Wednesday, 15 January 2014

read a serialised novel

Rec: BBC Sherlock Fanfiction (1)
Do I really need an excuse? OK then, Sherlock Holmes was one of the first serially recurring characters in fiction
 Anyone who regularly reads this blog (hi Mum!) will know that as a writer of historical fiction, I love to see people indulging in a bit of Victorian action – whether it’s reviving a forgotten tradition or practice from the time (visiting cards anybody?) or just a new take on a nineteenth-century classic. (Yes, I am enjoying the new series of Sherlock – thanks for asking). 

File:Alltheyearround 1891.jpgOne of the great literary trends of the Victorian period, from Dickens’s Pickwick Papers onwards, was novels published in (usually weekly) instalments in magazines like (Dickens again) Household Wordslater All the Year Round. A huge number of today’s classics, from Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, as well as many of Dickens’s own works, first saw the light of day in the pages of such magazines. 

In these times of instant download and speed-reading, it’s often hard to imagine the sort of anticipation and interest each new instalment generated, or the level of delayed gratification the reading public were willing to accept (some of the fatter potboilers, such as GWM Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London, took over two years to finish their run). So can it work again today?

Over the last twenty years or so, a few A-list writers and their publishers have had a stab at resurrecting the form, but it’s never come back into the mainstream. Alexander McCall Smith’s novel 44 Scotland Street was a weekly serial in The Scotsman for six months in 2004, and way back in 1996 Stephen King led the way with The Green Mile which was published in six bite-sized, individually purchasable chunks, appearing monthly. Small press Salt Publishing even adopted the aptly Victorian instalment approach for the e-book version of Niall Boyce’s steampunk romp Veronica Britton: Chronic Detective. is an interesting tweak to the modern rules of reading, in which the boxed set (as it were) is the industry standard: nobody these days expects to have to wait years to find out whether Mr Right gets with Miss Lucky at the end of the latest chick-lit smash, or hang on week after week to discover the identity of the murderer in the new Ian Rankin: we want our fiction fix and we want it now. Yet we patiently follow the dramatic arcs of TV series over long stretches of time, which means that popular dramas like, yes, Sherlock, The Bridge, Breaking Bad etc. can keep their profiles high and episodes talked about (no spoilers please!) for month on month, season on season.

That the human race is still not so hot on eking out its pleasures is evidenced by the prevalence of download sites, and the popularity of watching new seasons of big shows like Game of Thrones on a pay-channel several months early. 

However, many viewers – me included – of ongoing series would say that one of the pleasures of watching “in real time” (i.e. weekly instalments) is that the excitement and tension of a story can be extended; that the faithful viewer is rewarded by a long, involving journey with the characters in which you get to know them intimately over months and years, not just days and weeks. Everyone knows the melancholy regret of finishing a well-loved book: does the same thing happen after an all-night binge on Season 5 of Breaking Bad? I suspect so.
Obligatory Breaking Bad picture
Even the longest books (War and Peace, Don Quixote, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell spring to mind) take only weeks – sometimes only days – to finish if you’re really into them. But with regular small doses of narrative, “bingeing” on new TV series, unlike bingeing on a book, isn’t legally possible until the boxed set comes out, and for many it makes the viewing experience even more addictive, like not being able to eat all the chocolates in the box at once. So maybe more publishers should be doing it?

Book Cover  - The Strangler VineWell, here’s my take on the phenomenon, having recently had about as authentic an experience as the modern world can provide, courtesy of Penguin’s publicity department, with a new novel set in 1830s India by MJ Carter. The book is called The Strangler Vine (referring to both a local plant and the Thuggee “strangling cult” of the subcontinent), it comes out on January 30th and (full disclosure) I managed to wangle an advance read of it because its publicist, Lija Kresowaty, worked on my own novel a year or two back. Also, I LOVE fiction of or about the 19th century (did I mention?) so it was right up my street.

The other reason for my sudden interest in serialised fiction is that I’ve recently stumbled across a local coffee/bookshop which sells assorted back issues of Dickens’s very own All the Year Round – not a complete run, nor chronological instalments, alas, but fun curios nonetheless. Thus alongside The Strangler Vine, I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of these original magazines (including chapters 32 and 52 of a shamelessly cliffhanging serial novel called Very Hard Cash) to compare the style and substance.

Do good things come to those who wait?

In TSV, in a nice (perhaps unanticipated) nod to its own format, Lieutenant William Avery of the East India Company is a neophyte soldier and bookworm obsessed by the work of bohemian poet Xavier Mountstuart, as well as perennially waiting for the latest instalment of Dickens’s Pickwick Papers to be shipped over from England. Mountstuart is a semi-mythical figure; Carter’s fun fictional mashup of Lord Byron and Walter Scott with more than a dash of Kipling, and has vanished while researching a new poem on the subject of the mysterious Thuggee cult.

Group of Thugs, 1863
Pain in the Company’s arse though Mountstuart is, he’s also kind of a celebrity and too famous to lose, so the Calcutta bigwigs pack off gruff renegade ex-officer Jeremiah Blake and rookie Avery to the (supposedly) Thug-haunted Northern provinces of the country to find him. So begins a tale of exhaustingly well-researched adventure and derring-do, involving tiger hunts (tiger hunts!!!) murderous bandits, corrupt Colonial officials (no surprises there) and lashings and lashings of jewels. But, given that the book is being released in conventional one-volume format, how does the serial format change the reading experience?

Presents! Squee!
The first part of The Strangler Vine was posted to me as a tiny paperback, rather like the Penguin 60s of old – in a little red velour pouch, along with some wedding-favour plastic diamonds (a reference to a lavish coming-of-age ceremony thrown by an Indian prince in the novel, at which the guests are literally pelted with precious stones). It looked super cute, and the first few chapters, in which we meet Avery and Blake in 1837 Calcutta, drew me in nicely.

I thought that was all I was getting, and resigned myself to having to wait for the full-volume edition, but then a few weeks later I received a follow-up email with the second part attached as a PDF. For the next couple of months, every second Friday I’d get an email containing about 50 more pages of the story – probably twice as long as the average novel instalment in All the Year Round, but also half as frequent, so I’d say they compare fairly closelt. And I have to say that, frustrating though it was not to have the whole book available to read at my own pace whenever I fancied it, the instalment plan did actually enhance my reading experience in some ways – principally by making me spend longer in the (fascinating) world of the book.

The verdict on Goodreads seems to be about half and half (some found the serial nature annoying, some loved it) – but the only improvement I’d have made (as a fast reader) would be to release the text in shorter, more frequent sections … about weekly sounds good? Interestingly, though ultimately I was disappointed by the over-hasty ending of the novel (in which a major character dies for no good reason and another is hurriedly married off to a female cipher with a fleeting cameo in Part One), I spent much longer than I would have otherwise “travelling hopefully” with Blake and Avery, and greatly enjoying the view.

And what do you know – aptly enough, the book is the first in a projected series, which goes some way to explaining the indecently swift narrative tidying in the last few chapters, and moreover gives the central characters a lot more scope to develop. What will happen next? In the great tradition of serial novels from The Count of Monte Cristo to Tales of the City, you’ll have to wait and see …

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