The enduring allure of the serial narrative

Serialisation, it seems, can be damaging to your health. Charles Dickens, who became hideously expert in the terrors of the monthly and even weekly deadline, knew this in more ways than one. Throughout his career his own writing commitments frequently overlapped, so that two novels would be advancing at the same time (not to speak of other journalistic writing and editing duties). Despite this stupefying work-load Dickens only once had to postpone a monthly publication, when the death of his sister-in-law ("a severe domestic affliction of no ordinary kind") meant that the eagerly awaited numbers of Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist did not appear as advertised. But his general determination not to disappoint his readers - either in quality or timing - came at a cost; of fatigue to the point of collapse. He described the experience of writing Hard Times, which was published weekly, as "absolutely CRUSHING".

The inexorable tick of publication could have hazards for readers too, who soon came to be as much in thrall to the publication date as the hapless author, as much tyrannised by the unyielding timetable of deferred pleasure. There are many stories told about the wild popularity of Dickens's novels - touching accounts of workers clubbing together their farthings to borrow the latest instalment from a circulating library; the anecdote of the man whose dying words were "Well, thank God, Pickwick will be out in 10 days anyway." But the fable which really sums up the addictive power of serial stories is the account of a Baltimore tragedy; apparently the crowd on the quayside waiting for the final instalment of The Old Curiosity Shop was so dense that several eager readers were pitched into the harbour, where they promptly drowned. This has a faint smack of Victorian PR about it, to be honest, but the point remains the same. In those days the new Dickens was to die for.

The idea that there is a core of danger in our appetite for fictions is a persistent one. Earlier this year, several newspapers (including this one) reported on the splendidly named Jack Duckworth Memorial Clinic, a pioneering institution set up to treat soap addiction. David West, its founder, said of serious sufferers: "Reality and fiction become hopelessly confused. The thought of missing an episode is unbearable; actually missing one can result in psychosis." The image was a striking one - Coronation Street junkies shrieking in their straitjackets, permanently deranged because they had missed what Raquel said to Curly. It fed perfectly into a general anxiety about the allure of serials, the sense that they offer satisfactions which real life cannot. Unfortunately, the entire elaborate construction - complete with "cured" addicts and solemn press releases - turned out to be a fiction itself, a gleeful attempt to blur boundaries rather than a clinical attempt to define them. That the hoax was taken up so eagerly and unquestioningly, though, suggests the idea touches on an exposed nerve.

It also underlines the massive proliferation of serial narrative brought about by television, a development which means that real addicts are never more than a few hours away from their next fix. What's more, this drip- feed of narrative satisfaction involves no expected sense of completion, as Dickens's novels did; this week Coronation Street broadcast its 4,000th episode and such is its popularity and earning power that there seems no reason why there should not be another 4,000. Indeed, any suggestion of a termination would probably start a riot. And while death cheated a few of Dickens's readers of their long-awaited ending, Coronation Street has outlived whole generations of fans. Nor does this appetite show any signs of being satiable - the output of most soaps has steadily increased and it is widely believed that it is only a matter of time before one of the mainstream soaps goes daily.

All of which suggests that our hunger for serial narrative may have changed in its nature, become more debased and far less disciplined. It will soon be possible to see whether this is true because Stephen King - a writer who rivals Dickens in energy and output (if not much else) - has just embarked on the serial publication of a novel, The Green Mile. On one level this seems like a very canny scheme for persuading readers to pay twice as much as they otherwise might (80 skimpy pages for pounds 1.99 works out as a very expensive paperback) but for King himself the allure is different - the reassertion of authority; "the writer gains an ascendancy over the reader which he or she cannot otherwise enjoy: simply put, Constant Reader, you cannot flip ahead and see how matters turn out." What he valued himself, he writes, about the serial stories of his youth, was that "you couldn't gulp, even if you wanted to", which also has a schoolmarmish whiff to it. I think he will be disappointed in the enterprise - partly because his kind of writing tastes better if you gulp it, but also because television has accustomed us to gorge at the feast of fiction. Even another Dickens couldn't mend our manners here, I suspect.

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?