The best evidence for this is that, in a plot turn Dickens himself might have appreciated, serialization is enjoying a renaissance, at what would seem to be a most unlikely moment. The Internet, with its ability to give us pretty much any content we want, pretty much any second we want it, ought to have made waiting—for entertainment, at least—obsolete. But that same Internet is also helping revive the serial form. At the same time, television, in so many ways the legatee of periodical literature, is enjoying a new golden age, with shows like Homeland and Breaking Bad and Downton Abbey challenging cinema for cultural supremacy. And book publishers, in an even more overt nod to Dickens, are establishing new platforms devoted explicitly to serialization.
Take Plympton. The digital publishing house, which promises “serialized stories for the future of reading,” launched in 2012 with help from Amazon and from the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. Plympton promptly raised nearly double its Kickstarter funding target, and is now producing tablet-targeted works of fiction and selling them through Amazon. Amazon, meanwhile, is offering Plympton’s stories in conjunction with its own venture, Kindle Serials, which it describes as “stories published in episodes.” St. Martin’s Griffin has also been experimenting with serialized e‑books, promoting them as “a cross between a novel and a dramatic television series.” And the digital publisher Byliner recently announced Byliner Serials, signing Margaret Atwood as one of the series’ first authors.
We don’t know yet how these experiments will fare, critically or commercially: they are young upstarts. But they can look for guidance to television—the form that has, by technological fiat, pretty much perfected serial storytelling. The Mad Mens of the world are remarkable not just for their writing and their exacting production values, but also for having perfected the cliffhanger ending: that inconclusive conclusion that fully exploits the agony of time-bound suspense, leaving you thinking and wondering and waiting and wanting … until next week.
The cliffhanger has an obvious narrative value, but it also has a significant social one. And this is part of the debt television now owes to the Internet: services like Facebook and Twitter and their counterparts—not to mention couch-friendly devices like smartphones and tablets—make watching television an increasingly collaborative experience. Trendrr.TV, which tracks TV viewers’ use of social media, reports a whopping 800 percent growth in commentary about first-run TV shows from 2011 to 2012. Social viewing rewards synchronicity: it’s much more fun to tweet about True Blood when your friends are tweeting about it at the same time. Even with our ability to watch a show after it’s aired, using DVRs or online streaming, 43 percent of all time-shifted viewing still occurs on the day of a show’s original broadcast—suggesting once more that, whatever flexibility technology allows, we still prefer to consume our stories as a group.