Five years ago I posted on the topic of serialization on EQMM’s webpage forum. I continue to be asked, often, whether EQMM serializes novels or novelettes. My position has always been that any piece we publish must be sufficiently self-contained to leave readers who will never see the next installment with the sense that they’ve read a complete work of fiction. When a magazine is published monthly, rather than weekly, it’s important, I think, not to leave even those readers you know will be with you by the time of the next issue in too much suspense. A month is a long time to wait if you’re on the edge of your seat, and elements of a continuing story can easily be forgotten in a month’s time.
In the years since I gave that explanation, however, a lot has changed in the wider entertainment industry. Increasingly, television series are being presented not in episodes that can each stand alone but with continuing story lines. In a genre such as the family saga, this makes perfect sense. It’s not terribly hard to remember the circumstances necessary to follow the continuing storylines of such shows, and the long-term conflicts and entanglements of the characters are what the fun is all about. With a mystery the situation is different, for a mystery, almost by definition, must have a complex plot. That’s why I was so surprised to discover that a hallmark of the TV series Longmire is that the solutions to murder mysteries are left unresolved not only from episode to episode but from season to season. Though a solution to the murder of Walt Longmire’s wife was finally arrived at after a couple of seasons or more (I’ve forgotten now exactly when), the last season available on Netflix (Season 4) ends with yet another murder, this one at a construction site, still not fully resolved. Although I like the characters and the setting of this series a lot, I find that aspect of it less than satisfying. I’m certain I will not recall the circumstances of that murder by the time the next season becomes available (and I probably won’t care by then), and I would not want EQMM’s readers to become apathetic over so extended a cliffhanger in something we published. That said, I realize that when it comes to television series, many people now consume them in marathon viewings of several seasons together—in which case it may actually add to the excitement to have lots of carry-over between episodes and seasons.
There are many in the entertainment business who don’t at all share my objections to making readers or viewers wait long periods for the resolution of a story. Maybe that’s partly because, even looking way back at the history of fiction serialization, there’s evidence of people’s willingness to wait. The English magazine Cornhill began monthly publication in 1860 with an issue that sold a reputed 110,000 copies—a phenomenal amount if you consider the population at the time. Like the weeklies that began to appear around the same time—Household Words and All the Year Round, for instance—Cornhill’s fiction consisted mostly of serialized novels. I’m no expert on the history of magazine fiction, but it doesn’t surprise me that novels were the meat of these early fiction periodicals, since the modern novel predates the modern short story, which was only beginning to come into its own in the mid 1800s.
Readers of those early fiction magazines seem to have hung on the next installment of the novels serialized in them, often lining up to get copies. The top writers of the day—Thackeray, Wilkie Collins, Dickens—all filled editorial positions with the publications for which they wrote, and were well aware of what their readership wanted. When you read a Dickens novel you can see the mark magazine publication left on the work in the way so many of the chapters begin by reminding the reader of where the characters were last seen.
So, long-continuing story lines, stretched out in publication over time—the serialization of whole novels, for instance—can work. But it’s also true that some of those early magazines that were so successful in serializing novels eventually shifted over to the emerging short story form. Ladies’ Companion, which published Poe’s short story “The Mystery of Marie Roget” (albeit in three installments), and Graham’s Magazine, with which Poe was even more closely associated, are examples of publications that serialized novels but also relied increasingly on the work of short-story writers.
I think the short story works a lot better in magazine format than the novel, and I suspect that most current editors would agree with me—since most contemporary fiction magazines rely almost exclusively on short stories rather than long fiction. The short story seems to me the ideal sort of reading for a publication that can be slipped into a pocket or handbag. Portability and the short story go together. It’s no accident that magazines such as the original Strand, which published so many of the first great short stories in our genre in the 1890s, flourished along with the newly booming commuter traffic by railroad.
But of course, the extraordinary revolution in publishing over the past couple of decades is changing the landscape yet again. Electronic reading devices have already somewhat softened my resistance to serialization in a monthly magazine such as ours, because now that readers have the ability to archive lots of back issues of a magazine on a tiny device, they can easily refer back to previous installments.
I have a final objection to serialization that can’t be eliminated so easily, however, and that is that there are few enough places for the short story to find a home as it is, without precious magazine space being given over to the novel—which already dominates the literary scene. I also believe that our readers come to us precisely because they love the short story, and the unique experience of reading something that can be comprehended in a single sitting. Poe thought one of the most important characteristics of a short story was the singular impression it can make on the mind—and that its ability to do so was tied to its being read without a break.
What do you think—as readers, writers, or editors—of novel serialization in magazines?—Janet Hutchings