The Serialized Novel as literature. Now You Can Find Instant Gratification in Books.

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With the rapidly changing publishing landscape comes a diversity of opinions on preferences. People don’t just tell us they prefer a particular format or style, they share their judgments of good and bad, desirable and undesirable. When e-reading devices were first introduced, some decried the death of print, others argued that reading on a little machine could never replace the pleasure of holding a book in one’s hands, smelling its bookiness, turning pages, and using that special bookmark to hold one’s place—the tactile experiences that accompany the intellectual (it seems that no one ever considered the weightiest issue regarding e-reader vs. hard copy: which hurts more when it hits you in the face after you’ve fallen asleep reading?), and others, whose numbers are rapidly increasing, embraced the new technology—enjoying reading on the fly with their Kindles, Nooks, cell phones, laptops, and tablets.

Kathryn (Bob) Etier
Kathryn (Bob) Etier

In the spirit of “everything old is new again,” advancing technology also enabled the rebirth of a form many thought was long dead, the serialized novel.  Readers can visit various websites and find newly-minted literature offered a chapter at a time—daily, once a week, or whenever the author is inspired to produce the next chapter. Some skeptics (such as I) have been surprised at the popularity of serialized novels.

Oddly, many of the people who strongly support the serialized novel also proclaim that the “long” book is dead, that readers prefer a 220-page historical fiction to, say, Gone with the Wind. The first thing I do after I get a new book is check how many pages it is (after not before), and as I read through a 600-pager, I celebrate milestones—I’ve finished a tenth, I’m a quarter-way through, I’ve only half left, and so forth. I lack patience, so when I find a book I’m about to read is only 229 pages, I am thrilled, but I don’t enjoy it more than a 450-page novel.  And while I groan when I’ve chosen anything over 500 pages, I am not deterred from reading longer novels.

Almost any story can be told in fewer words than the storyteller chooses, but that won’t necessarily make it a better story. Complaining that a book has too many words is like complaining that a symphony has too many notes, a forest has too many trees, or there’s too much food at the all-you-can-eat buffet. It’s not the number of words that make a book worth reading, it’s the way the words are used. I have criticized books for having too many words, but only because a blank journal would have been more enjoyable reading. I have also read lengthy novels that I wished would have been longer because the stories were so well told and the characters so well developed.

The growing popularity of serialized novels is difficult to reconcile with the concept that long books are dead. If readers want to get to the end of a book quickly, why would they prefer a serialized novel that allows them to read only the first two chapters in eight days to a lengthy book that would take less than a week to read? If the long format is dying, it may be because writers are killing it with the shorter format, conditioning readers to expect (and eventually want) less. Or we can blame it on television for giving us complete stories in an hour or less.  Or Readers Digest for condensing books.

No matter what the justification, it is not accurate to say readers prefer short books, but rather some readers prefer short books, just as some readers prefer lengthy books (and still complain when they believe a book should be longer), a qualification that can be applied to most things in life, including serials and reading a screen instead of a hard copy.

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  • Martha Orlando

    If I’m not mistaken, didn’t Charles Dickens’ novels appear in serial form in the newspapers of his day? I can see how this would appeal to some readers, but I’m with you – I’d rather hold the entire book in my hand . . . Great article, Kathryn!

  • i prefer bigger novels. i have and do read serials but pray novels never go the way of the dinosaur.this is one instance where bigger is better.

  • Kathryn Elizabeth, It is a topic that is wide open. Kindle Serials (the ones in your picture at the top of the post) require a submission process for approval. For the most part, they are books chopped into four, five or six “episodes” of 10K words or so, which means they fall between 40K to 60K words in all. That is a book not much longer than a novella. Other authors have serialized books with hundreds of chapters that kept going for months. So, the length of the serial doesn’t seem to matter. Apparently serial readers like to take a sip or two of the book, maybe a sip or two of another book, then come back and pick up where they left off. It will be fascinating to see how this old-new trend plays out in the coming months. I have to admit that especially when I am reading on an e-reader, which is almost all the time now, my taste definitely trends towards shorter books.

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