The Triumph of the Serial

The creator of Downton Abbey has released a novel. It’s an app—and also a series of “episodes” that air each week.

Adolph Menzel, Supper at the Ball, 1878 (Wikimedia Commons )

Thursday brings the launch of Julian Fellowes’s new novel. It’s called Belgravia, and it reads, from its description, as extremely Downton Abbey-esque: “Set in the 1840s when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche,” the announcement goes, “Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters.” There will be secrets and intrigue and, if Downton is any guide, much Drama.

The most notable thing about the novel, though—apologies to its rich cast of characters—is the fact that it is only very loosely a “novel.” Though the book version of Belgravia will be available for purchase in June, the project being released this week is an app—which tells Fellowes’s latest story of upper-crusty intrigue via both via and audio. (There will also be videos and “other bonus features” that will be “hidden within each episode.”) The 11-week series is available via subscription for $13.99 (this includes both text and audio versions of each episode), or for $1.99 an episode. An installment will land (“air,” in the book’s parlance) on its purchaser’s device of choice every Friday until the end of June.

The launch of the app marks something of a new era for book—or, perhaps better, “book”—publishing. And it is in some sense yet more evidence of media’s back-to-the-future tendencies. There’s a telling paradox at the heart of Fellowes’s attempt at serialization, and of the many existing attempts that it joins: Digital capabilities, in theory, obviate the need for episodic storytelling. Yet, by way of digital capabilities, that form of storytelling is flourishing.

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.

Yet the anything-goes capabilities of the binge can be unsatisfying, for a host of reasons. For one thing, they take away the possibilities for social watching that “appointment viewing” usually entails. (It’s much harder, from a scheduling perspective, to live-tweet an episode of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, whose entire season is released in bulk, than it is to live-tweet Scandal, which airs at a given time, for a given hour.) Binge-oriented production can also take writers’ focus away from the tension that makes the serial format—and, indeed, the novel format overall—so compelling. “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 noted, “it might be a salutary discipline for novelists to have to go back to Dickens, or even James, to learn how it’s done.”

There’s another, broader, benefit, too. (Perhaps even, yes, an existential benefit.) And it has to do with the 24-7, seamless, sometimes limitless world that the logic of the binge-watch both derives from and suggests. We get so many of our stories, now, not in the tidy packages of the past, but rather through feeds and flows and occasionally floods—via limitless scrolls, via Facebook pages that never end, via, all in all, a sea of undifferentiated stuff. We live in an age that is bringing, by way of so many of the media platforms that shape how we understand the world, an end to endings.

That is, for the most part, immensely liberating; it can also be, however, overwhelming. And serialization offers a slight counter to it. When Netflix beckons us to binge, serialization presents a tidily plated meal. When Amazon says, breezily, to “watch it whenever!” serialization offers a set air time. Serialization takes the anything-goes chaos that has been one of the consequences of Internetted media and injects just a tiny bit of order back into the world. It fights against the broad end of endings by way of—an irony Dickens surely would have appreciated—lots of little ones.