The practice of serializing a novel is older than the most well-known Victorian-era serial, Oliver Twist. Yet, why is the phenomenon re-emerging in 2022? When people today can access most media at all times, why choose to engage in a 125-year-old novel at a slow, serialized pace? Serialized literature or serialized content has always been present in societal media.
POV: It is 4:45 pm, Y/N is bored studying in the library; she swings her long brown hair away from her shoulders and checks her email. She squeals with excitement; Dracula Daily has finally updated, “a new email from Jonathan Hacker,” she whispers in a low voice.
I’ve been reading Dracula recently. Every day I get an email with a small portion of the book that corresponds with the current calendar day; it’s either a travel log, a diary entry, or a lost letter. I am reading Dracula live, as it’s happening as if I am one of the characters the protagonists correspond to. This immersive, slow-paced fanfiction like phenomenon is called Dracula Daily and every corner of the internet expected to be obsessed with it, is. The newsletter on Substack takes advantage of the novel’s epistolary format and sends out the entries as it happens throughout the year. Thus, the average follower of Dracula Daily will finish the novel come November 10th. Although new content is delivered serially, why read a complete novel at a serialized pace? For most readers or other content participants, it’s about engaging with the material and engaging in the imagined community the material creates. The emergence of Dracula Daily and its success is due to the online fan infrastructure on platforms like Reddit, Tumblr, and Twitter inherited from the historical legacies of Penny Dreadfuls, Victorian Romantic serial fiction, early Y2K Blog culture, and Wattpad. Thus reading the Dracula Daily newsletters is about engaging with the text and the imagined community surrounding the newsletter.
On Substack, a platform dedicated to sending out newsletters, epistolary classics have increased in popularity. Novels in the public domain, including non-epistolar stylized novels, can be delivered to your email via newsletter. The practice of serializing a novel is older than the most well-known Victorian-era serial, Oliver Twist. Yet, why is the phenomenon re-emerging in 2022? When people today can access most media at all times, why choose to engage in a 125-year-old novel at a slow, serialized pace? Serialized literature or serialized content has always been present in societal media. News delivered daily, weekly journals, and monthly reports are all forms of serialized content with formal schedules. Perhaps we are most familiar with informal scheduled serialized literature in the formats of fan-made content, Webtoon graphic stories, and lifestyle vlogs. Serialized content is embedded into the fabric of western media, from top institutions to individual creators.
The person responsible for reconfiguring serialized literature into newsletter format is Matt Kirkland. Kirkland is a connoisseur of weird side-projects; most of them concern history, literature, and typography. This concept developer is an expert at reconfiguring the old into the new. The wackiest of his projects include John Says, a blog format of Samuel Johnson’s essays, and Dumb Cuneiform, a project that turns dumb tweets into stone tablets. Kirkland’s inspiration for the emailed serialized newsletter occurred during the pandemic, “I was reading it in 2020, and as I was reading it, I was talking about it with my daughter. And then we just realized like, “Oh, it would be great if you could read it all on the actual dates when everything happened.” …And then, like a bolt of lightning, we realized, what would be great is if someone just had a Substack where it could just email me the actual passages from the book that day.” 1 Taking advantage of the epistolary format, Dracula, published in 1897, is a gothic, romantic horror novel. Often incorrectly credited as the original vampire, Carmilla, written by Sheridan Le Fanu and published in 1872, is regarded as the original vampiress. The story follows Jonathan Hacker, a young lawyer, as he travels through Transylvania, tastes paprika, and meets Count Dracula. The plot begins with Jonathan arriving at Castle Dracula to verify real estate signatures for Dracula’s purchase of an old Gothic Church in central London. Jonathan soon takes notice of certain oddities with the Count, how he never eats, never comes out in the daylight, and his peculiar reaction to Jonathan’s shaving cuts. The novel proceeds into the well-known Vampire hunting lore through personal diaries, medical journals, and travel logs, eventually ending with Count Dracula’s death!
