Serialised fiction surged in popularity during Britain’s Victorian era, due to the rise of literacy, technological advances in printing and improved economics of distribution.
A significant majority of original 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 serialised format within periodical literature. During that era, there was no distinction between quality and commercial literature.
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 nineteenth century, America’s best writers first published their work in serial form and then only later in a completed volume format. As Scribner’s Monthly explained in 1878, “it is only the second and third rate novelist who cannot 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.” Fighting words.
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 serialisation 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.
Serialisation 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. Instead of being read in single volume, a novel would often be consumed by readers in installments over a period as long as a year, with the authors and periodicals often responding to audience reaction. (Hmmm, sound familiar?)
Serialisation was also popular throughout Europe. In France, Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” was serialised in La Revue de Paris in 1856. In Russia, The Russian Messenger serialised 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 serialisation in The Strand magazine.
The rise of radio, cinema and television in the twentieth century saw the slow decline of printed periodical fiction as newspapers and magazines shifted their focus from entertainment to information and news.
The rise of the internet in the twenty-first century will supersede all these media. Such is the fate of history.
We’re now living in an era of rising technical literacy, technological advances in ebooks and ereaders, and improved economics of distribution. A perfect cultural storm.
Will it mark the rebirth of the serial novel?
The asynchronous novel.