When we think of the literary works by the great authors of Western civilization, we usually think of them as novels born complete from the writer’s mind and pen, and then typeset into print as volumes adorning the shelves of bookstores. The fact is quite different. While some writers did publish their work as complete volumes (Often paying printing costs themselves), many of the novels we think of as ‘classics’ were, in fact, originally serialized in periodicals.
This practice had already been an accepted method for getting published for a century by the time Charles Dickens ‘‘The Pickwick Papers‘ began serialization in 1836. Over the course of its publication, circulation went from 1,000 to 40,000.
In 1851, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ was serialized in an abolitionist magazine, ‘The National Era. Herman Melville‘s publishers refused his novel ‘Israel Potter’. It was serialized in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in 1853. Gustave Flaubert’s ‘Madame Bovary’ appeared in installments in La Revue de Paris in 1856.
Alexandre Dumas ‘The Three Musketeers’ and ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, Leo Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina’, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ were also each serialized.
By 1878, publishing a novel in serialized form was not just the last resort of authors wishing to get their work before the public. According to an article in Scribner’s Monthly, “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.”
It is well known that the stories of Sherlock Holmes appeared in The Strand magazine. His first novel featuring the great detective, ‘A Study in Scarlet’, was published en toto in ‘Beeton’s Christmas Annual’ and met with a lackluster response. The follow-up novel, ‘The Sign of Four’, was also published complete in an installment of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine and did considerably better. Following the publication of many of the Holmes short stories, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ was serialized in ‘The Strand’ beginning in 1901. The first Holmes story to be published following the character’s death was so well-received that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle decided to bring him back by publishing stories that had ostensibly taken place prior to Holmes’ demise at Reichenbach Falls.
Several notable 20th and 21st Century authors saw their work appear in magazines. Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, ‘Red Harvest’, was serialized beginning in 1927 in the pulp magazine ‘Black Mask’. After a long career as a journalist and author of non-fiction books like ‘The Electric Koolaid Acid Test’, Tom Wolfe’s first novel The Bonfire of the Vanities, ran in 27 parts in ‘Rolling Stone’ beginning in 1984. Michael Chabon had already published several novels (Including ‘The Mysteries of Pittsburg’ and ‘Wonder Boys’) when he serialized Gentlemen of the Road in The New York Times Magazine in 2007.
Novels already have full stops to the narrative and so naturally lend themselves to serialization. The return to the practice of serializing novels makes sense in a world of sound byte mentality, where we rely on infographics and factoids to give us information packaged for bite-sized consumption. It would provide print magazines with content that could potentially increase sales.
But beyond physical (And electronic) distribution of serialized novels in magazines, the web has a voracious appetite for content. A web site is a kind of ‘magazine’, if you will. The site Mousehold Words provides Dickens and others in serialized form. Amazon has a Kindle Serial program stocking a variety of titles. DailyLit e-mails installments of books on a daily or weekly schedule. They were bought in 2013 by the serialized-fiction outlet Plympton.