal for the twentieth century's most “literary” wordsmiths, it remained a mainstay for popular novelists. Romances and adventure novels appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, and crime novelists, including the influential Dashiell Hammett, published in pulp magazines like Black Mask and Dime Detective. Pitched at working-class male readers, who were among the publishing industry's most elusive audience, pulp magazines capitalized on crime fiction's use of suspense to sustain their readers' attention over a long serial run (see DETECTIVE). During the 1920s and 1930s, popular novelists serialized their work in tabloid papers whose literary quality was astonishingly good, like the New York Daily News and the New York Daily Mirror. These tabloids relied heavily on serial fiction. Editors commissioned guest authors to write novellas of criminal cases that the papers were currently covering. Thus Russell J. Birdwell's Ruth Snyder's Tragedy: The Greatest True Story Ever Written was published weekly in the Daily Mirror between April and September 1927 as Snyder and her corset-salesman lover were being tried for the murder of her husband. (They both got the electric chair.)

Meanwhile the serial novel was flourishing in periodicals for the U.S.'s many immigrant populations. Serialization had been an essential part of the German, French, and Spanish press in the U.S. throughout the 1800s, but in the early twentieth century the range of languages and circulation broadened. During this period Swedish American periodicals published close to seventy serials each week, reaching nearly half a million readers. Because of the diasporic nature of immigrant populations, high circulations were possible even when the papers were published in small towns. A Norwegian-language newspaper from Decorah, Iowa, which featured a popular trilogy between 1919 and 1922, reached an estimated forty-five thousand readers by 1925, even though the town's population was only four thousand (see J. B. Wist, 2005, Rise of Jonas Olsen, trans. —verland). And while Scandinavian periodicals declined in the later half of the twentieth century, during the 1960s the popularity of serial fiction in Jewish, Chinese, and other immigrant communities rivaled that of its nineteenth-century counterpart.

The Post-1970 Era

Since the 1970s, the serial novel has undergone a revival. Relaxed restrictions on newspaper and magazine content inspired writers to offer frank, fictionalized treatments of contemporary social problems, as Armistead Maupin did with Tales of the City, first serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle before moving to the San Francisco Examiner between the mid-1970s and the late 1980s. Inspired by Honoré de Balzac and Dickens, Maupin used San Francisco as a backdrop to explore a wide range of current events and social problems, including homophobia and drug addiction. The Tales were adapted for television and serialized in 1993, 1998, and 2001 (see ADAPTATION). Another celebrated example is Tom Wolfe's version of Bonfire of the Vanities for Rolling Stone (serialized 1984—85). Multiple plotlines, diverse characters, and a harsh look at New York's class divide made the novel ideal for serialization. Wolfe later admitted that its original publication in Rolling Stone provided him with the opportunity to write “a first draft in public. I have a feeling I never would have written Bonfire without it” (K. Pryor, 1990, “Serials: Making a Comeback,” Entertainment Weekly, 16 Mar.). In the mid-1990s, New York Newsday hired crime novelist and reporter Soledad Santiago to write a serialized novel in order to increase the newspaper's Latino readership. The result was a sixty-four-part serial entitled Streets of Fire (1994), which explored the life of a Puerto Rican female cop in New York. Readers, especially women, loved the novel, and the newspaper had to create a special telephone line to handle inquiries and provide recorded plot summaries of past issues.

Within the past few years, more and more writers and editors have experimented with the serial novel. Professional and amateur novelists alike are serializing novels online via email lists. At the same time, some newspapers have turned to installment fiction as a way of boosting circulation. One editor remarked, “Many newspapers have become ... almost staccato in their effect, with more news items and shorter stories. I think people quite like something more substantial to get their teeth into” (S. Ohler, 2006, “The Life and Times of the Serial Novel,” Edmonton Journal, 8 Sept.). Between Dec. 2008 and Feb. 2009 the Daily Telegraph published installments of Alexander McCall Smith's Corduroy Mansions daily, providing free email delivery in both its written form and as audio chapters. In one of the most fascinating of these experiments, the Los Angeles Times published Money Walks over the course of twenty-eight days in Apr. 2009, with each installment written by a different author. This experiment echoes an earlier one, when in 1907—8, Harper's Bazaar published The Whole Family in twelve monthly installments, written collaboratively by twelve authors, including Howells, James, and Mary Wilkins Freeman. Readers were invited to guess the authorship of the individual chapters.

The history of serialization, including its downslides and permutations, tells us that the serial novel has tremendous resilience. While many reasons account for its indefatigability, perhaps the most important is that serialization allows for social binding; serial readers—despite whatever geographical and cultural differences separate them—are encouraged to feel that they are part of a community. As experiments in serialization keep evolving via television, the internet, and new media, serialization retains its power to create readerly communities even in a culture where the act of sustained reading, of devoting oneself to a single piece of literature and staying with it until the end, is becoming more and more of a rarity.

One place where we can still see serialization's power to create communities is in the BBC's production of classic Victorian serials in televised installments. When an adaptation of Dickens's Bleak House aired in the U.K. over Oct. and Nov. 2005, nearly five million television viewers, or 27 percent of the available TV audience, tuned in every Thursday and Friday night. According to Amazon.UK, sales of Dickens's Bleak House went up by 290 percent that October. When the show aired over a five-week period in the U.S. a few months later, audiences were equally rapturous. Stephanie Zacharek, a critic for Salon, commented: “For these next four Sundays, I'll be turning the pages, figuratively speaking, with many other viewers, and on Feb. 26, I'll close the cover at last. And then, instead of feeling confident that I already know the story backward and forward, I anticipate reading the novel for real—alone, as we always are with a book, and yet not alone at all” (2006, “Refuge in Bleak House,”, 4 Feb.). With a notable air of gratitude and wistfulness, Zacharek describes how the BBC series, an abbreviated approximation of the Victorian serialized novel, has reawakened in her the desire for a prolonged, absorbing interest in a story. The serialized novel may thus not be what it once was in 1852—53, when Dickens's Bleak House was first released to audiences in installments. But in this instance, as in others, we can see how the dream of it, if not always the actuality, still survives.

SEE ALSO: Illustrated Novel, Reprints.


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