The New York Review of Magazines

Then: Dickens and Dostoevsky; Now: People and Us Weekly

By Zachary Sniderman

What do the novels of Fyodor Dostoevsky, Charles Dickens and Henry James — serialized in such class periodicals as The Russian Messenger, All the Year Round and The Atlantic Monthly — have in common with People, Us Weekly, Star and the other celebrity gossip weeklies stereotypically associated with exploitation and junk journalism? The answer: a shared literary genre. It turns out that from their pithy opening sentences to their human dramas (and their gripping cliffhanger endings), whether they know it or not, today’s gossip weeklies have borrowed an incredibly successful formula — the one that kept readers returning week after week — pioneered by illustrious literary predecessors.

On the surface, contemporary gossip weeklies appear to be simply reporting celebrity news. (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt shared a romantic dinner for two!) But beneath the surface, it is not merely the story of a date-night dinner. It is the latest installment in the long-running suspense story of “Brangelina,” complete with all the tricks of a more-than one hundred-year-old trade.

Serialization hit its apex in the 19th century, drawing in writers as different as Dostoevsky, Dickens, James, Gustave Flaubert and Leo Tolstoy, to name but a few. Individual chapters or installments were printed regularly in well-respected periodicals until the story was finished. But the stories that appeared were not arbitrarily carved out of finished novels. Serial authors wrote a new chapter every month or week, updating the story as it developed, adding details that would keep readers hooked. The longer a story ran, the better, since authors were paid each time they were published. This is partly why Dickens’ novels are so long: More chapters equaled more cash. Serialization is still wildly profitable. People raked in more than $900 million in 2009, according to Magazine Publishers of America. Us Weekly and Star were not far behind.

Although there was no single formula for writing a successful serialized novel — and the great writers certainly took their liberties — there were basic themes, character types, plot twists and, of course, the golden rule of serialization: Always, always end on a cliffhanger. Will Oliver Twist escape London’s gutters? Will the brothers Karamazov actually kill their father? These were the cliffhangers that kept readers reading.

Take Dickens’ Great Expectations, a novel about country boy Pip’s aspirations to make it as a gentleman and woo his beautiful, albeit frosty, love, Estella.

Chapter 1-3 – A dangerous mystery envelops the hero: Pip, a poor boy, meets an escaped convict who threatens his life and demands Pip help him.
Chapter 11 – The mystery deepens, a tragic flaw is revealed: Pip steals food for the convict. The police arrive at Pip’s home. Pip is overly trusting and naïve of the world. He blindly loves rich girl Estella.
Chapter 15 – A friend is betrayed; the problems worsen: Pip’s sister is viciously attacked, becoming an invalid. It’s believed Orlick, Pip’s peer and fellow apprentice, is responsible.
Chapter 18 – A truth is revealed, changing the hero: Pip receives a large sum of money from an unknown benefactor. Pip travels to London to become a gentleman.
Chapter 22-26 – A tragic flaw leads to ruin. A hero haunted by transgressions of family: Pip misbehaves in London’s high-life out of naïveté and jealousy for Estella.
Chapter 34 – Tragedy in the family: Pip’s sister dies.
Chapter 38 – A love rejected: Estella is courted by another man; Pip is heartbroken.
Chapter 39-55 – A fall from grace; the hero is destitute: The convict was Pip’s benefactor! They meet but the convict is arrested and sentenced to death. His immense wealth reverts to the state and Pip loses everything.
Chapter 57 – At his lowest, the hero finds support from those he wronged: Pip, now penniless, falls ill and is tended to by his poor family whom he had forgotten.
Chapter 58 – The hard road to reclaiming respect: Pip attends a humble wedding ceremony, showing newfound respect.
Chapter 59 – Seclusion gives rise to new ambition; the hero must prove himself alone: Pip goes into business with an old friend. He spends 11 years gaining moderate wealth.
Chapter 59 – A hero does not meet Herculean expectations: Pip returns home to find Estella divorced and with children. They resolve to be friends, but perhaps now they can finally be together?

Now take Tiger Woods, the story of a premier athlete’s salacious fall and his fight to reclaim his beloved family and beautiful, albeit distant, wife Elin Nordegren. Below is a week-by-week turn of events from the Tiger Woods story, according to’s hooks, headlines and cliffhangers.

