In 1841, readers in New York caused a near-riot when the final installment of Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop reached American shores. They were desperate to learn the fate of Nell Trent: did she live or die? On September 29, 2013, millions of Americans – and people around the world – sat down in front of their TVs to watch the final episode of Breaking Bad, and to learn the fate of Walt, Jesse and the other characters. Who, in this story, would live or die? Separated by 170 years, these two stories gripped audiences so strongly that the need to know the outcome was almost an obsession.
In both cases, people met afterwards to discuss the ends of these serials. In the New York of 1841, they would have talked about Little Nell in taverns and coffee houses; in 2013, they gathered on Facebook and Twitter to debate the dénouement involving Walt and Jesse. The discussions inevitably examined what some readers and viewers hoped would happen, and what future might lay ahead for the remaining characters. Because both Nell and Walt met their ends in the final episodes of their respective serials. While Walt’s death was predictable, readers of The Old Curiosity Shop didn’t expect Dickens to kill off Little Nell.
One Episode After Another
Serials – periodic fiction, film and TV – have been a staple of publishing since the early 19th century, when printing technology enabled the mass production of cheap magazines. The watershed moment was Dickens’ 1836–37 serial The Pickwick Papers. Written under the name “Boz,” this serial was sold in individual pamphlets, one a month, each containing a few chapters (the final number was a “double issue” with six chapters). Dickens would publish eight other novels in this format, through his last, unfinished work, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.
Other serials appeared in magazines, and this became the norm in the late 19th century, as part issues could no longer compete with publications that had a varied table of contents. These include The Strand, in England, which published Sherlock Holmes’ adventures; The Atlantic Monthly, which published many novels, including those of Henry James, in the United States; and La Revue de Paris, in France, which published Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. As Scribner’s Monthly pointed out in 1878, “Now it is the second or third rate novelist who cannot get publication in a magazine, and is obliged to publish in a volume, and it is in the magazine that the best novelist always appears first.”
Most of the classics of the 19th century that we read now were first published in serial form. Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina was published over some four years, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin over forty weeks. Authors such as Mark Twain, Honoré Balzac, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Thomas Hardy and many others wrote serials. Even in the 20th century, novels by Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway were published as serials, and, Rolling Stone revived this tradition when it published Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities over 13 months in 1984–85, though Wolfe revised the work extensively for book publication.
Some serial novels lasted for short periods: Henry James’ The American was originally slated for nine installments in The Atlantic Monthly, but its popularity led editor William Dean Howells to ask James to extend it another three numbers. Others, such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo ran for 139 episodes. So many 19th century novels are doorstops because of serialization: authors were paid by installment, and a successful serial was valuable to both the author and publisher, so they would continue as long as possible.
It’s fairly easy to keep track of what’s happening in a novel if you read an installment each week; this is a lot like the way we watch weekly TV shows. But with monthly magazines, this must have been much more difficult. There was no “Previously…” section to start new installments; readers were expected to remember what happened on their own. Many installments ended with cliffhangers, and dedicated readers would recall these when reading new episodes; or, perhaps, find previous issues to remind themselves what happened.
But installments could be problematic. The following quote is from a parody, but it rings true, both regarding TV series and serialized novels. “Though critics lauded it, the general public found the initial installments slow and difficult to get into, while later installments required intimate knowledge of all the pieces which had come before. To consume this story in small bits doled out over an extended time is to view a pointillist painting by looking at the dots.”
When serial novels were published in book form, they, too, had parts. The standard format was the “triple-decker,” a three-volume format, designed so subscription libraries could make as much money as possible from the novels, circulating part of the novel to each of three different readers at a time. Books were expensive enough that most readers bought subscriptions to libraries – the Netflix of books – or rented them from commercial lending libraries, but, in the late 19th century, they became cheap enough that the three-volume format disappeared in favor of single-volume books that were sold for around one shilling; an affordable price for the literate classes.
Those who hadn’t read the novel in serial format could “binge read” the entire novel in a few days (or a couple of weeks, for the longer ones). There were few forms of entertainment in the pre-electric years, and those who read books certainly read more than people do now. Reading was often a shared pastime as well: people would read novels out loud to their families, and this form of reading led to a subtle form of censorship. The largest lending library, Mudie’s Select Library, “gained a reputation for only purchasing books which conformed to Victorian norms and values;” and “… works of “objectionable character” [were] left out of the collection.”
What is it that attracts us to the serial format? Perhaps this goes back to the early tales told by minstrels and travelers, where, from one night to the next, people would listen to stories that were embroidered into connected narratives. At the end of each episode, we have time to process what happened, to consider possible events to come, and to subconsciously explore the many variations that the story could take.
But, now, people want to “binge watch” TV series, either by buying box sets, or by streaming episodes one after another. Netflix has understood this, releasing its own original series in extenso, rather than doling out an episode a week. The recent release of the second series of House of Cards saw 670,000 people, or 2% of subscribers, watch the entire series on the first weekend it was available.
So have we come around from a serial model to one of wanting everything at once? Outside of television, we have little experience of serials. Comic books and comic strips appear serially: monthly or daily. But we rarely encounter fiction published in multiple parts. There are some small experiments, but only a handful of people read like that. Is it simply the availability of multiple episodes of a TV series that drives us to want to know what happens next, right away? Even with television, many people record their favorite series on DVRs, and don’t get around to watching each episode right away. They may find they have two or three to watch at a given time, then wait for more to come.
There’s a tension between the desire to want to gulp down a TV series, or the chapters of a novel, and the desire to stretch them out. We know that, when the story is over, it’s time to turn out the light, and we want to put that moment off as long as possible. But we also want to get to the end of the story, to get to its resolution.
If the medium imposes a rhythm on us, our only option is to read or watch episodes once a week, or once a month, and suffer in silence, letting our yearning for more take a back seat to our rational selves that tell us that we simply have no choice. The serial acts as a regulator, its calendrically imposed schedule doling out the story at regular intervals. In some cases, this is a good thing; in others, we’d prefer choosing our own rhythm. But when we’re able to make that choice, we often choose to gobble down our entertainment in a bulimia of text or images, as long as the story compels us to move ahead.
And there’s the rub: we have to choose one or another. Neither method is inherently good or bad, but there are advantages and disadvantages to each approach. When binge-reading or watching, we may notice certain details from one episode to another that wouldn’t be obvious when we’ve had a week to forget what happened before. But when reading or watching one episode a week, we get a chance to think about what we’ve experienced, and perhaps get more out of the experience. We also benefit from that feeling of anticipation that comes from knowing that we’re going to get more of a good story in a few days.
In some ways, we binge-live our lives, but in daily installments. Is binge-watching or reading an attempt to make our entertainment as continual as our lives? Perhaps. But it may just be a profound desire for resolution in stories, as an alternative to our lives, where plot lines take years to play out. When reading or watching TV series, we live the lives of others by proxy. Maybe we simply want to get to the end, which is something we can’t do in our own lives.
- Quoted in America’s Continuing Story: An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850–1900, Michael Lund. ↩
- You can see The American in its original layout in The Atlantic Monthly here. Cornell University’s Making of America website offers a digitized collection of a couple dozen American magazines from the 19th century. ↩
- From “When It’s Not Your Turn”: The Quintessentially Victorian Vision of Ogden’s “The Wire”, an examination of the television series The Wire as though it were a Victorian serial novel. ↩
- Mudie’s Select Library. ↩
- TV Line. It took me three days to watch all 13 episodes. ↩