Last year’s wildly popular podcast, Serial, will be back this fall with a new case. Looking for something to fill the time while you wait? Why not check out some of the original serials—novels that were doled out in dribs and drabs.
Serial follows in a long tradition of segmented storytelling, one that relies on suspense and the measured release of information. Scheherazade knew that the way to stay alive was to manage anticipation. In 1836, writers and newspapermen came together to bring the world its first commercial serial novels, and form began to affect content. Many of the best novels of the Victorian era were released this way (which accounts for their length and structure); pretty soon the rest of the world followed suit.
How to approach the serial novel? Mousehold Words is a website that publishes them (all are titles in the public domain) in their original short installments. Another way to go about this (great if you’re missing the listening experience) would be to download one of these as an audio book, and listen to the book a little at a time.
Here are some possibilities for your retro serial experience:
If you want to see where this all got started, start with some Balzac: Lost Illusions (1836) or The Girl with the Golden Eyes. Dickens, though, is widely accepted as the father of the genre. He made it big with the first commercially successful serial novel, The Pickwick Papers (1836), and followed that with many more: Dombey and Son and Our Mutual Friend, to name a few.
If it’s swashbuckling or political intrigue you’re after, why not check out Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) or Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (1844)?
Following the Victorian modeal, serial novels took off around the world. The Russian Messenger released many would-be classics as serials, including part of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). Atlantic Monthly released Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1903) in the United States.
Looking for complicated ladies up to no good? Try Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1873). They each scandalized readers a little at a time. Witty observations about life and relationships can be found in Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871). Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) shows an independent woman making it on her own. Don’t be intimidated by the length of many of these works—you’ll get through them one bite at a time.
There have been several more recent successes that revived the genre: Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1984) was released in Rolling Stone, and Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road (2007) first appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Stephen King has experimented with serialization several times, and his novel, The Green Mile (1996), was first released as six smaller books before it became one lengthy tome.
Don’t have the stamina for Tolstoy or Eliot? How about some great short serials? FiveChapters releases one short story a week, in five installments. Jennifer Egan, author of the groundbreaking A Visit From the Goon Squad, released her story, “Black Box,” via Twitter in 2012.
The truth is, any book can become a serial if you try hard enough. Just commit to reading a little each day. And soon enough, Sarah Koenig and Mail Chimp will return.