Everybody wants to talk to me about serials these days.
It’s being discussed blogs and forums, on Twitters and Facebook pages. A lot of authors are changing gears, from the standard novel to the time-tested serial, releasing stories in groups of serialized novellas or just one chapter at a time. Like Charles Dickens used to do it. Just like comic book writers and television shows do it today. We’re all going digital, a little bit every day. Embracing the short-form over the long, and releasing it on our own time-tables, our own schedules online rather than squeezing stories into novels and begging for a three-book contract.
I, for one, think it’s a very good thing.
The return to short-form seems to be a wholly organic movement. It’s the idea popping into the heads of authors all over, from the well-known novelist to the nameless indie author on the street. That’s what I like about it. It’s writers releasing their work in the format that they prefer, by their own bootstraps and without having to go through agents and editors. The work is being put out in a way that gives writers more control and more interaction with their readers, opening up the relationship between the creators of content and the consumers of content. (I think that’s the part I like the most, really.) There’s little market in traditional publishing for serializations anymore, but that’s not stopping anybody. That’s the revolution at work.
For much of the 20th century authors were preoccupied with the novel, the status of the novel and the novelist. You often gained a readership from writing novels rather than short stories or novellas, cultivating a brand for yourself in long works that you had a hard time in doing in short-form. Now it seems that authors today finally learned a lesson from television. That was another thing authors of the 20th century were preoccupied with: The death of books at the hands of television. I won’t argue the merits of television with you, because that’s neither here nor there. What I will say is that, in my own experience, television has always been a source of inspiration.
Growing up I took literature hand-in-hand with television. Some of my favorite writers of all time — Ben Edlund, Bryan Fuller, Alan Ball, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer — write for television. I always read — Stephen King, Arthur Conan Doyle, Homer, Shakespeare, Frank Herbert, Roald Dohl, William Gibson — but it didn’t mean that I liked television any less. Because television, love it or hate it, is the serial in its most potent form. Every week viewers follow the lives of their favorite characters, from comedies to dramas, horror to science fiction, sitting on the edges of their seats for the next story. The next twist. Sometimes the stories are smart and well-written, and sometimes they’re not. What matters is that the formula works. It keeps people hooked and engaged, and coming back week after week, season after season. It keeps people talking. What writer wouldn’t want to try his or her hand at that?
This doesn’t mean that the traditional novel is dead, or that it has no place in the 21st century. There’s nothing wrong with the medium and it’s not going away. People will always want to write traditional novels, and so people will always want to read them. It just seems that the authors are the ones that are changing, evolving like their stories to fit the times. Readers seem to be responding to that, even if traditional publishing doesn’t have any room for it yet. And it’s going to be interesting to watch these changes unfold, if nothing else.