The Pleasures of Serializing

This post first appeared at Book Smugglers.

 You could argue that serialized fiction has no place in today’s literary universe. This is the era of instant gratification. Drones deliver pizzas to your door. You can download movies in one minute, order ebooks with the click of a mouse. Surely the form pioneered by Dickens and Trollope is as dead as the dinosaur. Who has time to wait for the next chapter?

But it is possible that stringing a story out over time is instinctive to us. The very oldest literature we have must have been serialized. It is said that the Greek poets had the Iliad memorized entire. They could recite the entire epic for you at the drop of a hat. But the Trojan War took ten years, and the Iliad repeated aloud must have been an all-day event. You would want to break it up, if only for meals.

For depth of theme, for expansive characters, for major action, you need elbow room. You’re not going to get a cast of thousands into Twitterfic. The movie producers know this. How many Marvel movies are there, or Star Wars movies? Their plan of course is for you to see them all, in order. Maybe we don’t do that. but viewing all the Thor movies does make Avengers: Infinity War more meaningful. The movies are designed, more or less, to both stand alone and yet be more fun if they are all viewed. Has there ever been anyone who has only seen one Star Wars movie?

And TV shows are still releasing their seasons serially, one show a week, sometimes for years. Consider the current SF hit The Handmaid’s Tale, for instance, or (to pick something that’s already complete) Mad Men. There were arcs in Mad Men that spanned the series from the first episode to the last – Peggy’s rise from the secretarial pool to executive, Dan Draper’s ongoing personal issues. Within that big structure were smaller one-season arcs, like the machinations of Pete, and within each episode there was smaller peaks and dips. Having one episode a week allows a vast fan base to pick up, exchanging blog comments and analyzing Peggy’s dresses. Once we’re in we want more, lots more.

Which is how I began to write Victorian thrillers. Like so many readers I adored The Woman in White. Miss Marian Halcombe, the heroine, is surely one of the most fascinating women in fiction. This was a period when heroines in books were supposed to be pretty and blonde, the passive prizes for male contention, and Wilkie Collins was careful to give the readers one because he was a smart writer. But he knew it was idiotic – within the novel the other characters point out the silliness of Laura Fairlie. Her brunette sister Marian Halcombe, older and ugly but smart, tough and imaginative, comes to her rescue when the men fail her.  The novel was a massive best-seller and Miss Halcombe completely eclipsed the eponymous heroine of the work, to the point where her publisher was getting her marriage proposals in the mail.

Why are there no more stories about Marian? There are so many sequels to Price & Prejudice that there are entire web pages devoted to listing and organizing them. Well if you want something done you just have to step up and do it yourself. I wanted Marian to be a perfect Victorian lady, but to push back against the expectations of her culture. She does all the things that women must have done, but were careful not to tell the men about, and that never appear in the pages of the novels.

And because THE WOMAN IN WHITE came out in serial form, it is entirely appropriate for A Most Dangerous Woman to appear in episodes as well.

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The Pleasures of Serializing — 3 Comments

  1. And sweet Laura does what proper Victorian heroines did. She produced a baby boy to inherit. Yawn.

    Every man in “The Woman in White” falls in love with Marion, the tall, plain, POOR, woman who holds the world together–including the villain.

    I had to read this book in pieces because I kept getting lost in the Verbiage of the male narrators. Marion’s section I read straight through, barely pausing to eat. You are right to give Marion her own books to be the heroine in.

  2. Wilkie Collins was not your usual Victorian male. He had two women, with attendant children, in two separate households for most of his life. Mostly, he had no truck with the shibboleths of the period. However, since he had to sell the books, he took care to supply readers with what they wanted — fluttery blonde heroines, for instance. But you can watch him deliberately subverting a lot of those tropes.