Serialized Novels: Different This Time Around?

M. Lynx Qualey
November 19, 2012
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It was a couple of months back when Amazon announced that they would be re-issuing Charles Dickens’ novels in their original serial format as part of a new Amazon product called “Kindle Serials.” Back in September, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said that the new format would, in Dickensian fashion, enable authors to gather reader reactions and adapt future installments (accordingly).

Most novelists probably haven’t rushed to embrace writing advice from the Amazonian Empire. Nonetheless, serializing is an interesting phenomenon in its own right. It was widely popular in the 19th and early 20th century in the UK, France, Russia, Japan, and Egypt — as well as other places — before falling precipitately out of fashion. An occasional novel might get serialized (Bonfire of the Vanities, for instance). But real serializing — the true tight-rope act — was mostly left to comics writers and graphic novelists.

So we, or at least I, came to think of a serious prose author as someone who created his or her work alone, in silence, unsullied by the fingers of audience feedback.

The Kindle Serials and Margaret Atwood’s serializing experiment point to a return of installment literature. But, although different reading technology is involved, both of these suggest an old-fashioned pace. Other recent forms, such as Japan’s mobile-phone novels and various Twitter experiments, go much faster, but they haven’t produced much interesting work.

Still, there is also a richer literature coming out faster, serialized. When California-based Amir and Khalil created the graphic novel Zahra’s Paradise (2011)they did it at the exhilarating rate of three panels a week. Amir said that “the feeling was a bit like running a marathon with your audience present.” Ultimately, he found audience participation to be positive. “We surfed on their energy.”

In Egypt, serializing had fallen out of fashion by the time Naguib Mahfouz was mid-career. In the last decade, there have been a few “blog-to-book” successes, such as Ghada Abdel Aal’s funny I Want to Get Married! But these were culled from many posts. Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, with his recently published Exit Door (2012), was perhaps the first serious contemporary Egyptian novelist to re-possess the serialized novel.

Fishere said he was driven to it by “madness, simply. I wanted so much to write and publish immediately; it was an irresistible urge, almost physical. I didn’t know others had done it before. I thought the novels that were published in segments, like those of Naguib Mahfouz and Ihsan AbdelQoddos, were ready and complete at the start of the publication date. But when I suggested the idea to the editor-in-chief of Tahrir newspaper he told me that these were actually written while being published.”

But authors like Dickens, Tosltoy, Flaubert, and Mahfouz published monthly, or perhaps weekly. The editor of Tahrir told Fishere that there was no room for weekly segments in his paper. If Fishere wanted to serialize a novel, it had to be daily. Fishere took up the challenge. “And for 75 days I did nothing but write, rewrite, edit, revise, and write again. I was living inside the novel. It was exhilarating. I loved it, every bit of it.”

As with Dickens, Fishere’s serialization did force standardized chapter lengths, but other than that, Fishere felt free to develop his novel without gimmicks. Also like Dickens, Fishere did not write alone.

Yes, I found [audience’s] the comments useful. And unlike Dickens I didn’t have to go sit in cafes and eavesdrop to get the comments. They were right here; every day, every hour. I read them and paid attention. They showed me when the readers were tired or bored, when the despair was getting too strong, when the bloodshed was overflowing, when they needed a break, a breath of hope or kindness. And I talked to them, in the novel: there are parts where the father would ask his son not to lose hope, not to be too hasty in his judgment, not to jump to conclusions, to pardon him, to be patient, etc. These were requests to the reader. I also had to tone down some of the violence, and to skip some of the events that I had initially planned. Because I saw the readers were already tired and needed to move to something else. I loved the comments, most of them, and they were my companion throughout the writing process. And I acknowledged their companionship in the published version.

There are dangers with any audience feedback, sure (or agent or publisher or award-granter feedback). Nonetheless, it could be fun for serial novels to come back into fashion. And not just with flashy fast-paced adventures, but with other books, too.

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