2011-08-16 Spending Time With Books

I sometimes think that every type of media has its own way of telling a story. If you watch a movie, sometimes good movies have snappy dialog, visual splendor and a soundtrack. Books, on the other hand, have a vast array of characters, multiple parallel plot lines, a lot of details. When taking a story first published as a book and turning it into a movie, one needs to pay attention to these media preferences.

As readers, we learn to experience stories in particular ways, depending on context. I expect snappy dialog in movies. If it doesn’t deliver, I’ll note.

When it comes to Fantasy books, it seems to me that the books written have changed and our expectations have similarly changed. The Conan stories by Robert E. Howard  were just short stories. Other people started to write novels. Successful novels got follow-up novels and got turned into a series. As a kid, I loved the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey and the Darkover books by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Every book was a self-contained story. Every story shared its world with all the other stories in the series.

As I grew older, expectations changed.

I wanted a lot of value for my money and that meant that I wanted thick books. I loved books with five hundred pages and more. I loved to read more about the people and places I loved.

The market went farther than that, however. Authors started telling epic sagas that required trilogies to tell. These trilogies got extended by appending another trilogy. I’m thinking of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, for example. Sometimes, I didn’t understand how trilogy after trilogy got added after the first. Hello, David Eddings.

What had happened? Authors no longer tried to tell the story of a single protagonist. I’m not sure where this all started. Was it The Lord of the Rings? It was published as a trilogy. It featured multiple protagonists. Their respective story lines diverged. The rest of the story was told using interleaved chunks.

I loved J.R.R. Tolkien but I did not get into David Eddings. I started to read less. I just could not keep up. The turning point was reached when Robert Jordan wrote The Wheel of Time. At first, I hated it. It seemed like such a cheap Tolkien rip-off. Then I started to like it. But when I reached book six I realized that there was another problem. The author just wanted to tell too many damn stories, all at the same time. He introduced more people, more plots, more stories, and in order to tell them, he started to interleave the shrinking segments more and more until I felt that the story had hardly progressed over a thousand pages.

And then he died. Ever since Robert Jordan’s death, the phrase “pulling a Robert Jordan” has turned into a short hand for a series that just keeps on growing and one has to fear that the author won’t live long enough to tell the entire story.

I have started to notice the same ennui with A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. I think I stopped around book three. There just wasn’t any progress because too many stories were being told at the same time.

Recently I discussed this with some friends after we had begun talking about A Song of Ice and Fire RPG campaign and the latest book in the series, telenovelas and TV series like Lost and Six Feet Under.

It seemed to me that my expectations had fallen out of sync with what authors were publishing. I still expected stories to be self-contained. I was expecting a climax and closure.

The market, however had moved on. It seems to me that many successful authors now expect to keep adding to their corpus for as long as they live. Instead of reading a short story, a book, a trilogy, or a ten volumes series, readers are now expected to keep on sharing a part of their reading life with the living and breathing world of their favorite author.

In a way, I don’t mind. Perhaps the same thing is true with Arthurian romance. There’s the story of the love triangle, the grail and Merlin. But if you want to, you can add Tristram and Isolde. You can add Parcival. You can focus on Morgaine Le Fay. The older versions of King Arthur’s story is in the public domain and therefore anybody can add to the whole. People can rewrite, retell, edit, merge or highlight aspects of the whole. If you are interested, you can spend a part of your life with Arthurian romance.

I am a traditionalist in many things and I find this sort of explanation soothing. Spending a part of your life with an ever growing tree of related stories is not new after all.

Comics work the same way. You can spend a part of your life with Superman or Batman. A gazillion stories are told about the various protagonists. Sometimes authors change, sometimes there is a reboot (2011 DC Universe reboot). It’s all good (unless you are talking to nerds).

Perhaps I just have these two problems:

  1. I wasn’t expecting this to happen to Fantasy books. I didn’t expect George R.R. Martin and Steve Erickson to keep on writing until I fear they’ll pull a Robert Jordan on me.
  2. The book is no longer a useful reading unit. These are not stories that stand on their own. These are collections of story fragments.

I cannot help but wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire would be more palatable if I could just read the various plots in separate books.

Sure, the main events of the story will be revealed in the first book, but it seems that spoilers don't reduce the reader's enjoyment of a book.

Wow, this post wasn’t short at all.

I wanted to add a final, role-playing related thought: I’m suspecting that there is a similar divide in expectations when it comes to typical campaigns. In one of my games the characters can have followers (Entourage Approach). These followers can earn experience as the older characters turn into NPCs (or die), players continue playing the followers. Thus, barring a {TPK total party kill}, the campaign can go on forever. My wife told me so: “I could keep playing in this campaign forever!”

It wouldn’t make a good book with a climax and closure, but it obviously is a good way to spend a part of your life with an ever growing tree of related stories.

Further reading:



You are not far from my Two Rules of Fantasy:

  1. I do not read unfinished series.
  2. I do not read series longer than three books.

Mostly this was caused by the Wheel of Time. Of course, I have broken the rule twice recently, for A Song of Ice and Fire (which still intrigues me) and The Kingkiller Chronicle (which is supposedly going to be a trilogy).

Adrian 2011-08-17 03:46 UTC

Hm, what do you think of the other idea: perhaps you’re missing out if you don’t accept the new style of perpetual series. You read a few books of a particular series and if you like it, you keep buying it until either you or the author die.

