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The serial novel as highwire act

June 17, 2008 |  1:04 pm

Tightrope

I think Carolyn’s point about tension is a key one — especially given the immediacy of contemporary culture, where we’re used to stories being wrapped up in 22 or 48 minutes, and a serial can unfold almost in real time on the Web. Here, we’re looking at a 19th century lag time, a month between installments, which begs the question of how to keep a reader’s mind engaged. Often, I can’t remember what I did last week, let alone a month ago, and I wonder whether, when the second installment of “Nobody Move” comes out in mid-July, I’ll have to go back and re-read this installment just to get back up to speed.

I suspect I will, which raises another set of issues, since the story Johnson seems intent to tell may not bear up under repeated re-readings. How does an author maintain tension across the real time divide of monthly installments? What does that mean for the narrative?

On a related front, I also wonder — as per Richard’s comments about the set-up — just how far in advance Johnson has things planned. From a reader’s perspective, 10,000 words a month is a snail’s pace, but for a writer (especially a writer as complex and intentional as Johnson), it’s a power sprint. Does he know what’s coming? Is he throwing things into the story just to provide himself with challenges? How will the narrative change from month to month?

Thinking about this, you really begin to appreciate the achievement of a writer like Dickens, who unfolded his novels over a year and a half. For me, this is part of the draw of such a project — the sheer tightrope walking nature of it — but I’m very curious about how it functions from the writer’s perspective, how uncertainty (and deadline pressure) seeds the work.

David L. Ulin

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