Lately, Marc Smirnoff's mailbox has been full of the kind of mail editors like to read. On Monday, for example, Mr. Smirnoff opened a letter from Stephen King praising the coup in his magazine's latest issue: a John Grisham novel published in installments.
"The response has been incredible," says Smirnoff, editor of Oxford American, a Southern literary magazine, which is also published by Mr. Grisham. The bimonthly installments of Grisham's auto- biographical "A Painted House" (set in the 1950s and free of lawyers) began with the Jan./Feb. 2000 issue and will continue all year.
A regular feature in Dickens's day, serials are relatively absent from modern newsstands - or so it seemed before this month. In addition to Oxford American, Time magazine's Feb. 21 issue includes the second part of a futuristic novella by Caleb Carr, writer of historical thrillers like "The Alienist" and "The Angel of Darkness."
Time's deputy managing editor James Kelly says they weren't waxing nostalgic when they chose to run the fiction in their five-part series examining life in the future.
"We thought it was cool using a 19th-century conceit to write about the 21st century," he says.
That the serial is seeping back into literary life is evident in other ways as well. Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" was serialized in Rolling Stone in the 1980s, and some writers, like Mr. King, are publishing novels in installments available at Wal-Mart (that's how readers were introduced to "The Green Mile," for example). And the Internet is giving writers the freedom to publish books first in parts on Web sites.
"I think newspapers, too, are missing a good opportunity," says Michael Lund, a professor of English at Longwood College in Farmville, Va. The Washington Post and The Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia are both currently running serials for children, he says, promoting regular interaction with a paper - an approach that could carry over to adults.
Publications regularly run non-fiction in parts, but the modern view of fiction is that it has to be published as a whole. "It's time to break that," says Mr. Lund, author of "America's Continuing Story: An Introduction to Serial Fiction, 1850-1900" (Wayne State University Press).
Lund would like to see a return to the form as a way to legitimize teaching undergraduates fiction in parts -an approach he's had success with. He points out that the works of many serious writers were published in installments: Tolstoy, Twain, James, Wharton, Hemingway.
At Time, the editors decided upon Mr. Carr after making a list of literary agents and calling one who was Carr's and recommended him for the job.
The author was enthusiastic and is filing each installment on deadline -a practice from the past that Mr. Kelly calls "a little bit of a high-wire act." The news weekly has published fiction before, he says, but as for the serial form, "I don't anticipate doing it again."
Smirnoff is still weighing whether Oxford American will continue to do serial fiction after the Grisham story is finished. The idea to do it came from the author and is a special situation.
"It's not about a trend," he says, "but whether it works or doesn't work for us."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society