Friday, March 28, 2008

"Charles Dickens Did It, So Why Can't We?"

By Renee Geel

Serial novels were big in Charles Dickens' day; and he and others like Wilkie Collins did exceedingly well with the format, hooking Victorian readers with weekly installments that ended in cliffhangers. The serial novel was born out of necessity, or pragmatics. In order to avoid the high English tax on newspapers, American publishers began using large sheets of paper, giving them more room for copy -- room that needed to be filled.

Enter, the serial novel.

Writers geared their novels toward a Victorian Era public hungering for social betterment. The audience for the serial novelists’ work was drawn to the notion that people could better themselves, and ostensibly this improvement -- on an individual and societal level -- was guided by the stories themselves. (Yes, like so many popular fiction writers today, the authors back then devised their plots according to popular social desires and reading tastes.)

The Victorian Era was no Digital Age. The 19th century pace of living, and reading, was vastly slower than today. People had patience and were willing to take the time to read one novel over a period of years -– it sometime took that long to read one of Dickens’ novels, say The Pickwick Papers, in weekly installments. So here we are 150 plus years later, living in a lightning-paced world, with people racing to get the latest-breaking information (and gossip) off YouTube or CNN or whatever other site they can get it. The quicker the better. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the Victorians were also living in the Industrial Age, with its increasing production and aspiration. The corseted and socially-conscious Victorian Era was a waltz of patience and ambition.

So, with these stark differences between modern and Victorian readers and societies, the question arises: Why would a blog in 2008 attempt to copy the Victorian serial novel format? It seems a little crazy, and even contradictory to the times, enmeshed as we are today in our turbocharged, point-and-click world.

Or is it? We would welcome your input on this matter, as we at MyStoryLives began first and foremost as a “community space” for writers. We are now actively recruiting writers of “serialized” novels. Know anyone? How about you?

Can we count on our readers to pace themselves to a book delivered in slices, say two or three times per week? If reader hits are any indication, then the time has definitely come for the novel-by-blog. This past couple of weeks, as Switch!! has made its debut on the screen here, readership – or at least reader hits-- have gone off the charts! We are now getting readers at a rate approaching 5,000 a month. We had no idea the response would be this strong.

In a rare bit of synchronicity, NPR’s “Morning Edition” last week reported that book publisher Harper Collins is now offering snippets (kind of a preview peek) of several of its books. These enticements, offered free at the Harper Collins’ site, are supposed to lure readers to buy books. But what if at MyStoryLives, you could read the whole book -– more along the lines of a serial novel -– but at a faster pace than Dickens’ weekly installments?

Perhaps we at MyStoryLives are riding the crest of the next wave of literary publication, evolving with the latest in publishing, delivering readers what they want. Or not? Tell us if you think people are willing to read entire entries on screen. Or have “readers” simply been listening to a bit of the flamenco music and after glancing at the piece, then switching elsewhere? Tell us too if you think people will keep reading. And consider telling your friends about our exciting literary experiment. Please pass the link along.

Our intention, ultimately, is to attract literary agents to the site so that books that might not otherwise be given a chance in this nearly impossible-to-publish climate might interest publishers, since the books will be proven popular, coming as they will with a built-in MyStoryLives readership -- the so-called platform -- that authors need to have in order to sell books today.

The serial novel Switch!! -- with a hook at the end of each installment inviting the reader to go back for more -- borrows heavily on the Victorian serial tradition and assumes reader appetites for a long, slow, literary seduction. Will this trend last long enough to get us through one whole novel or will readership slacken from the initial fevered pace, so that, like so much else in the media these days, Switch!! will be edged out before we even reach the denouement?

We’ll have to wait and see.

Renee Geel, who lives in upstate New York, is completing her first novel and is toying with a serial novel called “Souvenirs of Coney Island.”

No comments: