Serial (literature)

Serial (literature)

In literature, a serial is a publishing format by which a single large work, most often a work of narrative fiction, is presented in contiguous (typically chronological) installments—also known as numbers, parts, or fascicles—either issued as separate publications or appearing in sequential issues of a single periodical publication.[1] More generally, serial is applied in library and information science to materials "in any medium issued under the same title in a succession of discrete parts, usually numbered (or dated) and appearing at regular or irregular intervals with no predetermined conclusion."[2]


Early History

The idea of stories being told in serial form dates back to at least the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), which consisted of a series of serialized stories, or "serialized novels" or novellas.[3] Its frame story is about Scheherazade telling stories to King Shahriyar, and she needs to keep him interested in each of the stories, to prevent his executing her the next morning. She often tells the stories in a series, beginning each story with a narrative hook, leaving off with a cliffhanger, and continuing the story the next night. This leaves the King in suspense, waiting until the next night to hear what will happen next. Many of her tales often stretch over many nights or episodes. For example, "The Three Apples" is narrated in five nights, "The City of Brass" is narrated in 12 nights, "Sinbad the Sailor" is narrated in 30 nights, and "Aladdin" is narrated in 78 nights.

The growth of moveable type in the 17th century prompted episodic and often disconnected narratives such as L'Astree and Le Grand Cyrus. At that time, books remained a premium item, so to reduce the price and expand the market, publishers produced large works in lower-cost installments called fascicles.[4]

19th Century

Serialized fiction surged in popularity during Britain's Victorian era, due to a combination of the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing, and improved economics of distribution.[5] A significant majority of 'original' novels from the Victorian era actually first appeared in either monthly or weekly installments in magazines or newspapers.[6] 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. During that era, the line between "quality" and "commercial" literature was not distinct. [7]

While American periodicals first syndicated British writers, over time they drew from a growing base of domestic authors. The rise of the periodicals like Harpers and the Atlantic Monthly grew in symbiotic tandem with American literary talent. The magazines nurtured and provided an economic sustainability for writers, while the writers helped grow the periodicals' circulation base. During the late 19th century, those that were considered the best American writers first published their work first in serial form and then only later in a completed volume format.[8] As a piece in Scribner's Monthly explained in 1878, it is only the "second and third rate novelist who could not get published in a magazine and is obliged to publish in a volume, and it is in a magazine that the best novelists always appear first." Among the American writers that wrote in serial form were Henry James, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville, and Rudyard Kipling. A large part of the appeal for writers at the time was the broad audiences that serialization could reach, which would then grow their following for published works.

One of the first significant American works to be released in serial format is Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, which was published over a 40-week period by National Era, an abolitionist periodical, starting with the June 5, 1851 issue.

Serialization was so standard in American literature that authors from that era often built installment structure into their creative process. Henry James, for example, often had his works divided into multi-part segments of similar length.[9] The consumption of fiction during that time was different than the 20th century. Instead of being read in single volume, a novel would often be consumered by readers in installments over a period as long as a year, with the authors and periodicals often reacting to audience reaction.[10]

Serialization was also popular throughout Europe. In France, Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary was serialized in La Revue de Paris in 1856. In Russia, The Russian Messenger serialized Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877 and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov from 1879 to 1880.

Other famous English language writers who wrote serial literature for popular magazines included Wilkie Collins, inventor of the English detective novel and author of The Moonstone; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who created the Sherlock Holmes stories originally for serialization in The Strand magazine; and the Polish writer Bolesław Prus, author of the serialized novels The Outpost (1885–86), The Doll (1887–89), The New Woman (1890–93) and his sole historical novel, Pharaoh (the latter, exceptionally, written entire over a year's time in 1894–95 and serialized only after completion, in 1895–96).

Late 20th Century

With the rise of broadcast — both radio and television series — in the first half of the 20th century, printed periodical fiction began a slow decline as newspapers and magazines shifted their focus from entertainment to information and news. However, some serialization of novels in periodicals continued, with mixed success.

Starting in 1984, Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, about 1980s New York City, ran in 27 parts in Rolling Stone, partially inspired by the model of Charles Dickens. Rolling Stone paid $200,000 for his work, but Wolfe heavily revised the work before publication as a standalone novel.[11] Michael Chabon also serialized Gentlemen of the Road in The New York Times Magazine in 2007,

During the late 20th century, the emergence of the World Wide Web prompted some authors to again try a serial format. Stephen King experimented with this format with The Plant (2000), and Michel Faber allowed The Guardian to serialise his novel, The Crimson Petal and the White. In 2005, Orson Scott Card serialized his out of print novel, Hot Sleep, in the first issue of his online magazine, Orson Scott Card's InterGalactic Medicine Show. In 2010, Tracy and Laura Hickman launched a direct to internet serialized fantasy series, "Dragon's Bard"[12] which introduced the concept of 'novel as souvenir' where subscribers would download periodical ebook chapters as the book was written and then receive a copy of the physical book upon the completion of the subscription. Hickman called the concept 'web like the Dickens' after its merging of 19th century literature serial techniques with modern internet distribution. Lawrence Watt-Evans serialized three novels of his Ethshar series.

See also

Book collection.jpg Novels portal


  1. ^ Law, Graham (2009). "Serials and the Nineteenth-Century Publishing Industry". In Brake, Laurel; Demoor, Marysa. Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism. London: Academia Press. p. 567. 
  2. ^ Reitz, Joan M. (2004). Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science. Retrieved 15 March 2006
  3. ^ Waisman, Sergio (2003), "The Thousand and One Nights in Argentina: Translation, Narrative, and Politics in Borges, Puig, and Piglia", Comparative Literature Studies 40 (4): 351–71, doi:10.1353/cls.2003.0038 
  4. ^ Hagedorn, Roger (1988). "Technology and Economic Exploitation: The Serial as a Form of Narrative Presentation". Wide Angle: A Film Quarterly of Theory, Criticism and Practice 10 (4): 4–12. 
  5. ^ Law, Graham (2000). Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. New York & Hampshire, UK: Palgrave. p. 34. ISBN 0312235747. Retrieved October 23, 2011. .
  6. ^ Law, Graham (2000). Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. New York & Hampshire, UK: Palgrave. p. 13. ISBN 0312235747. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  7. ^ Law, Graham (2000). Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. New York & Hampshire, UK: Palgrave. p. 31. ISBN 0312235747. Retrieved October 23, 2011. 
  8. ^ Lund, Michael (1993). AMERICAS CONTINUING STORY An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp. 51. ISBN 0814324010. Retrieved October 23, 2011.  As Scribner's Monthly
  9. ^ Lund, Michael (1993). AMERICAS CONTINUING STORY An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. pp. 30. ISBN 0814324010. 
  10. ^ Lund, Michael (1993). AMERICAS CONTINUING STORY An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900. Detroit: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814324010. 
  11. ^ Ragen, Brian Abel (2002). Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion. Westport, CT:: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313313830. 
  12. ^ Dragon's Bard Website. (2010). Dragons Bard

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