Serials: 101

Let’s talk about serials!

Hello class and welcome to Serials: 101.

In this course we will learn about the history of serialized fiction and some of its more noteworthy manifestations, the most recent being, of course, Serial Box—the new digital publisher bringing episodic fiction into the modern era.

In literature, a serial is a publishing model by which a single larger work is published in sequential installments. The installments can be called numbers, parts, episodes, or fascicles, and are either issued as separate publications or within in sequential issues of the same periodical publication.

Serialized fiction as a popular form rose to prominence during Britain’s Victorian Era (1837 – 1901). A significant majority of novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers. The wild success of Charles Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely considered to have established the viability and appeal of the serialized format within periodical literature.

The serialization format worked with phenomenal success across the West for several reasons. First, the Industrial Revolution’s ingenuities in printing and mass production directly led to a massive surge in literacy rates. Second, with the sudden availability of low-cost fiction, a massive new audience was created, which moved reading beyond the upper classes (who previously had been the only ones able to afford the pastime). Finally, the delay in publication allowed writers to modify their plot and characters in accordance with audience feedback, thereby creating ever more popular stories and velocity in reader engagement.

While Charles Dickens is properly credited with founding serialization as a popular outlet for literature, he is far from the only example.  Alexander Dumas of France released both The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers in serial form, as did Gustave Flaubert with Madam Bovary. In Russia, both The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky and Anna Karenina by Tolstoy were published episodically. Across the Atlantic, Harpers and Atlantic Monthly regularly printed serial works from Henry James and Herman Melville—though Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, originally published over 40 weeks by The National Era, is perhaps the most famous American example from that time.

In modern times, with the rise of broadcast stripping the success of periodicals, and the comparative affordability of books allowing for traditional publishing to flourish, the serial format saw a decline. Nevertheless, examples persist: Tom Wolfe published The Bonfire of the Vanitiesas a 27 part series in Rolling Stone in 1984; Michael Chabon serializedGentlemen of the Road in the New York Times Magazine in 2007; and Stephen King released The Green Mile as 6 low-priced paperbacks throughout 1996.

And now, as the internet makes publishing and distributing original content ever easier and more accessible, there are many sites fostering the serial format: Live Journal, Fictionpress, and fictionhub, to name just a few. The rise of fanfiction and amateur (but prolific) writers, as seen on sites like FanFiction.net, Archive of Our Own, and Wattpad, have created an entirely new—and incredible popular—niche within the reading and writing communities.

While the reasons for the rise of serial fiction in the Victorian Era might not make sense for its continued presence as an attractive literary model—it is nevertheless easy to glean more modern explanations. First, with the modern media consumer’s easy access to an incredibly large amount of diverse and ever-regenerating content, the episodic, “easily-ingestible” nature of serials is a natural fit for audiences with shorter attention spans and too much media than can actually be consumed. Second, as high-quality television turns the tables on movies, it is being demonstrated before our eyes that audiences want high production values with shorter time-demands;  prime content at less cost. Finally, the rise of personal devices and e-readers has brought a revolution to the book industry and paved the way for the easy distribution of serial content.

It is with all this in mind that the Serial Box team is so excited to join the time honored and well loved tradition of serial fiction. By incorporating elements from how TV is produced (by a team of writers, with input from a producer, etc.) we aim to update the traditional and bring audiences awesome content delivered in a form that never feels burdensome or overwhelming.

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