You’ve definitely read a book that was first published serially, even though you may not know it. The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Farewell To Arms, All Quiet On The Western Front, and hundreds of others were initially released in installments—some even as they were being written—then as the single-volume works you know today. Serializing allows readers to sample the book (and writers to sample the readership) before committing, but it also appeals to readers’ desire for continuous storytelling and to see characters grow over time. During the twentieth century, this need has been increasingly met by television. Though shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire have kept up, if not upped the ante of, the televised tradition, serialized books have seen a resurgence. Below, some notable modern examples of the form:
Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe
Inspired by the encyclopedic works of Thackeray, Tolstoy, and Dickens, Tom Wolfe wanted to write a novel about as many aspects of 1980s America as he could. Since those 19th-century writerly heroes had written their all-encompassing novels serially, Wolfe contacted Rolling Stone about the possibility of doing the same. The result was a biweekly, 27-installment epic running between 1984 and 1985, and the revival of the serialized novel in the United States. The complete (albeit heavily revised) novel became a best seller, and is proving to be a classic.
Gentlemen Of The Road, by Michael Chabon
Chabon’s 2007 historical/alternate universe novel about two bandit Jews roaming the Caucuses was initially published in 17 installments in New York Magazine. The rambunctious plot (including but not limited to con artistry, the wronging of royals, numerous fight scenes, and plenty of witty banter) and structure are modeled on the serialized adventure novels of the 19th century. Always a writer with a penchant for the adventurous, the serialized format suited Chabon well. The complete novel was released shortly after the New York installments as the third of Chabon’s alternate universe explorations into Jewish culture, after The Yiddish Policeman’s Union and the Pulitzer Prize–winning The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.
Positron, by Margaret Atwood
Sometimes, serialized novels can be like a crowdsourced Choose Your Own Adventure book. In the 19th century, readers often wrote to periodicals (or directly to authors) to express their thoughts about the plot or characters, influencing the writer to take certain directions as the story moved forward. Sometimes those letters were what inspired an author to continue with a story at all. Dickens’ Pickwick Papers, for example, was only continued due to overwhelming, and unexpected, reader response.
Atwood found herself responding to the crowdsource aspect of serialization when she wrote the sci-fi story “I’m Starved For You” for the website Byliner in 2011. Though she initially had no intention of writing anything more than a single short story, she was influenced by a huge and positive Twitter response, and wrote Positron in four installments. Initially the series appeared as an ebook on Byliner, but each installment is also available for Nook.
Sex and the City, by Candace Bushnell
Sex and the City is real. Sort of. Bushnell actually wrote the weekly column for the New York Observer in the 1990s, but when her conservative parents told her they were going to subscribe, Bushnell created an alter ego, Carrie Bradshaw, to take over the column about the sexual peccadillos of herself and her friends. In creating a fictional character to act as the column’s mouthpiece, Bushnell freed herself to explore facets more often found in fiction: character (Carrie’s friends are not, like Carrie, one-to-one alter egos of real people, though Bushnell was inspired by people she knew), plot, and, perhaps most importantly, access to otherwise inaccessible bedrooms. The column, part nonfiction, part fiction, was published as a collection in 1997, and was followed by several sequels and a television series you may have heard of.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
That Capote’s groundbreaking investigation into a senseless murder’s effect on its perpetrators and collateral victims was initially published as a four-part serial in The New Yorker is not entirely surprising: as a work of investigative journalism, a periodical seems the most reasonable place for it. More remarkable is the inverse, or the piece’s commercial and critical success as a complete book. Though not the first example of the true crime genre, the novelistic style of In Cold Blood’s complete text set it apart, and has been an inspiration to both novelists and investigative journalists ever since.