From The Washington Post:
In 1847, an English cleaning woman was extremely excited to learn that the boy lodging in her employer’s house was “the son of the man that put together Dombey” — that is, the son of Charles Dickens. The woman could neither read nor write, but she lived above a snuff shop where, on the first Monday of every month, a community of friends would gather to read aloud the latest installment of “Dombey and Son,” which had begun serialization on Oct. 1, 1846. By that time, the monthly installments of Dickens’s novels — which started with “The Pickwick Papers” in 1836 — were such a staple of British culture that an illiterate woman with no access to the actual book knew the author’s work intimately.
More than 150 years later, the publishing industry is in the doldrums, yet the novel shows few signs of digging into its past and resurrecting the techniques that drove fans wild and juiced sales figures. The novel is now decidedly a single object, a mass entity packaged and moved as a whole. That’s not, of course, a bad thing, but it does create a barrier to entry that the publishing world can’t seem to overcome. Meanwhile, consumers gladly gobble up other media in segments — whether it’s a “Walking Dead” episode, a series of Karl Ove Knausgaard ’s travelogues or a public-radio show (it’s called “Serial” for a reason, people) — so there’s reason to believe they would do the same with fiction. What the novel needs again is tension. And the best source for that tension is serialization.
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Why can’t the same techniques that once galvanized readers be revived? Today, when a novel is released, it relies on a series of tried (but not always true) advertising methods. The book is accompanied by a simplified synopsis targeting a specific audience, inflated with blurbs from “influencers” and dropped onto reviewers’ desks with the hope that enough serious critics will praise it that it will wriggle onto a prize list. Even greatness doesn’t always guarantee success. As the Telegraph noted in its look at “Why great novels don’t get noticed now ,” Samantha Harvey’s“Dear Thief” received universally glowing reviews — and sold only 1,000 copies in six months. Publishing houses have a brief window to push a work into the public’s consciousness. If the pilot doesn’t light, the novel doesn’t move. But with a constant stream of exposure over a period of six or 12 or 18 months, a novel would stand a far better chance of piquing the public’s interest.
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Critics will undoubtedly moan that serialization would favor literature that’s heavy on cliffhangers and light on subtlety — and that it would corrupt more “serious” works. Yes, not every novel can, or should, be serialized. As novelist Curtis Sittenfeld worried, “I imagine serializing would force me to commit to certain plots even if I subsequently decided they were weak.”
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“Since the loss of compelling plot is one of the things that readers most often complain of in the modern novel,” the critic Adam Kirsch says, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.”
Link to the rest at The Washington Post and thanks to Dave for the tip.