What are the origins of serialized content? Its common knowledge that this delivery of fiction arose during the Victorian era. However, Graham Law proudly proclaims, “Serial fiction was not a Victorian invention” 2 In Law’s text, Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press, Law demonstrates that novels in numbers predate popular Victorian novel serialization. The book traces the popularization, disappearance, and re-emergence of serialized literature throughout the Victorian era through English journals, magazines, and popular culture. This in-and-out-of-vogue voyage that the serial novel takes is partly due to the incremental “taxes on knowledge” the British government would place on publishing firms. The ‘taxes’ disrupted magazine publishers by increasing their production prices and, consequentially, decreasing the amount of serialized literature published. Miscellaneous liberal magazines, often owned by established publishing houses, would publish a novel in monthly installments. Dividing the novel was done for the economic benefit of spreading the cost of production and alleviating the subscriber’s purchase cost. The works published in the early Victorian period (the 1830s to the 1850s) were reprinted classics, abridged novellas, or translated literature 3. Original work that was published and serialized was written by amateur, anonymous or undistinguished authors. Most pieces were unillustrated, although exceptions exist; Dickens’s Oliver Twist is one. Law also notes a class division between acceptable middle-class magazines and the urban-slum miscellanies. A notable division was that respectable magazines were published monthly while ‘penny blood’ miscellanies were published weekly. The price for this weekly fiction-full magazine was in the name, yet, “in the bourgeois world, these crude penny bloods had a blanket reputation for scurrility and indecency that they hardly deserved” 4. Law asserts that publishing houses that printed monthly magazines also published weekly miscellanies, including some of the same authors and works reprinted in both formats. The serialization of fiction was encouraged and maintained due to the cost benefits. It was cheap and fast, and publishing houses would switch to another story if it wasn’t popular amongst the masses.
Publishing houses substantially increased their revenue by reformatting content and selling it to two different clients, middle-class and lower-class. Some miscellanies worked with larger publishing houses most were independently funded. While penny dreadfuls were considered slum literature, Law argues that the literature was still stylishly sophisticated and often challenged conventional British morality 5. “Penny dreadfuls,” “penny blood,” -whatever word the benevolent reader chooses- penny lit was the equivalent of trashy, fast, read-in-one-sitting Wattpad YA fanfiction. I don’t mean to de-legitimize Wattpad YA fanfiction; in fact, it has birthed a variety of literature like E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Gray, Cassandra Clares’s The Mortal Instruments, or Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter 6. Previous generations that might have considered themselves the pioneers of the ‘Blog’ or the mass phenomenon of ‘fanfiction’ must reconsider their position as inventors or innovators and take the stance alongside Kirkland as a “reconfiguerer.” Penny literature is considered by many a pseudo-fanfiction. E.S. Turner, in Boys, Will Be Boys, a historical and literary study of the genre. Turner sets the scene of the writers’ room of penny dreadfuls, “Lloyd [a writer]… surrounded himself by a small group of writers of demoniac imagination, prodigious output and an engaging lack of scruple.” Turner claims they created Sweeney Todd and “plagiarized the works of Dickens as fast as they came out. The Law of the day offered friendly shelter to literary pirates, and Lloyd was able to make the nucleus of his fortune by putting out the Penny Pickwick, Oliver Twiss, Nickelas Nicklebery, Martin Guzzlewit, and others as thinly disguised.” 7
While Dickens’s Oliver Twist was published monthly from 1837 to 1839, Oliver Twiss was published weekly from 1837 to 1845. Numerous Victorian-era criticisms claimed that the penny dreadfuls devalued Dickens’s literary style and literature. Yet, penny authors continuously argued that ‘they were inspired’ by Dickens’s literary greatness. These works produced a text with similar characters and plot but with apparent modifications to evade copyright and to claim they created a fiction of their own. After all, mimicry is the highest form of flattery. However, sometimes originally plagiarized content morphed into original fiction. Much of penny literature was sensational, frightful, and dramatic. Many of the stories acted as inspirations for modern popular culture. Turner sites Marvel comic characters as graveyards for the over-the-top characters of penny dreadfuls. The author concludes his book solemnly, stating, “As these lines are written, most of the freaks [characters in penny dreadfuls he describes throughout the text] seem to have transferred to the Marvel Comics Group” 8. It seems appropriate to follow this quote with a 🙁, despite this text being academic. The intersection of penny dreadfuls and Victorian serialization led to cross-genre contamination of formatting and migration of characters from monthly publications to weekly publications. Eventually, this migration of characters and formatting styles made its way to comic books, blogs, newsletters, and fan fiction.
