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.