Young people now in college grew up reading J. K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter novels as they came out and seeing the eight film adaptations that only came to a conclusion recently. This has formed a generation of readers and viewers with an appetite for large, complex narratives. They do not quail at the sight of big, long novels, and they like the promise that there will be something more coming after they have finished the volume they have in their hands. Yet if they turn to serial fiction for more of what they experienced while reading Harry Potter, they do not always find what they seek. Even though series fiction—from the countless trilogies to the many long series—can be seen as a dominant form of the twentieth century English novel, it doesn’t always obey the same formal logic or deliver the same kind of reading experiences that kept the Harry Potter readers hooked throughout their grade school, middle school, and high school years.
Series novels do not all conform to the logic of a single complicated narrative delivered over time in a set number of parts. Some terrific series for young readers and for adults go on as long as their authors can stand to write them. Probably only his death in 2011 ended Brian Jacques’s writing of his beloved Redwall novels. Having created a fictional universe that opened with Redwall in 1986, Jacques went on writing and publishing extensions of a potentially infinite serial, moving back in time and across species and locales, all the way through the posthumously published The Rogue Crew (2011). Similarly, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels (2011) create a flexible fictional world that accommodates subseries and works for adults and younger readers without diminishing the overall experience for readers. These writers of series novels may be discovering new things about their own fictional worlds as they go along. A writer such as J. K. Rowling belongs to a different fraternity from the Extenders and Expanders: she is a Symbolic Schemer and Plot Planner.
Like J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, written as a serial in installments, divided into novella-length books, and published in three volumes, Rowling’s Harry Potter books also tell one unified story. She introduces minor details early on that turn out to be of vital importance in later volumes. Think of her deployment of information about Squibs, just to take a small example. The role of Mrs Figgs as a guardian in the non-magical world in book 5 augments what we already know about Argus Filch from the earlier volumes and prepares us for the tragic backstory of Dumbledore’s youth, though his sister Ariana is only rumored to be a Squib, since the magical gossips need a reason for her concealment. Re-readers of the whole sequence will have other examples. The large-scale symbolism works best when regarded as part of a large pattern, with key repetitions and climaxes.
Suzanne Keen, Thomas Broadus Professor of English at Washington and Lee University, is author of chapter 45, “The Series Novel: a Dominant Form” in The Cambridge History of the English Novel. Ed. Robert Caserio and Clement Hawes. Cambridge University Press, 2012. 724-39. She teaches Harry Potter in her First-Year Writing Seminar, Schools of Magic.