The somber mood Turner creates reflects popular sentiments regarding Marvel’s film repertoire and its habit of opposing originality. While the argument can be made regarding Turner’s text that penny literature acted as a pseudo-fanfiction for the Victoria youth. Turner’s last comments on Marvel and its lack of originality pose the question; are netizens returning to original material like Dracula an unconscious revolt against media unoriginality? This question is broad and one this essay will not wholeheartedly tackle because it will lead us to the eventual void of a question: is anything original? However, the preference for consuming “originals” versus consuming remade content is a growing consumer debate that varies from each individual and their creative tastes and preferences. Disney live-action remakes, updated remakes of shows with a more diverse cast, CGI updates of hand-drawn animation, another Batman (but he’s EMO), a new Scooby-Doo (but Velma is a canonized lesbian). These significant, minute, or incremental changes resemble creative decisions taken by independent fanfiction authors on Wattpad. Penny’s dreadful authors took the same minute creative changes to avoid plagiarism or innovate upon a character or storyline. Although Victorian-era criticisms of penny dreadfuls are often classist in origin, I must agree that the rampant creative plagiarism oversaturated characters, tropes, and plots and, like Marvel, often lacked originality.
These creative changes are what separate canon fiction from un-canon or fanfiction. Changes can include minute details, like the hair color of a certain character, or changing significant plot points, like including the reader as a character. The difference between institutionally made remakes and fanfiction remakes is one of canon- and by extension, true authority. For the Scooby-Doo fandom, Velma has been gay since her salient relationship with Hot Dog Water in Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. Velma has canonically been gay since the release of Trick or Treat Scooby-Doo! in 2022. Like penny dreadfuls, fanfiction is a creative outlet for fans of a specific piece of media to indulge in more of the creative universe developed by the original author. One of the oldest examples is New Adventures of Alice, written by John Rae in 1917 and published by P.F. Volland of Chicago. Creating additional content heavily inspired by the original gives the ‘fan-made imagined community’ more content to enjoy; the authors can practice their creative writing and perhaps earn some additional income. However, fanmade content oversaturation can occur in any fandom, especially in the digital era. Most notably in communities like Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings, Twilight, Percy Jackson, and more. The oversaturation demonstrates that people enjoy reading and writing remakes. However, one cannot ignore their amateur quality to them. Despite grammatical errors being a guaranteed side dish with free content, they rarely distract from the plot. Fans enjoy amateur remakes; however, a level of informality is widely accepted from content produced by individual creators. Yet that informality is not extended to institutionalized media houses. There is a degree of expected professionalism and quality when engaging in content, films, literature, and art developed by well-funded industries. Thus digital-era consumers often avoid content from well-funded media houses that feels like an amateur remake due to the oversaturation of individual creators. Therefore I must pose the question, is the oversaturation of institutional media remakes encouraging consumers to return to original works?
But let’s backtrack, what are these sites that display and publish informal fanmade media creations? The online infrastructure that would house the universe of fandoms was preceded by the Blog emerging during the late 90s through early 2000s. Originally, coding was a necessary skill to start one’s Blog, but sites like LiveJournal, which would later become Blogger, quickly emerged; thus, limited coding knowledge would suffice. Blogging and Microblogging evolved into an institution that netizens could use to discuss their latest interest. Sites that would later popularize in the early 2010s are; Tumblr, a microblogging service released in 2007; Reddit, a public forum site released in 2005; and Twitter, a microblogging site released in 2006. Built in the era where the widespread belief that the internet would be a true democratizing space, Wattpad (a self-publishing platform) emerged. Canadian in origins and released in 2006, this site supported the use of a serial publication format. It encouraged its readers and writers to publish, read, and comment on the stories chapter by chapter. Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale, used the site to publish a serial novel, The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, in collaboration with Naomi Alderman. In an interview with The Guardian, Atwood commented that the site was “Like Dickens during his serial publication of Pickwick, Wattpad writers get feedback from readers, and may shape their stories accordingly”9. Wattpad has functioned as a career launching pad for amateur writers, one being Anna Todd and After, a series rooted in fanfiction based on One Direction star Harry Styles. Sara Tanderup Linkis, in Serialization in Literature Across Media and Markets, discusses the historical legacies of serialized literature and commercial success. “In these cases, digital serialization is a part of a process, which may lead to discovery, commercial success, and final publication in printed book format—just as was the case with the feuilleton novels by Dickens or Dumas.”10. While After is questionable Young Adult literature, The Count of Monte Cristo certainly has chapters that don’t usefully serve the central plotline.
