A few weeks ago, during my lunch break, I was looking up some noir/hardboiled fiction authors since I felt the need to read a good detective story. That of course wound up into me doing a little research about Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and so forth. I added The Maltese Falcon to my list of Books to Read Which I Probably Won't Have Time To, and while reading up on it, noticed this:
With the following blurb underneath: "Cover of seminal hardboiled magazine Black Mask, September 1929, featuring part 1 of its serialization of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett. Illustration of private eye Sam Spade by Henry C. Murphy, Jr."
Whoa. Stop the presses. Wikipedia, are you telling me that The Maltese Falcon, one of THE most influential hardboiled detective novels ever, was originally published as serialized story in a magazine?
Raise your hand if you've ever read a serialized novel in your lifetime. No one? Didn't think so.
Now, I haven't done a lot of reading into the history of comics and pulps, but just from looking at this picture, I'm guessing both pulp magazines and comics where everywhere:
Pulp magazines seemed to be a part of daily life, just like buying milk and bread was. Which is why you could get both at the same store. It's a shame that they died out, really, becuase if you look at the list of authors who wrote for pulp magazines, it's staggering.
Now, no one reads serial novels anymore. Why? Well, maybe it's because we've all gotten impatient over the years. Who wants to wait six months to finish reading a book? I, mean, I'm too impatient to unplug the toaster oven before I start sticking a knife in it, and I have the attention span of an over-caffeinated mosquito. But despite all that, I think I'd rather read a book in serial form than have to spend two weeks slodging through 400 pages of the same thing. If anything, a magazine with multiple short exerpts of continuing stories would better fit our cultural ADD even better than our current method of novel reading.
So why no serial fiction? I really don't know. Maybe it's too much of a commitment for some folks to wait that long. Maybe it's because people want the experience of browsing through an actual bookstore and holding one book in their hands instead of twelve magazines. We seem to have no patience and yet most folks don't mind reading 800-page behemoths like Harry Potter--in fact, they feel like they are getting more for their money the longer the book is. It just doesn't make sense. In my mind, there's no reason for a book to be over 350 pages let alone over 500. And most famous serial novels born in the pulps of the 30's and 40's (heck, even famous "regular" novels from that time period) are short. Somewhere along the line we mistook depth of material for depth of quality, but that's a debate for a different post. My point being: if you have the patience to read a gigantic novel (which I don't), then you should be able to handle a serialized novel. Or maybe waiting a month between chapters really is just too much of a wait.
But think of the upside: a really good story lasts longer. A novel stretched over months could make a story's timeline seem to unfold in real time. It's more readable because it's in manageable sections which get their point across, then leave you wanting more, rather than current novels which, at least to me, seem to drag on forever to get to the point and make me want less. No only that, but short stories could get some visibility in pulps that they can't get today. And you can read more than one story at a time--how's that for multitasking? You're always looking forward, wondering what's going to happen next, and because you stay with the story longer, the characters seem to be more alive. Not to mention, having a month-long pause between chapters gives you a chance to think, and even better, talk about the story with other readers about what will happen next, which characters you liked/didn't like, and so on. You know, kind of how the comics community operates today. Wouldn't it be great if we could all talk about what's going to happen in the next chapter of a book? I think that would be fun.
Why serialized prose isn't as popular as it was is a mystery to me. Yes, there are a few stragglers like Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Asimov's Science Fiction, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which just moved to bimonthly), but really, are those flying off the shelves? Serial fiction is quite dead. Yes, there are online markets for genre short stories, but hardly any of them would publish a serialized novel. Serial stories are just dead or dying in any format: radio, movies, and print.
Except comics. Though they have diverted from the days when "Detective Comics" actually meant a sizeable magazine of, well, detective comics, comics have hung on, in pretty much the same form as they did in the 1930's. (Though shorter and without multiple stories, the fun ads for BB guns and seed packets, columns about unsolved mysteries and science "facts," and my personal favorite, Letters to the Editor.) Why have comics hung on where prose died? Maybe it's becuase comic book characters themselves never die, so an ongoing medium works well. But guess what, comics aren't that popular with the general public from what I can see. Certainly nothing like that old black-and-white photo. If people today want to read comics they read "graphic novels." No one besides the Library of Congress considers comics "magazines" anymore, but that's what they were: magazines with stories in them, that happened to be told via illustrations.
The general public gave up on serialized fiction for reasons unknown to me. Though they are still hanging on, something happened to comics somewhere along the line where the idea of the average Joe casually picking up a copy of Action Comics or Detective Comics went by the wayside, perhaps because there are no "action" comics in Action Comics, just Superman, and no "detective" comics in Detective Comics, just Batman and/or Batwoman. Maybe that's a key to the whole mystery. I don't know. I hate to conclude a lengthy post with "pulps died, I don't know why, and I think it's going to happen to comics somewhere down the line," but lacking any further insights, I'm left with no choice.
To be continued....