Prologue – Success and happiness for our hero: Tiger Woods, golf mega star, is happily married and on a lengthy winning streak.
Week 1 – A dangerous mystery envelops the hero: Tiger crashes his car and questions swirl around how he got his injuries. “In the background of [a 911] call, a woman is heard screaming, ‘What happened?’ The caller responds, ‘We don’t know what happened. We’re trying to figure that out right now.’”
Week 2 – The mystery deepens, a tragic flaw is revealed: A cocktail waitress claims Tiger had an affair with her; he withdraws from a tournament due to injuries. “‘Hey, it’s Tiger. I need you to do me a huge favor,’ Woods allegedly said in one voicemail. ‘Can you please take your name off your phone…’ Woods is facing scrutiny over a rumored affair with a New York club hostess in the wake of his one-car accident in Florida last week.”
Week 3 – A friend is betrayed; the problems worsen for our hero: Tiger’s friend says he regrets introducing him to now-wife Elin and more women claim they had affairs with Tiger. “Alleged Tiger Mistress Angry About His Other Women.”
Week 4 – A terrible truth is revealed, changing the hero: Tiger admits infidelity and puts his golf career on hold. “Woods, 33, previously apologized for unspecified ‘sins’ and ‘transgressions.’ A string of women have now come forward claiming to have had affairs with him.”
Week 5 – A tragic flaw leads to ruin. Our hero is haunted by familial transgressions: Tiger loses his first sponsor, Accenture, because of his tarnished image. Perhaps his father’s infidelity is to blame for Tiger’s faults? “Report: Dad’s Cheating Ways Tortured Tiger.”
Week 6 – A love rejected: Elin plans to split from Tiger; she is spending Christmas in Sweden without her husband. “On Thursday, workers began moving large items … out of the couple’s home in Windermere, Fla., and Nordegren was seen giving them instructions, according to the New York Post.”
Week 7 – A fall from grace. The hero is destitute: Tiger’s mother is angry and disappointed in her son. Tiger drops out of the public eye, and loses another sponsor: AT&T. “Where In The World Is Tiger Woods?”
Week 8 – At his lowest, the hero finds support from those he wronged: Tiger appears on the cover of Vanity Fair, Elin will stay with her husband but keeps her distance; Elin’s attention is on her kids. “Tiger Woods’s Wife Focusing On Kids.”
Week 9 – The hard road to reclaiming public respect: Tiger loses free cars from General Motors, which he endorsed until 2008, and rumors spread that he has checked into sex rehab. “Buzz: Is Tiger In Mississippi Sex Rehab?”
Week 10 – A shamed hero makes amends: Tiger plans a press conference to publicly apologize; Elin will stay with her man, for now. “Can Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren Save Their Marriage?” “Inside His Struggle.”
Week 11 – Seclusion gives rise to new ambition: Tiger returns to sex therapy and announces plans to eventually return to golf. Gatorade drops Tiger as a sponsor. “‘[People] go to work 8 to 5 and go home to have a life with the family. Tiger can’t do that,’ [his mother] said, also noting that his return to Buddhism ‘will make him a much better person.’”
Week 12 – A shattered family begins to mend: Tiger is home from rehab, but will Elin stay? “Was It Enough?” A three-page spread on whether his public apology to his family, friends and fans was enough to win her back. “‘Tiger still has a long way to go, and Elin knows that,’ says her friend. ‘She will stay around to see what happens in terms of public support and endorsements. But if it weren’t for the kids and for their future, she’d already be long gone.’”
Week 13 – A momentous event to determine the hero’s future: Tiger announces he will play at The Masters tournament — a prestigious contest he has won four times. “It’s Official: Tiger Woods Announces Return To Golf.”
Week 14 – The hero must prove himself: Elin will skip the tournament, just as she skipped his past press conferences. “Source: Elin Nordegren Doesn’t Want To Attend The Masters.”
Week 15 – A hero does not meet Herculean expectations: Tiger finishes with a respectable but personally disappointing fourth-place in The Masters tournament.

People’s March 1 cover states: “Elin’s Painful Choice: New Scandal, New Details… Tiger’s wife weighs the ultimate question: keep him or dump him?” The actual article starts with Elin dolling herself up the day before Valentine’s Day as Tiger lives alone in rehab. The peace between the two is fragile, friends say, even as Tiger’s mistresses continue to make news. He has forsaken his own friends to make a new start. Elin, a child of divorce herself, is protecting her children from the same fate. The story’s last section returns to the cliffhanger: “The big question Elin has to figure out: Is Tiger genuinely remorseful or just trying to clean up his image? … “It is up to her to see if she can believe in him again.”

It is a story of love, fame and betrayal. One of the world’s greatest athletes is heartsick as his wife contemplates whether they can ever have a future again. Written by… a team of journalists based in Orlando and New York.

Of course, gossip weeklies don’t just write about Tiger Woods; each set of celebrity dramas contains a unique storyline. Take Brangelina, for example. There’s no real news peg if they went on a romantic dinner — so why is it splashed on the covers? Years of updates on their courtship, marriage and day-to-day life have conditioned readers to care. Cliffhangers like “Will they stay together?” are answered next issue when we learn Brad bought Angelina’s meal. Some development of the story appears each week: New details are added, new photos are taken and new insights are provided. Each week is a new installment.

The heroes of modern day serial novels, like Brangelina and Tiger Woods, fall victim to the same high human dramas that characterize classic literature. Hero with a tragic flaw? Jake Pavelka, the star of the latest season of ABC’s popular reality show The Bachelor, seemed perfect in every way, but “mistakenly” chose Vienna to be his wife. Us Weekly claimed: “Jake’s Mistake — as Vienna lies to Jake about a boyfriend, [previous contestant] Ali gets her sweet revenge.” Rags to riches? Find any story about Taylor Swift or Justin Bieber, two teens that have had astronomically rapid rises to fame. Unattainable romantic interests? The desire for a will-they-won’t-they relationship is satisfied by Twilight lead stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart. “I wish them all the happiness in the world,” said Rob’s aunt in Star. “I know for sure it’s a true love match!”

But are gossip weeklies really serialized novels? Is Tiger Woods really a modern-day Great Expectations? Do the gossip magazines even mean to ape an entire genre? Doesn’t intent matter? And if all of this is true, do those magazines now qualify as high art or are they still just exploitation? All this and more to be answered next issue….

One Response to “Then: Dickens and Dostoevsky; Now: People and Us Weekly

  1. John Pfordresher says:

    There is one seriously misleading remark in this otherwise amusing article. Charles Dickens agreed in advance over the exact length of each of his novels. He didn’t add on serial parts in order to get more money. His later novels are indeed very carefully planned ahead so that the intertwined multiple story lines exactly finished at the end of the twentieth part. The abundance of his novels is the consequence of genius, not greed.

Leave a Reply