We live in an age of streaming and unlimited scroll. Digital space is effectively unlimited; publishing itself, the conversion of words into media, can take place at the click of a button. And yet: Serialization is enjoying a renaissance online and on screens. A big-name writer—even a writer who admits to being “not at all techno-thingummy”—is experimenting with the form, via technothings. That is in part because publishers are always trying to find new forms and “platforms” for their creators’ work; it is also, however, because serialization, as a formula, avails itself of a very old and very human emotion: the delicious agony that comes with suspense. The tension that builds when one is forced—and forced, and forced … aaaaaaaaaaaand forced—to wait.
That we tend to enjoy that stress as much as we tend to hate it helps to explain why the novel as we conceive of it today derives much of its internal formulaic assumptions—its focus on plot, its emphasis on the primacy of “tension”—from the serialization of the past. The novels of Dickens, Tolstoy, Thackeray, Eliot, James, Hardy, Conrad, and many, many other denizens of the current canon began their lives as installments in periodicals (including, yes, The Atlantic Monthly).
In part, that was because book-printing, when the novel was rising as a form, was expensive; periodical installment was a relatively cheap way to determine whether a given story would capture the public’s attention and merit that kind of investment. But the waiting also amounted to a savvy marketing tactic. When Dickens finally released the ending of The Old Curiosity Shop, in 1841, the result was the stuff of book publishers’ dreams: In New York, a mob desperate to know what would become of the tale’s protagonist, Little Nell, stormed the wharf to await the arrival of the ships whose contents carried the answer.
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Belgravia is certainly not alone in its current desire to translate that old tension into new commercial success. There’s traditional television, obviously, which serializes not only out of technological necessity, but also out of a recognition of the power of the cliffhanger. And podcasts (and not just the revealingly titled Serial). Novels, too—YA works, in particular—have embraced the productive tension that can result when “series” collide with “serialization.” There’s the Harry Potter franchise, which, when it was live, kept fans eagerly awaiting the next installment at near mob-on-the-wharf frenzies. And Twilight. And The Hunger Games. Etc. There’s also the fact that a small but significant chunk of humanity is still waiting for George R.R. Martin to finish The Winds of Winter. (Let us know if we can help, sir.)
There’s also a reason that the experiments with serialization have been, to this point, fairly limited—particularly when it comes to books. It can curtail—ironically, given its format—authors’ capacity for narrative revisioning. (As the novelist Curtis Sittenfeld pointed out, “I imagine serializing would force me to commit to certain plots even if I subsequently decided they were weak.”) And, in books and on other platforms, there’s a nice user-friendliness to time-shifting, whether that capability is afforded by DVR or the launch of entire seasons of TV shows at a single time. House of Cards and Catastrophe and the like—shows that eschew serialization for its logical counterpoint, the binge—are analogous to the traditional novel (or, at least, the most recent form of the “traditional novel”): They’re holistic units that are divided into chapters. And they are meant to be consumed, most importantly, at the consumer’s leisure.