It’s weird to miss a trend you weren’t technically alive for, but I’ve made a habit of it. I miss nickel sodas at the local ice cream parlor. I miss when movie theaters were the only air-conditioned buildings in town. I miss stuffing quarters into Pac-Man games at the local arcade. I miss the time back when the earth was without form and darkness was upon the void. I definitely miss the time before some producer realized people would pay to watch movies remade on and on ad nauseam.
But right now I mostly miss the serialized novel. See, back in the day, a phrase used as a euphemism for that time when women were kept silent, slavery was a totally ok thing to do, and people were constantly dying of things like “the common cold,” novels were published in sections. The average person couldn’t afford to buy a whole super expensive nice, big leather bound volume. Instead they subscribed to the novel and each month they’d get a new chapter. Herman Melville wrote like this, as did Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexander Dumas. The Three Musketeers doesn’t seem so long if you read it a couple chapters at a time every month for the next decade or so.
As a result, novels like Moby Dick and The Pickwick Papers can be read in single chapter segments. I mentioned in my last blog post that I was taking a break from reading Moby Dick. I can do that knowing that I won’t lose part of the experience. Most modern novels aren’t constructed like that. Modern novels are littered with unresolved plot threads and cliff hangars. A good writer uses them as thematic devices, building suspense. A bad writer uses them to trick a reader into continuing the story.
A 19th century writer doesn’t use them at all because each reader is only getting a portion of the novel at a time.
Other mediums are still serialized — TV shows and comic books for instance. Even some movies have been serialized, for better or worse. When reading a “classic” novel it’s not uncommon to read a chapter and think “What does that have to do with anything?” Nothing! Like more than half the episodes of your favorite TV show it’s just filler.
Chapters tend to communicate a mini-story in their own right — beginning, middle, end. There is also usually a small change that will be reflected in the story as a whole, like an after credits scene in a Marvel movie.
I wish this was still a thing. There are several writers — some of whom I know — that I’d happily subscribe to.