From the Desk of Anne O’Neil-Henry: Serial Stories, Then and Now

The following is by Anne O’Neil-Henry, author of Mastering the Marketplace: Popular Literature in Nineteenth-Century France (December 2017). O’Neil-Henry is an assistant professor of French at Georgetown University.

While completing the third chapter of my book, Mastering the Marketplace: Popular Literature in Nineteenth-Century France, I became hopelessly hooked on the podcast Serial (2014). My third chapter deals with Eugène Sue, an often critically neglected French author of maritime fiction, novels of manners, and social novels who, between 1842 and 1843, wrote Les Mystères de Paris: a novel Peter Brooks has called “the runaway bestseller of nineteenth-century France, possibly the greatest bestseller of all time.” Les Mystères is a sprawling social novel about a beneficent prince in disguise who connects with a network of characters from differing social classes (aiding the good ones, punishing the bad ones) and is replete with shocking plot twists, cliffhangers, dangerous encounters, and romantic interludes. This is an extremely quick summary of the lengthy novel that was serialized over the course of 16 months in Le Journal des débats, a conservative publication whose politics often contrasted with the early socialist ideas promulgated by Sue. Readers eagerly purchased installments of the Journal to discover plot developments and, following its twists and turns intently, wrote prolifically to the author, both praising him but also making suggestions for the remainder of the work. Sue’s book was widely marketed in the daily press, and when the novel was later released in ten volumes, it sold unprecedented numbers of copies2 ;the novel was readily adapted and translated and even spurred an international genre of “urban mysteries.” In short, Les Mystères was a literary phenomenon of unparalleled proportions, and, as I show in my book, Sue’s success with this early serial novel (or roman feuilleton) helps elucidate the tastes of nineteenth-century French readers.

In October of 2014, as I trekked between my home in Washington, D.C. and the Library of Congress where I spent my days reading Sue’s lesser-known novels and then searching online databases for contemporary reviews of and ads for them—I started Serial on the recommendation of a friend. I began listening about two weeks into the podcast and immediately consumed the first three episodes. I was gripped, not only by the facts of the 1999 murder of Baltimore high school senior Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, but also by the narrative crafted by host Sarah Koenig—and, even more, by the parallels between the structure of this podcast and the early serial novels I was studying. In the same way that Sue’s Les Mystères critiqued social institutions and advocated for a rethinking of class dynamics amid its juicy narrative turns, Serial also evoked important twenty-first century political questions: was Adnan a victim of anti-Muslim sentiment? Was his conviction tied to faults in the criminal justice system? Despite letters from Sue’s readers that attest to a blurry understanding of the fictitiousness of the novel, the 1842-43 exploration of the underbelly of Paris is fiction and Koenig’s true crime story is, well, true. Yet Koenig relied on and modified tropes common to the serial novel for the medium of the podcast: the painstaking description of suspicious figures, the slow-paced disclosure of key information, the surprise twists, and, at the end of each episode, the cliffhanger. Her closing refrain “Next time on Serial,” overlaid onto the podcast’s score, was reminiscent of the words “la suite à demain” (roughly: “another episode tomorrow”) found at the end of each of Sue’s chapters, published in the lower portion of the newspaper. Obviously the podcast’s title is a reference to the nineteenth-century genre, but the formal connections between the two works had me intrigued.

As I began anticipating in earnest the weekly release of the podcast, I opted to walk extra laps around the Library or my office until I’d finished the episode. When Thanksgiving introduced an agonizing weeklong break in episodes, I re-listened to previous ones and took to the Internet to learn more about the real-life facts of the case. I read every episode synopsis and article on the podcast I could get my hands on; I learned of Reddit forums where users could debate theories about the crime, and spin-off podcasts that told Adnan’s story from a different angle; I debated with friends over our interpretations of the crime, and once the season ended, I even went to a live show with the producers—something like a concert, but with radio personalities as the stars. In the same way that readers and critics from the 1840s described Les Mystères de Paris as an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon (one reviewer of the novel noted that even well-to-do readers enjoyed employing at parties the slang Sue was famous for incorporating into his novel), Serial felt like an immersive and interactive media experience. At the time, it was by far the most downloaded podcast in history. Sue’s Les Mystères was not France’s first serial novel (that was Honoré de Balzac’s La Vieille fille, of 1836) but it was arguably its most successful one and certainly the one that has come to emblematize the genre in French literary history. Likewise, Serial was by no means the first podcast, yet some combination of its content, narrative, and timing made it the perfect story to tell in that medium. As its title somehow predicted, it has come to be synonymous with the format.

The experience of reading Sue’s roman feuilleton was facilitated by developments in press and paper technology, made available to a wider audience due to the reduction of newspaper subscription prices from advertisements, and marketed and sold to a larger population of readers thanks in part to recent educational reforms. In 2014, as I walked to work while consuming this story, delivered free to my earbuds via my smartphone (provided I listen to the now-famous ad from Mail Chimp), I felt enabled to better comprehend the then-thoroughly modern practice of reading Sue’s serial novel in 1842-43. While Serial won the prestigious Peabody award in 2015, Sue’s novels are often relegated to the categories of popular or commercial literature. One of the goals of Mastering the Marketplace is to argue for the critical importance of such widely-read, but now often-forgotten works, in this case in early-to-mid nineteenth-century France. As I show, they testify to authors’ strategies to adapt to and distinguish themselves within the marketplace of culture. These twenty-first-century radio dramas are our period’s next installment.

Notes:

  1. Brooks, Peter.  Introduction to The Mysteries of Paris. Translater by Carolyn Betensky and Jonathan Loesberg, xiii-xv. New York: Penguin Books, 2015.
  2. French critic Marie-Eve Thérenty estimates that at least 60,000 readers purchased Les Mystères between 1842 and 1850 and approximately 800,000 individuals consumed it.  http://www.medias19.org/index.php?id=15580

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