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date: 26 April 2017

Serialization in Australasia

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. Please check back later for the full article.

The serial issue of literature became steadily less prevalent and influential as Australia and New Zealand gradually emerged as independent nation-states over the earlier decades of the 20th century. It was during the colonial era itself, with the local book industry still in its infancy, that periodical publishers assumed a crucial role in the distribution of cultural material and the formation of cultural identity. Trends already apparent in the metropolitan print market in the later 19th century are thus found in even more marked form at the Australasian periphery. Though prose fiction was by no means the only literary genre to be issued in installments, novels and short stories dominated to an overwhelming extent. And, while monthly literary magazines had a significant qualitative role to pay, general weekly newspapers (or, more accurately, news miscellanies) were quantitatively much the more important venue in terms of both supply and readership. It is necessary to distinguish three major sources of provision, each constrained by distinct business practices and intellectual property regimes: a) metropolitan fiction, increasingly supplied by British syndication bureaus like Tillotson’s of Bolton, and distributed in broadcast fashion by local agents such as Gordon & Gotch in Melbourne, with Wilkie Collins and Mary Braddon notable among the perennially popular London authors; b) colonial fiction of local color by local authors, sometimes writing under a local pseudonym (such as “Australie” or “Citizen of Dunedin”), often for little remuneration, and typically flagged by phrases such as “specially written” for the local press; and c) other peripheral fiction, including from the British provinces, from other British colonies, and, last but not least because of the lack of international copyright protection, from America (with New York story papers such as Robert Bonner’s Ledger or Street & Smith’s Weekly as common sources).

All three types represented important influences in the process of negotiation of community affiliation during the lengthy transition from colony to nation, but, though the first was undoubtedly most pervasive, in literary terms, the second was much the most valuable. To sum up in the words of Clara Cheeseman (1852–1943), a New Zealand serial novelist of the final decades of the 19th century, whose fiction was exceptional in finding an outlet among the London publishers: “It is to the old newspapers that we must go if we want to see the beginning of colonial fiction … there are in the dusty files of these [the Australasian and the Sydney Mail] and other journals many stories of colonial life which have never struggled out of the papers into book form” (from the article “Colonials in Fiction,” in the 1903 New Zealand Illustrated Magazine). As recent research in this field attests, with the long-term commitment of both governments to making their press heritages digitally accessible, most notably in the form of the Trove and Papers Past websites of the National Libraries of Australia and New Zealand, respectively, this task has now become a good deal less formidable.