22 June 2011

Devour Your Serial

I’m going to try to make today’s post a simple love letter to serial fiction... or a confession to a mild readerly addiction from which it turns out I never fully recovered... a safe, easy reminiscence (no analysis, please) about bits of my childhood reading and what came along a few days ago to stir up those memories and reawaken some old passions.

Today, I won’t do the (general) history of serial fiction (whether you start with Scheherazade or Eugène Sue, the usual suspects down the road are Balzac, Dumas, Dickens, Wilkie Collins... on to All Quiet on the Western Front and beyond). And I won’t get to riffs on the relationship between serials and the sexual (postponement and anticipation as ploys of the story-teller as seducer; life and death as the stakes of narrative; seriality, transference and desire; serial horror in Sade...).

Instead, something more personal.

I grew up in a world in which not just magazine fiction (remember that?) but magazine and newspaper serials seemed to be everywhere. I can’t remember a time when my father wasn’t following multiple serials in The Saturday Evening Post (there were always two running concurrently, staggered so they never ended with the same issue), and from the time I was nine I followed his example. When I wasn’t reading the Perry Mason backlist in 25-cent paperbacks, I was reading, for example, the new Mason in the Post, serialized over the course of eight weeks just before it was to appear in hardback. Of course, it wasn’t just Erle Stanley Gardner (of the others, I remember most vividly Alistair MacLean’s Guns of Navarone and Hammond Innes’ Wreck of the Mary Deare, but there were also books from John P. Marquand’s Mr. Moto, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and C. S. Forester’s Hornblower series, as well as the occasional Western [ADDED 18 JULY 2011: and my first sci-fi novel, John Christopher's stunning No Blade of Grass, a/k/a The Death of Grass]), and it wasn’t just The Saturday Evening Post or just magazines: I read a string of Agatha Christie (mostly Jane Marple) novels as serials, in newspapers (starting with the novel now known as The 4.50 from Paddington, in the national ‘Sunday’ edition of the New York Daily News, and ending with A Caribbean Mystery in The Houston Post) and at least one in a magazine (a walk on the wild side: Cat among the Pigeons in my mother’s Ladies’ Home Journal; technically not a serial, since the entire novel appeared, lightly condensed, in a single issue). Other newspaper serials I read ranged from nonfiction (Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring) to two of the lesser James Bond novels. I won’t include John D. Macdonald novels condensed in single issues of Cosmopolitan (yes, Cosmopolitan: before Helen Gurley Brown arrived, every issue contained a novel, and the magazine tried to appeal to both women and men) or the ‘nonfiction novels’ originally fostered in the pages of The New Yorker and Esquire.

At some point it all tapered off: all I remember of serialized fiction in the 1970s were Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler’s Planet in The Atlantic and Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer in The New Yorker. And in the following decades I somehow missed most of The Bonfire of the Vanities and Harlot’s Ghost when they were serialized in Rolling Stone.

By that time, or so I thought, serialized fiction had become largely the stuff of nostalgia. With The Bonfire of the Vanities Tom Wolfe was explicitly seeking to return to the model of Dickens. And Stephen King’s The Green Mile (first published in 1996 in six monthly paperback instalments) was also conceived as a return to Dickens and was the work of a writer with strong childhood memories of serials in The Saturday Evening Post.

Nostalgia or not, the first appearance of The Green Mile struck a chord with me. I remember devouring it as it appeared; if I was on the road, I calculated where I could snap up each instalment the day it came out. I even had fantasies that the huge success of The Green Mile might lead to a return of serialization on a larger scale.

Fifteen years went by, the way years do, and, if we make an exception for the enormous impact of the Harry Potter novels (it’s not always clear what counts as serial fiction and what doesn’t, but hundreds of thousands of readers lined up outside bookstores awaiting the release of the next Potter, feels to me a lot like U.S. readers lining the docks, impatient to learn whether Little Nell lives or dies), the next blip on my radar was a double one, and it came last week.

First, the new Paris Review arrived, containing the second of four parts of the magazine’s serialization of Roberto Bolaño’s posthumous novel The Third Reich. (Bolaño deserves multiple posts all to himself, presumably outside the context of serial fiction. And the same for The Paris Review. What might surprise you about the latter, if you don’t know already, is that it’s not a ‘duty read’. It's also available on your iPad.)

Second, I came under the spell (after 50 years of our passing like [space-]ships in the night) of the German sci-fi serial phenomenon Perry Rhodan. English speakers who don’t follow science fiction are unlikely to have heard of Perry Rhodan (of the 2600 weekly numbers of the series, which appears initially in pulp-booklet format every Friday in German, only a limited number have been translated into English, and none currently)—but the cumulative international sales of the series (which breaks down into cycles or story arcs of 25 to 100 numbers, each number running in the neighborhood of 25,000 words and selling for the equivalent of a few dollars) run close to one and a half billion copies.

Yes, it’s another space opera; yes, it’s (now) set thousands of years in the future; yes, it’s a bit like joining a TV soap or any other series in midstream; yes, it draws on principles of physics that were not imparted to school children in, say, my Perry Mason days. But it’s all coming out in ebook format, last Friday’s release (Das Thanatos-Programm, number 2600, the beginning of a new cycle) was free and the easiest iBooks download ever, future instalments will go for $1.99 in the U.S....

...and it’s an honest-to-God serial!!!

To be continued.


Lauren R said...

They recently ran serials in our local paper for a couple of years. They were called "Breakfast Serials", so excellent novels for young adults, of which one chapter would appear weekly. I was beside myself with excitement! It was one (of few) reasons to keep my newspaper subscription! I'm not sure my kids were quite as excited, but it did create some anticipation at getting their hands on that paper. (At one point, there was something for educators in the paper every day.) Foolishly, our paper has discontinued the serials, and now my kids read Yahoo! News. (They've also discontinued the other educational material-- we are down to the Mini Page and Shortcuts, and I think my days subscribing to the paper edition are numbered.)

There are a lot of "serial" type books for kids-- like Harry Potter, but there are many more, and I think it's the best way to get kids to read and keep reading. But, in my opinion, the books are not quite the same as the serials in the paper-- where you can only get it that day. There is something intriguing about that! Kind of like when we didn't have VCRs, DVRs and 923 million cable channels, so everyone watched The Sound of Music on the same night. Every year. And talked about it in school the next day.

James Hulbert said...

Thank you, Lauren, for reading and responding. I agree on all counts. Too bad that the local paper discontinued the serials. The UK seems to be better than the US about including literary material in newspapers, even today, usually both on line and in print--but serials, sadly, are all too rare. There may be reasons (for the falling off in the US) that go back to the erosion of toe-to-toe competition between rival newspapers.... One good thing about the older style of newspaper serialization was that it got literary material, fiction, into the hands of readers who might have had limited funds to spend on books....