These sites, like Victorian serialized literature, can launch careers and develop culturally memorable stories. Wattpad acts as the abstract child of Victorian serialized literature, penny dreadfuls, and early 2000s blog culture; by extension, historical legacies of serialized formatting can be seen in contemporary internet culture. Matt Kirkland and other “reconfigurers” act as archeological time travelers who collect historical artifacts and re-format them in current digital space. Dracula Daily immerses the reader through this juxtaposition of past artifacts and present spaces by creating an engrossing paradox.
The oversaturation in fanmade media is not necessarily a negative; instead, it demonstrates that the possibilities of creative variation from an original text are endless. It also illustrates how the creation of fan-made content can create a community and, more crucially, a digital space for enjoyers to engage in artifact worship. The term ‘worship’ is taken from theology, and ‘artifact’ is taken from archeology. Fanmade content varies in format, but all are simulacrums of the original artifact. The Dracula Daily hashtag on Tumblr -which currently has 227k followers-fans express their opinions on the novel through images, original art, reformatted memes, and fan fiction. Each day, as nearly 200,000 readers receive the Dracula Daily newsletter, the content in the hashtag expands throughout the day. Like priests and scholarly monks, Tumblr users type out hot takes, quick comments, or long academic prose on the novel as the plot progresses. User @wanna-b-poet31 writes:
“I think it’s fascinating that the original horror of Dracula is kinda lost on us because our cultural well has been poisoned. I don’t know any 6-year olds who can’t tell you vampires are EVIL or ar unfamiliar with the name Dracula. Reading the first chapter and seeing Johnathan, our beloved, think about asking his new friend COUNT DRACULA for help is comedic! Of course he’s walking into danger. We’re genre aware.”11
While academic opinions and arguments are being fiercely debated, the role of a genre-aware audience in the reception of the novel is expanded upon. User @nostalgicbones writes, “honestly at this point jonathan’s entries feel like he’s calling us from the sleepover like 🙁 i’m not having a good time 🙁 and we’re all like oh my god baby i’m so sorry i’m on my way to pick you up from the scary haunted house right now”12. User @luxurystark-jackson writes, “tumblr when mina enters the story: OUR fiancée”13. Similarly, users are adopting parasocial relationships with fictional characters with influences, musicians, actors, and other celebrities. Given the history of the fandom, this is not a new phenomenon; instead, it is standard fandom practice. Idol worship always accompanies artifact worship, the virtue and morality of the characters are judged like the Vatican City would debate a new saint. User @aalkuipers writes, “The more I read, the madder I get at all the adaptations that choose predatory “romance” over the sheer horror of Dracula taking the time to explain to Mina that he plans to first sic her on all her loved ones and then condemn her to eternal servitude…” 14. They also comment on Mina’s short-hand skill and state that canonically, this character wrote most of the book and saved the only copy due to her extra precautions. The authors note the stylistic differences in Van Helsing’s dialogue with Jonathan Hacker and those with Mina. User @mari-okay writes,
“No one does it quite like Jonathan Hacker: gets fancy white hair from trauma, swears to damn his soul to be with the woman he loves and, as soon as he sees his past tormentor, he immediately goes for the kill, as if his opponenet wasnt a dangerously powerful vampire. He really upgraded his goth game, I can see why he is Mina’s husband.”15
While one could argue that all fandoms participate in a degree of artifact and idol worship, this practice of engaging in idol and artifact worship gives users community. User @ceciliaspen writes, “What are we gonna do in November when Dracula daily ends huh? What’re we gonna do about our little book club” 16 Already, users are preemptively mourning the loss of community. This online book club will end this November; however, the re-popularization of literary classics through newsletter serialization demonstrated that contemporary audiences could actively engage in literature. Like the Victorian youth reading Dickens or Dumas for the first time, contemporary internet youth can engage in the original classics, albeit with a different cultural lens, yet, with the same excitement.
