Tag Archives: Books

Serial Thrillers

1990s culture had lots of perks. Some of us remember the music, the rise of the Pokemon card, the questionable fashion. For me, the 90s was defined by two must-have brands, the Beanie Baby and that ever so slightly creepy, chirping bird-doll-hybrid Furby creature. We might look back on these fads with a fondly nostalgic eye, whilst being quietly grateful that we have moved on to greater things, to smoothies, to micropigs, to kindles. However, in terms of the world of fiction, there is one 90s trend that is still influencing the way we read today, and that is the serial novel.

Furby friend of the 90s

Furby friend of the 90s

In spite of its 1996 publication date, George R R Martin’s A Game of Thrones, first in his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is still topping Waterstones’ Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror bestseller list. In fact, the list is dominated by other books from the series, the formulaic titles chiming together repetitively, like a meditative chant of words from another world; swords, dragons, kings, thrones. Unsurprisingly, the neat sense of continuity in the A Song of Ice and Fire collection makes it perfectly adaptable to television. Not wanting to miss out on the next link in the chain, the recent third season finale was watched by 5.4 million viewers, making it HBO’s second most-watched programme of all time. Indeed, just as we wait in a reverently carb-free limbo for the next episode of The Great British Bake-Off and relish in re-entering the parlour of Downton once more this autumn, the book-in -a-series format is a sure way to create a classic page turner that has readers suffering from a heady addiction. Let’s not forget the queues and hysteria surrounding the latest J K Rowling effort, as eager buyers grappled to get their hands on the latest contribution to story-time for the children, their Sunday night read or their lunch break.


The popularity of 1990s oeuvres such as the Harry Potter series, A Song of Ice and Fire and His Dark Materials heralded a new movement in the world of fiction that continues to be felt. Indeed, in cinemas recently was the first installment of the The Mortal Instruments, a series of six young adult fantasy novels no doubt following in the wake of their 1990s antecedents.  And it’s not just limited to fantasy, to a world of mythical battles and politics. The Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy entranced readers with a slightly different power game. In parallel to our TV routines, as we loyally follow episode after episode of docudramas, talent shows and cookery series, the way we read has been transformed into a question of ‘what comes next?’. As we journey breathlessly through novel after novel to the imaginative parameters of the epic whole, it seems that every-day entertainment now comes in bulletin format. It’s about getting your hand on the latest, the next in line. Reading has become a bit like watching a soap opera.

And yet, delving into the past reveals that enjoying books in episodic format is something that we have a much older figure than George R R Martin to thank for.  Due to the rise of literacy and advances in print technology, as well as efficiency and improved economics of distribution, the serialisation of novels became voguish in the Victorian era. And this was all due to Charles Dickens’ 1836 serialised work The Pickwick Papers. Following that huge success, Dickens’ subsequent works were published in weekly or monthly magazines and newspapers, giving the inquisitive reader regular bulletins of another world and heightening their appetite as the latest chapter went to print. In fact, Dickens’ method of serial publication proved to enliven his readership so greatly that he developed an editorial relationship with them, modifying his stories and characters over the weeks and months in tune with their reactions.

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

The Pickwick Papers, the first serialised novel

Say the words ‘Charles Dickens’ to a reluctant reader and they might wince at the thought of a hefty, starchy tome. Yet in reality, his epic character studies were broken down into tantalizing tit-bits, each structured internally like a miniature serial novel of today, with climaxes, twists and turns but just enough of a cliff-hanger to leave us yearning for the next installment. Dickens is credited with creating the caricature, a figure whose quirks are exaggerated to a larger-than-life extent, so that we cannot help being captivated. And that is much the same in today’s serial novels. So no matter how much weird and wonderful characters like Edward Cullen have become icons of 21st century global popular culture and our obsession with serial storytelling and fantastical escapism, they are the products of a literary form rooted firmly in a tradition that is much closer to home. Perhaps when we lose ourselves in a sequence of novels, we are actually finding our way back to the beginning.




Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Uncategorized


I have been absent from the world of blogging for the past couple of weeks for a simple reason. Books. And what could have been more apt than for me to discover, just as I turned my mind to blogging again, that books were not just something enveloping my time and interest as I began back at Cambridge , but were something grabbing attention beyond the heights of the University Library’s dusty shelves.

Tomorrow, the winner of the 2012 Man Booker prize will be announced. This is the 44th year of the competition which started in 1969. The ceremony will take place in London’s Guildhall to be covered by the BBC. The winner receives £50 000 and the six shortlisted writers £2, 500.

The winner also receives a specially commissioned and artfully handbound edition of their book.

It was this last snippet of information that stayed with me the most. The writer, who probably began his or her novel with ideas jotted down on scrappy post-it notes, has taken their creation through the void of black and white Times New Roman on a cut throat journey of  editing and rewriting to come to this final moment. They may well wish never again to open that file on their computer. Yet I imagine as they are handed a beautifully bound copy of their work, with a waxy, embossed cover and starchy leaves that crackle as they are turned, that the monotonous tapping of the keyboard that has been the pulse of their day to day life for so long must seem worth it. The special commissioned copy of the winner’s book will sit on their shelf to reflect their public success in the competition and the sterile word document will be transformed into an object living and breathing with personal value and memories of struggle and inspiration. Often it seems, it is not what we read, but how we read it.

The way that we can read books today is changing. Cambridge is a patchwork of artisan and antique book shops nestled down crooked alleyways. All sorts can be unearthed from the higgledy -piggledy shelves, be it a fully illustrated gold embossed collection of ‘Tales from the Arabian Nights’, or more simply, a mouldering pocket edition of ‘Wuthering Heights’. Sometimes, the book seller can be a little liberal with the term ‘antique’. My brother is an avid collector of old books and on one grey and foggy November evening we travelled to a book seller housed in what turned out to be a dilapidated warehouse tilting at a drunken angle. The smell of mildew and creosote, coupled with the atmospheric tinny drip of rainwater was a far cry from the squishy chairs and the squealing costa coffee machines of Waterstones. Clearly ‘antique’ had become ‘decrepit’. Yet old books can be little fragments of history. Dates in the cover. Names scrawled over the title page. Notes in the margin. All these little details bespoke a copy so that it takes up a unique place on a shelf.

A jumble of old books

Even if the pages are tea stained and raggedy and the ink has melted grey at the edges, these more unusual editions of literature are surely more valuable than the mass printing of chunky volumes piled up in a jenga on the Waterstone’s special offer table,  automatically branded with the bright neon ‘three for two on all classics’ sticker. A shelf full of beautiful and historical books becomes a work of art that is being continually developed and perfected. I recently acquired a copy of John Donne’s poetry in French so old that some of the pages had not yet been cut. As I slid the knife through the pulpy fibres I felt I was reawakening a lost tradition that celebrates as much the way that a book is crafted and put together as it does its contents.

Patterns of reading however, are continually evolving. We often read quickly and in transit. E-books entertain us as we stand wedged on the tube or sunbathing on a beach. I find myself often reading for a specific purpose, searching frantically for quotations and themes to fit the essay titles that I have been set in a race to meet the deadline. Computer formats of literature are invaluable for this. Yet my degree and current study of 18th century literature has found me a compromise between  new and old ways of reading, allowing me to pick up the mass produced modern classics at a slashed price and still feel I am getting a beautiful book onto my shelf. 18th century readers  kept ‘commonplace’ books in which they collected their favourite quotations into exquisite journals. I too have been keeping a form of reading log in a little embellished notebook that I bought at a vintage market stall, which I look back through to refresh my memory of the best bits the written word has to offer.

This is one way to keep books beautiful, by etching our favourite words onto some uniquely bound pages that we can place on the shelf as personal to us. That way, when my latest edition of a cheap Austen is donated to the library book sale to make space for the new Waterstones BOGOF I’ve quickly picked up in town, I can keep reliving my favourite moments of literature bound into beautiful covers by a pen in my hand.


Filed under Books, Writing