Literacy and serialisation

The effect of serialisation

It was Charles Dickens who, in the 1830s, effectively invented a new method of publishing novels in separate monthly or weekly parts, followed by volume publication as the serialisation ended.  Other Victorian novelists followed suit. 

This means of publication makes certain demands on novelists:

  • At the most basic level they had to ensure that each number or instalment was of the correct length
  • They must remember that their readers would be reading the book over a long period of time (in some cases well over a year)
  • This required them to ensure that they kept all the strands of the plot in motion
  • They needed to be sure that characters were quickly recognisable when they reappeared, by the use of appearance, gesture and speech
  • They also had to ensure that readers were encouraged to read the next instalment, by ending each instalment at a moment of tension or anticipation.

Challenges of serialisation

Serialisation could be seen to have a damaging effect on a novelist's output, driving them into various kinds of stereotyping and overuse of coincidence to resolve complex plots.

Some of the challenges of serialisation include:

  • The need to produce instalments of roughly equal length might lead to padding – unnecessary passages to fill up space
  • The use of gesture and speech to create characters might lead to caricature and stereotypes
  • The need for a crisis or climax every few chapters results in over-packed plots too full of incidents
  • The fact that authors were unable to revise the early instalments once they had been published forced them to invent awkward or improbable situations to explain events and bring their stories to a closeSerialisation: democratising literature

Serialisation: democratising literature

One of the benefits of serialisation was that it made stories available to as wide a readership as possible:

  • Weekly or monthly instalments at a shilling (5p) were affordable by individuals or families who could not buy books (a three volume novel might cost ten shillings and sixpence (52½p) per volume and a one-volume reprint seven shillings and sixpence (37½p) – both prices well above most weekly wages)
  • People sometimes clubbed together to buy the instalments, which were then passed from hand to hand
  • In some cases the instalments would be read aloud in homes or public buildings such as working-men's clubs.
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