The creator of the newsletter, Matt Kirkland, will repeat Dracula Daily in 2023 17; he’s also aware of other serialized literature newsletters that have emerged. “I’ve loved seeing other literary Substacks popping up, and I’m subscribed to a bunch of them. The sincerest form of flattery!”18 Serial media is a contemporary staple that has been reformatted to make classical literature more accessible to modern audiences. The benefit of copyright expirations and newsletter creators taking advantage of classic literature that is officially in the public domain, more people now have access to classic literature and the online communities they produce. Linkis states, “While serial narratives have been present in literary culture for centuries, new media and tendencies in the book market will, most likely, only make the format more central for storytelling in the future.”19 Serial literature- and content- will remain in our social media fabric, and the communities that grow around literature artifacts will continue to reproduce.
Serialized content is an ever present practice that existed before Dickens and will continue to exist even after the technological era. Victorian serialized literature, penny dreadfuls, Blog culture, and self-publishing platforms like Wattpad offer suitable infrastructure for online imagined communities surrounding media artifacts. The Dracula Daily newsletter has primarily been successful due to the historical legacies of serialized literature and the culture of internet fan engagement through fanmade content. Currently, in the media sphere, there is an over saturation of remakes; by returning to the original material, users can criticize the “Dracula-verse” in media and offer a different lens on the text. The re-emergence of serialized classical literature during the pandemic coincides with the yearning for a community experienced by the public. Dracula Daily provided people with a community over a gothic romantic novel. During the most isolating times, people could bond over this particular horror novel’s comedies, silliness, and ironies while true horror in the real world was happening. Dracula Daily, like plenty of literature, movies, albums, and media, provided people with an outlet and community when it was needed the most. Thus, when it is impossible to connect in real life and the digital space, which can often feel so isolating, readers are slowing down their pace to read and share the story with one another.
- Baker-Whitelaw, Gavia. “Dracula Daily’s Creator Matt Kirkland Is Just as Surprised about the Newsletter’s Viral Success.” The Daily Dot, 18 May 2022, https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/dracula-daily-interview-matt-kirkland/.
- Law, Graham. Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press. Palgrave, 2001. 3.
- Law, Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press, 7.
- Law, Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press, 21.
- Law, Serializing Fiction in the Victorian Press, 21.
- Warner, Kara. “’Twilight,’ ’50 Shades of Grey’ and the Fanfic Phenomenon.” MTV, 2012, https://www.mtv.com/news/bohf67/twilight-50-shades-of-grey-fan-fiction.
- Turner, E. S. Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, Et Al. Faber, 2012. 15-16.
- Turner, Boys Will Be Boys: The Story of Sweeney Todd, Deadwood Dick, Sexton Blake, Billy Bunter, Dick Barton, Et Al. 259.
- Margaret Atwood, “Why Wattpad Works,” The Guardian, July 6, 2012, www. theguardian.com/books/2012/jul/06/margaret-Atwood-wattpad-online-writing.
- Linkis, Sara Tanderup. Serialization in Literature Across Media and Markets. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2022. 100.
- Wanna-b-poet31. Tumblr, 2022. Accessed 2022.
- Nostalgicbones. Tumblr, 2022. Accessed 2022.
- Luxurystark-jackson. Tumblr, 2022. Accessed 2022.
- Aalkuipers. Tumblr, 2022. Accessed 2022.
- Mari-okay. Tumblr, 2022. Accessed 2022.
- Ceciliaspen. Tumblr, 2022. Accessed 2022.
- Connors, Madeleine. “How Bram Stoker’s Dracula Became ‘Dracula Daily,’ and an Internet Sensation.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 5 Oct. 2022.
- On Substack. “What to Read: A Treasure Trove of Serialized Classics.” What to Read: A Treasure Trove of Serialized Classics, On Substack, 10 June 2022.
- Linkis, Serialization in Literature Across Media and Markets, 110-111.