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.
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.
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.