I’ve been thinking a bit in the past week about whether novels can be more like the modern TV series.
Over the past two decades TV has evolved from a purely serial art form (see, for example, Law and Order) to an art form that operates on both an episodic and a series level (see, for example, Heroes, The Office, Fringe, Rescue Me, Californication, Glee, well — at this point, basically anything worth watching). The modern TV series is a series of broadcast events, often with self-sufficient episode plots, tied together by some seasonal arcs, and often with a finale that focuses primarily on the arc that has been developed over the season.
Comic books, of course, do this as well (and have been doing this longer than TV).
And novels? Well some do this sort of thing too, but the time scale is different. Sure, a detective or sci-fi series might be a series of books — but whereas a comic book author or a TV show’s writers might produce anywhere from six to twenty-four small episodes in a year, tied together in a story arc, novels do series basically the same as they’ve done for quite some time — one big book every year or so, containing one large story.
That’s great, and I love reading novels in that form. The Jonathan Stroud trilogy I’m reading right now is extraordinary, and a masterpiece of that form.
But why not an alternate, complementary form as well? History proves that installment writing can rival more traditional forms. There’s Oliver Twist, the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge as well as dozens of other Victorian examples of novels originally published in installments, none of which were doing exactly the episode/series structure that has become common recently but all of which certainly had elements of it.
The introduction of the paperback novel killed much of installment fiction — a lot of the rise of serialized fiction was about the economics of a mass audience, not about the experience of serialized fiction. But I can’t help but wonder, in this age where so much entertainment uses these sorts of structures, why there isn’t something parallel to comic and TV series structure available in literature, where a writer full of small ideas for stories could write stories that weren’t novel length, but tie them together in a series story arc, the way that comic books do. Imagine a world where an author has ten small publishing events a year instead of one big one — events and release dates that fuel the fanatical devotion one sees in the comic book and TV series crowd. Literature series where you could read the first episode over your lunch break, with a 70-page book that costs you about a buck and a half — one that has a full plot and story, but introduces enough series momentum that you go home and mark the release date for next month’s volume on your calendar.
I think it would lead to more adventurous behavior, both on the part of readers (who could try series at very little risk) and on the part of authors (who could publish that odd episode they believe in but others think is too weird — they could bury it somewhere mid-series, knowing that if one issue flops people would still come back to the next issue).
I love coming home knowing that the recent episode of Misfits or Torchwood or Battlestar Galactica is queued up. I love hearing the new Warren Ellis is out. I love the event-ness of comic books and serial drama and sci-fi.
So why can’t we have at least a piece of literature that operates like that. Am I missing something?