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Episode 328

Serialized Novels in Literary History

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Posted by Mary Ann

Armistead Maupin got his start in the newspapers. The “Tales of the City” saga began as a serialized novel in the San Francisco Chronicle. The stories of Anna, Mary Ann, and Michael just gripped the city, and because they were published in installments, Maupin was able to incorporate actual events happening in San Francisco as well as respond to readers’ questions and suggestions. He had a very interesting feedback loop going! These stories, and the nine novels he eventually created from them, helped bring the acceptance of gay people into the mainstream. Maupin created a world where everybody was a little quirky and strange, and being gay was just one more variation of the human propensity to be, well, a little different.

This got me thinking about the serialized novel form. The novelist writing a serialized story has to capture the reader and keep them coming back for more, which is one reason they incorporate a lot of action and drama.

For example – Alexandre Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Cristo” were first published as serials in French newspapers; they ran in what we might today call the arts and letters section of the newspaper. “The Count” had 139 separate installments!

And then, there was the mighty Charles Dickens. His novels were so popular they literally had the reading public in their thrall. Several were serialized, starting with “The Pickwick Papers.”

There’s a famous anecdote about what happened when “The Old Curiosity Shop” was serialized in American newspapers; at that point people had to wait for the story to cross the Atlantic. One of the characters was Nell Trent, otherwise known as “Little Nell,” a typically sweet and troubled Dickens heroine. American readers were so frantic to know her fate that when a British ship bearing the last installment of the story arrived in New York in 1841, Dickens fans stormed the piers, shouting “Is Little Nell alive?” or, “Is Little Nell dead?” depending on which version of the story you’re hearing. Why does this remind me of Downton Abbey?

Besides Dickens, Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” were both serialized. Some scholars say this is one reason 19th century novels are so long. Significantly for folks on this side of the Atlantic pond, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was serialized. It began publication in 1851 in a Washington D.C. anti-slavery newspaper, and though it was later published in book form, it became hugely popular as a serial – the circulation of the “National Era” skyrocketed, a dream come true for any newspaper owner.

In the 20th century, another landmark serialized novel was Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” which ran in 27 parts in Rolling Stone in 1984. This story of a “Master of the Universe,” (a.k.a. a rich Wall Street guy) undone by the forces of politics, race, class, greed, crime and corruption in New York City was just incredibly funny and satisfying. Wolfe pulled out all the stops on this one, as readers watched in fascination as bond trader Sherman McCoy descended through 27 versions of hell (actually, he richly deserved it). It echoed Dickens in its preoccupation with social themes and its efforts to portray the underbelly of the city – Wolfe began researching the novel by observing cases at the Manhattan Criminal Court and shadowing members of the Bronx homicide squad. It was published as a book in 1987.

Finally, one of my favorite novels, serialized or no, is “The Crimson Petal and the White” by Michael Faber. It started life as a serial novel in the Guardian newspaper in 2002, then became a book, then became a wonderful TV miniseries. It tells the story of a young London prostitute, Sugar, who intends to climb the social ladder, whatever it costs, of the clueless and wealthy young man who takes Sugar as his mistress and the man’s mentally ill wife (the “white” petal to Sugar’s “red”). Sugar is a fantastic character – brilliant, troubled, determined to succeed, but with a heart. It’s like Dickens without the sentiment – a brutal story; life was exceedingly brutal for someone like Sugar. You will never forget her.

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