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Sterne, the Moderns, and the Novel$
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Thomas Keymer

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780199245925

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: January 2010

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199245925.001.0001

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The Practice and Poetics of Serial Fiction

The Practice and Poetics of Serial Fiction

(p.85) 3 The Practice and Poetics of Serial Fiction
Sterne, the Moderns, and the Novel

Thomas Keymer

Oxford University Press

No less significant than Sterne's experiments with the material resources of print technology were his use of, and play on, a commercial innovation that had been fuelling book-trade expansion since the 1730s: serial publication. The protracted and erratic accumulation of Tristram Shandy's original volumes, and the protracted and interrupted experience of its original readers, have major interpretative implications. Through the mechanism of serialization, Sterne engineered something we need to view more as an unstable process than as a static product, and one that renders open and active many of the themes that dominate modern interpretations: the resistance of memory and ongoing experience to textual capture; the human consciousness of time, and the manipulation of time in narrative; the prolonged drama of digressive writing and progressive disease in which Tristram fails to record his life in the past while watching it waste in the present. In this context it becomes possible to see Tristram Shandy not as a parody of 19th-century realism, as Viktor Shklovsky famously suggests, but as a parody of Victorian serial fiction, and of the organizational, temporal, and commercial dilemmas in which it entangled its exponents. The point is epitomized by the experience of George Eliot during the writing of Middlemarch, when she looked incongruously back to Tristram Shandy for an ideal of creative autonomy that eluded her in practice.

Keywords:   serial publication, serialization, memory, time, George Eliot, Middlemarch, Viktor Shklovsky

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