Registration, serialisation, Holmes, Morecambe and Wise, and an angry Trollope

First of all, the first installments of The Valley of Fear will be emailed out this weekend, so if you want to read along please register via eventbrite (there is a link in the ‘Contact’ tab at the top of this page.

Secondly, a few thoughts about serialisation. The serialisation of novels increased steadily throughout the nineteenth century and was the main way many authors would be read. However, as noted by Laurel Brake in Print in Transition, 1850-1910, the 1890s saw a decline in the amount of novels which were first published in serialised form. Brake cites a reduction in cost of popular fiction as a contributory factor. Patricia Okker and Nancy West in the Encyclopedia of the Novel (vol.2), edited by Peter Logan, suggest that another reason for this was that mass-market periodicals had begun to flood the market, and increasingly competed with magazines with smaller circulation rates. As a result, one could no longer be as certain that customers would consistently read each issue every month.

Seemingly as a result of this, the Strand, when it started in 1891, had a policy that it would not publish serialised articles or stories, the idea being that this would not discourage readers from buying future issues if they missed an instalment (see Detective Fiction by Charles Rzepka). In July 1891, the Strand styled itself as featuring ‘short fiction easily read on train or omnibus’. With its large circulation, consisting of ‘middle-class families and suburban railroad commuters (Rezepka), clearly the Strand saw this tactic as key to maintaining its readership.

However, it was Arthur Conan Doyle who would find a middle ground between the old form of serialization and the new focus on short stories. In his autobiography, Memories and Adventures, he recalls that ‘It had struck me that a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine’. And indeed, his tales of Sherlock Holmes were to play a big part in securing the Strand’s popular success. When Conan Doyle brought Holmes back after initially killing him off, The Hound of the Baskervilles, which was serialised in 1901-2 (clearly the popularity of Holmes was enough to make the Strand bend their serialisation policy) is estimated to have significantly increased the circulation of the magazine.

With serialisation declining even further in the twentieth century, The Valley of Fear, serialised in 1914-15, seems a bit of an oddity. Although there were popular novelists finding success in serialisation this side of 1900 (often pulp detective or romance writers), there is a real sense that serialisation was long past its Victorian heyday. Okker and West situate this continued decline in the context of the increased mass market, and competition from other media such as cinema. What this means is the serialised form of The Valley of Fear can be seen as as much of a Victorian throwback as Holmes himself, who, no matter when his stories are published, always seems to exist in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

However, while now it is the norm to read novels in one volume, we might give some thought to how serialisation affects the reading process? How is it different from just reading a whole novel? It has been noted that the market demands of serialisation put an emphasis on suspense and the delay of information during the story. But it is also worth thinking about how the reader experiences the story in a different way; after all, the serialised novel exists as part of the readers life as it continues, acting as a marker and a measure of time and the changes that occur along its serialised run. Also, the reader of the single-volume novel continues at their own pace, in a rather isolated fashion, whereas readers following a serialised story would all have been compelled to progress at the same pace, all with the same amount of knowledge of the plot, creating a sense of a reading community. Would waiting for the next instalment have encouraged re-reading? It strikes me that the only similar experience we have now might be watching t.v. programmes, but even this is losing its sense of community with scheduled television becoming more obsolete; gone are the days when something like the Morecambe and Wise Christmas special was watched by almost half the UK at the same time! Perhaps the only things that offer a similar communal experience now are live-broadcast sporting events, like the Olympics, a World Cup, or a cricket test series.

There are plenty of stories of communal responses to serialised fiction. After Holmes ‘death’ in ‘His Last Bow’ many readers put on black armbands in mourning and threatened to never read the magazine again. And there is a particularly fantastic story of how Anthony Trollope, while at a club, overheard two men complaining about one of the characters in his current serial. Annoyed by having to listen to their complaining, he marched over, introduced himself, and promised to go home and ‘kill’ the character in question at once. I wonder if those two gentlemen ever considered for a co-writing credit for that plot point.

Cheerio for now,

David

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