Serialization: Going Back to the Future to Revolutionize Reading

proxyOn the surface of it, a podcast about a convicted killer few people had ever heard of who claimed he was unfairly imprisoned for his girlfriend’s murder seemed unlikely to grab anybody’s attention, let alone a young audience with a million and one ways to use a smartphone.

But the clue lies in its title.

Serial is exactly that – a well-told story broken up into installments, each of them invariably ending in a cliffhanger. Who is coming forward to dash Adnan’s alibi? Where was Don on the night Hae died? Should we believe Jay?

The Guardian newspaper hailed it as “a new genre of audio storytelling’ but of course its popularity only underlined the value in storytelling that is as old as the hills.

So it is with books. The art of suspense isn’t the sole domain of horror and thriller writers. To keep readers on the hook for a page or three is a talent, no doubt, but the ability to keep readers waiting a week or even a month to find out which direction a story will take is an altogether more enduring skill.

Just as with Serial, it is often important to look back to move forward where art is concerned. Hollywood does it all the time; when times are rough they go back to the well and wheel out another couple of Star Wars retreads or remake Psycho (again).

The notoriously stuffy book business will, I believe, find the answer to fears of its own finite future in a literary and commercial past chapter that was among its most creative, inspiring…and lucrative.

There are a couple of very good reasons why classics like Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd have endured. For one, they are terrific yarns and they were all first published as serializations.

This is no coincidence. The authors made damned sure their stories were sufficiently exciting or enthralling that their readers were salivating at the prospect of another installment.

Pickwick Papers, first published in 1836, is widely thought of as the first serialized novel, but Dickens was merely popularizing a format that hadbeen around for nearly a century already. And popularize it he did. The print-run for the first chapters of Pickwick Papers was just 1,000 and it grew to 40,000 before the story reached the end.

Dickens serialized his novels for the rest of his illustrious career, as did many other Victorian writers. Far from cannibalizing the conventional book industry it revitalized it and brought reading novels to a whole new market of people who hadn’t been able to afford to buy a book at a time.

Critics may suggest the form demands a more lightweight, sensationalized soap opera touch to tease readers back but Dickens longevity would tend to suggest otherwise.

“Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” critic Adam Kirsch told the Washington Post, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.”

In France, Alexandre Dumas and Eugenie Sue made the genre their own with masterpieces like The Three Musketeers  (March-July 1843) and The Count of Monte Christo (18441845) — which was stretched to 139 installments – and Les Mystères de Paris which was published in a newspaper from 1842 to 1843.

The German family magazine, Die Gartenlaube, which serialized novels, reached a circulation of 382,000 by 1875.

It’s not like these books were dashed off like cable sitcoms; the reason Victorian novels were so long was because a successful author was encouraged to keep the plot running to satisfy the voracious readership.

Authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Herman Melville and Henry James used the genre to reach a wider audience – Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published by The National Era over 40 weeks beginning on June 5, 1851.

Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was serialized in La Revue de Paris in 1856. The Russian Messenger in Russia serialized Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from 1873 to 1877 and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov from 1879 to 1880.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created his Sherlock Holmes character for serialization in The Strand magazine in London and, much later in 1984, Tom Wolfe serialized his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities in Rolling Stone.

The Internet era has brought its own challenges to the book business. The wolves like Barnes and Noble and Borders who ate up small bookstores have themselves been rendered obsolete by online giants such as Amazon. While some small bookshops survive and even thrive, they will remain niche at best as the world turns inexorably digital.

The answer is to find our comfort zone reading by a fake light on a dead instrument that has never felt wind or light through its boughs. There is a science in all this and it will ensure that we will be reading on our tablets and smartphones long after the last books are consigned to the archives of the fully computerized local data-lending library.

What is important is the reading, not the vassal that brings us the words. We must continue to read Dickens and Melville and Joyce and Eco and the great novelists of now and the future and to help us find that comfort zone, the reading app NoteStream has created a unique reading platform breaking up the text in such a way to make it not only easier but also more pleasurable to read on your iPhone.

Bucking the trend of providing small bites of tapas reading, the app’s creators set out to make long form literature fashionable again, only in digital form. It was inevitable then that NoteStream would look to serialize novels to take full advantage of its format within the guise of an online Book Club.

A Christmas Carol is on the site now, serialized almost daily from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Great Expectations, Pride and Prejudice and The iCandidate, a new, contemporary thriller, are on their way in the New Year. 

There’s nothing like teaching an old dog new tricks. Going back to the future may well be the savior of literature. Just as Serial gave a new voice to the age old tradition of verbal storytelling, so serialization online is offering us a fresh new opportunity to enjoy one of our oldest and greatest pleasures…reading.

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