Can Serializing Novels Work on the Web?

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Perhaps it is unwise to promote one of our own too much, but Atlantic contributing editor James Parker's novel, Cocky the Fox, is outstanding. Parker's sentences have an intuitive rhythm that even Clyde Stubblefield would envy, and his tale of a dissolute fox is charming and action-packed. Think Rudyard Kipling meets Trainspotting.

Here's Parker's description of how his protagonist Cocky and his charmingly idiotic companion Champion are saved by a neighborhood Rottweiler, Otto, from a pack of rats.

Counterpoint to Champion's demented treble, a low hoarse pulse, then another pulse -- Otto the Rot is barking! Bloody great night-shaking woofs and dog-vowels, with his huge upholstered paws crashing against the fence, his claws in their sheaths of leather. And then he's through, the mottled slats giving way and the rats shrilling in panic as he plunges among them. A joy to watch. Foolish Cocky, imagining that this beast was out of shape! Here's where nutrition pays off and good sleeping patterns. It's a right old rampage, cyclonic, with rat-chunks in orbit around his pectorals.

In about ten seconds the garden is clear -- just flattened astonished grass, quivering night-molecules and Champion wheezing by the hutch door, which now lolls from one hinge.

So, it's obvious to me that if you love words, you'd like this book. But what's fascinating is how Parker rolled out this particular bit of fiction. He serialized the book in 20 parts on Josh Glenn and Matthew Battles' website, HiLoBrow, illustrated with gorgeous original artwork by Parker's wife Kristen. (Disclosure: I've written occasionally for HiLoBrow.) Every other Thursday a chapter ran as HiLoBrow filled the other Thursday with Patrick Cates' hilarious companion magazine(?) The Sniffer.

The very last chapter of Cocky the Fox came out today, which is actually a terrible thing, as far as I'm concerned. I had come to look forward to Parker's (and Cates') work with an emotion that I think I can properly call delight. For months, at some point on every Thursday, it would occur to me that there was a new addition out and I'd thrill to the idea that I'd get to read it when I got home from work.

For me, it was a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet. I don't know how well the book did in a quantitative sense, but it became part of my life for half a year, and Cates' companion text really made it feel like a bunch of friends making stuff for each other. It was like we were all in the same parlor: Very Victorian, but unbound.

It's also worth noting that the entire enterprise began with a Kickstarter campaign to help HiLoBrow fund Parker's adventure and it'll end with an actual printed book with Kristen Parker's illustrations.

(And it got me wondering, too: could The Atlantic's Technology Channel do fiction? A new story every Thursday from an emerging writer dealing with some tech themes?)

Image: Kristin Parker/HiLoBrow.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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