Wilkie Collins and the Serial Novel

by Kim on November 2, 2009 · 34 comments

classics1modWelcome to the first day of The Classics Circuit for author Wilkie Collins! Over the next month you’ll be seeing posts reviewing a number of Collins’ books and talking about his life. You can follow this link to see a full list of classics tour spots over the next month.

I somehow got the honor of writing the first post of the tour which is really exciting! Instead of reviewing a book, I’m going to write a little about Wilkie Collins and his contribution to literature through the serial novel. And, I’m going to talk about how you can experience a serial novel today for free! Read on for details.

The History of the Serial Novel

The serial novel got its start in the 19th century when writers would publish their stories in installments in popular magazines. At the time, books were extremely expensive, so only the wealthy had access. Publishing in magazines opened up literature to a much more general audience. This is also part of the reason novels published serially are so long — the more chapters an author wrote, the more he or she was paid, so there was incentive to write a lot.

Charles Dickens is the author credited with advancing the serial novel and publishing a number of authors. Not everyone wrote well in the style, which required that “each installment must advance the plot and offer excitement and suspense.” Not all authors could write in the style because the pace of weekly writing was too demanding. But authors like Wilkie Collins appreciated and even thrived with the challenge.

Wilkie Collins and the Serial Novel

wilkie collinsWilkie Collins was one author who helped popularize the serial novel. Over the course of his career, Collins wrote 25 novels, along with short stories, plays, and non-fiction works. Collins had many of his novels published serially, thanks in part to his friendship with author Charles Dickens, whom he met in 1851. The two authors got along well and had a productive relationship.

Collins first started publishing serially by co-writing couple series of short stories with Dickens and other popular authors of the time — A House to Let in 1858 and The Haunted House in 1859. The Woman in White was published in that magazine in 1859, the same edition of the magazine as A Tale of Two Cities. This was Collins’ major break into the industry, and after that novel he was a household name. He continued to contribute serial novels to that magazine and others into his career. His other most famous work, The Moonstone, was published in 1868.

During the time they were developing the serial novel, Dickens and Collins learned a some of lessons. For example, they learned that the suspense of the novel needs to build over time. In one of his novels, The Dead Secret, Collins gave up the mystery in the first installment, which left readers without much reason to come back. He didn’t make the same mistake with The Woman in White which was probably what made it so successful.

Experience the Serial Novel Today

the woman in whiteAlthough some recent authors have been publishing their work serially, the way I’ve been replicating the experience of a serial novel is through an e-mail/RSS service called DailyLit. At the site you can arrange to have an excerpt from a book e-mailed to you daily for a morning dose of good literature. For each book you can specify when to have it delivered, how often to have it delivered, and how long you’d like the excerpt to be.

About a month ago I started getting excerpts from The Woman in White. I figured reading a book that was originally published serially was a good way to start trying DailyLit. I’m on e-mail 40 of 286, so I’ll be finishing the book sometime next year :) We’ll see how trying to write that review will go!

So What’s Next?

I hope this e-mail sparked your excitement about Wilkie Collins and you’ll be looking for the rest of the stops on the tour for some books you can try reading. Or if you have the experience of reading a serial novel or using Daily Lit, let me know. Thanks for stopping by!

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