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Serial Fiction

Screenshot of Five Chapters / image is from

Screenshot of Five Chapters / image is from

Serial literature might make you think Dickens, but it seems to be all the rage now.

This being the 21st century, Twitter is a natural tool for serialization. In conjunction with Electric Literature, Rick Moody published a short story serialized into tweets, with one installment posted every 10 minutes. Reactions to the experiment were decidedly mixed, but its existence speaks to the renewed interest in the serialized fiction.

Meanwhile, online lit journal Five Chapters publishes a short story a week, with one part of the story issued each weekday. And Daily Lit allows subscribers to read variety of books–from Tom Sawyer to The Age of Innocence to The Best American Humorous Short Stories–in short installments emailed daily. Both are free.

For those who prefer paper to computer screen, author Nicholas Rombes is publishing his new novel Nightmare Trails at Knifepoint in serialized form… via snail mail. According to The Rumpus, the installments will be mailed from January 2010 to January 2011 and will be “stuffed into small manila envelopes, addressed by hand, with personal messages typed out on old hotel stationary and delivered right to your doorstep.” Rombes explains his rationale for the project thus:

As a lover of sequential, serialized narrative, I found that the most natural way to publish Ephraim’s strange odyssey was through a series of pamphlets, each one between 6 to 20 pages long, and each with a cliffhanger ending. […] I also loved the idea of telling his story in paper format, so that the story being told is more than the story itself, but also the medium of its publication. In other words, the pamphlets are worth keeping, featuring full-color covers and, sometimes, inserts.

Rombes’s website has more information about the novel and how to subscribe.

What makes the serialized form so attractive now? Is it an attempt to reclaim an older tradition? Is it a response to short communication forms like Twitter? And if you’ve read–or written–a serial novel or story, how was the experience different from a non-serialized one?

Join the Discussion

  • Hi Celeste,
    Thanks for the good post. From my own experience, I was inspired to take the “paper” route not in spite of instant communication sites like Twitter, the comments sections on blogs, etc., but because of these. I really love the way these forms allow for dialog between writers and readers, and wanted to capture some of that same feeling in print form. So in some strange way, snail-mailing a short segment of the novel-in-progress to individual readers, I’m sort of replicating the Twitter form, except that the communication is not instantaneous. But it’s personal and individual, and the serial form guarantees at least a year-long dialog with reader/subscribers.
    Best, N.

  • Fascinating post, Celeste. I admit to being more sympathetic toward Nick Rombes’s idea of serialization than any other. I also have to wonder if serializing a short story, in any form, is at all advantageous to the story. Isn’t the point of a short story that we are able to ingest it all at once, so the effect is most immediate and most powerful? How many times have I had to put down a short story, for one reason or another, and then pick it up again an hour or a day later, disappointed that I couldn’t finish it all at once, wondering if I’m getting the same vital experience? Can’t image choosing that method of receiving a short story. For a whole lot of reasons, however, seriaizing a novel makes a lot of sense. Merry Christmas!

  • Nick, I love your comparison between Twitter and the snail-mail serial form. You’re right–they’re essentially analogous, parcelling the story out to readers in tantalizing ways. And I hadn’t thought of the serial form as a way of forming dialogue, but it definitely is: by pacing the reader, so to speak, it opens up space for thought and conversation about the story. Your project is fascinating–thanks so much for sharing.

    John, you raise an interesting point: even though the serial form does create openings for conversation, does it also run the risk of breaking the reader’s concentration? I suspect this is something the writer might need to take into account when structuring the story. If a reader just stopped at a random point, momentum might dip, but if an installment stopped at a crucial moment–a moment of choice, a twist, etc.–the suspense might be heightened. On the other hand, too many twists and turns might seem contrived. Do you think a serialized novel would have an easier time managing these gaps?

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