Eventually this will reach a point where an awesome author will write his masterpiece in his twenties and he’ll keep publishing an awesome book every two years until his eighties. You’ll age as the author ages, as the protagonists age, and it’ll just be a part of your life. And if you have kids, they’ll be unable to catch up. Reading the entire series will turn out to be impossible unless you started reading. For a while it seemed that Harry Potter would be going this way.

It reminds me of Perry Rhodan. A German weekly science fiction series of fifty page pulp novellas published continuously for over forty years. Forty years, 52 weeks, fifty pagesâ... Catching up is hard. People just pop in and leave again as the years pass.

AlexSchroeder 2011-08-17 09:52 UTC

I suppose massive series can be good, and in all honesty I read all four David Eddings series (two were trilogies, two were five or so books), at least seven books in the Wheel of Time, and I have the fifth book of ASoIaF waiting on my Kindle. But I harken back to my grade school English classes and discussions of plot. A narrative has an intro, a rising action, some sort of climax or turning point, a falling action, and a denouement. The same thing is true for series, I think, if you consider them simply a book that was too long to fit (physically) into one book. You can’t continue to pull the reader along towards a climax without actually having one. It just becomes a drag – again, the Wheel of Time is a great example of this. I thought the end of Book 6 was the climax or turning point of the series, and ended up we were nowhere near a resolution.

The second thing I always remind myself is that authors have created truly monumental works of science fiction or fantasy literature in the past, and have done so within the confines of a single novel, or perhaps three novels. The Lord of the Rings, the Foundation trilogy, Dune...these were all epic in scope and yet did not require encyclopedia-length series. The Guy Gavriel Kay novels you introduced me too are also good examples.

My last thought just occurred to me. I know for reasons of economics that this is impractical...but with e-books, you can start to think about novels that would otherwise be too large (physically) to publish. In reality, I imagine that there are more pressing reasons why publishing houses do not want to put out 2,000-page tomes. But imagine if an entire series came out at once?

Adrian 2011-08-17 12:57 UTC

I remember reading that JRR Tolkien insisted the Lord of the Rings was “one book in three volumes”. It was just too physically big to put in one set of covers.

However, I agree with your general thrust here, that many series are getting too big to readily manage. I’ve started Malazan (Erikson) and it’s a lot of reading; Jordan and Martin are the same. I like stories with clear direction and closure.

Incidentally, there is a similar effect in anime. Some of the most popular series go one for literally hundreds of episodes and they might never end. The best series though, in my opinion, are generally the short ones – often about 13 or 26 episodes tops (one or two seasons of weekly episodes) – for exactly the same reason you describe. The story starts, has a middle, a climax, and a denouement. done.

Keith Davies 2011-08-17 15:27 UTC

This is a really great post, thanks! I’m not sure how I feel about the question of extended trilogies and ultra-long series. On the one hand if the author really has that much interesting stuff to say about their world and the characters that live in it, then ok, I can see it. But if the rational is more along the lines of the publisher saying the first book was successful, so keep adding to it because people will keep buying anything that has ’success’ tagged onto it, the way Hollywood does with movies, then I’m inclined to believe that after a while I’ll be dissatisfied with the results. The real questions is - is the author motivated by some Great Idea, or by money? In the former case, wow, awesome, cool, and great! In the latter case, I’m going to wind up saying ho-hum, whatever, and eventually, leave me alone already. I’m a curmudgeon that way.

As for RPG Campaigns I have a similar feeling. If the GM has truly great concepts I’ll keep coming back for me. But if the ideas grow stale, and the campaign is just going on and on without end because there is just no distinct stopping point, then after some time I will begin to lose interest.

I think it is simply the case that some people are brilliant, and come up with brilliant worlds that are worth investing the time to get to know, even if that happens to be years. Other people are really not that brilliant, or have a limited amount of brilliance to share. In those cases I prefer to get a short story, or a limited scope campaign. Hopefully authors and GMs are self aware enough to distinguish where they are at, and will provide material that is suitable to their capacity. I probably sound kind of harsh, but I think it’s better to be honest and provide feedback that will give authors and GMs a nugget of self-reflection on this topic. If you have brilliant concepts then by all means, lay them out for the public to experience. But if the motive is “my publisher wants me to keep writing xyz because the first one was successful and so I said, ok”, or “my players haven’t complained about this going on forever so I’ll keep going on even though I can’t really think of any good new material” then I respectfully suggest you maintain artistic integrity, and say no. Start something new, get fresh ideas, and prosper. I hope I don’t offend anyone with my comment.

vbwyrde 2011-08-17 18:43 UTC

I think it’s mainly bad writing and editing... and one of the reasons why I can’t read fantasy books anymore. Song of Ice and Fire was the exeption of the last 10 years, but after book 3 (book 6 in German), it definitively goes down the drain. GRR Martin gets totally lost in his world and the plot doesn’t move one inch over hundreds of pages. So I guess I am finished with the genre.

– Peter 2011-08-18 04:20 UTC

You cannot but feel like this with the Song of Ice and Fire, IIRC the Daenerys story still has 0 connection with the other stories at the end of the 3rd book after 3000 pages, it’s the kind of stories that are normally published after the success of the main series and labelled “in the same universe” or something like that. Martin forces you to read this at the same time, as if the other stories were unfolding too quickly....and it only seems to get worse.

– PierreGaston 2011-08-21 08:06 UTC

Please make sure you contribute only your own work, or work licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Note: in order to facilitate peer review and fight vandalism, we will store your IP number for a number of days. See Privacy Policy for more information. See Info for text formatting rules. You can edit the comment page if you need to fix typos. You can subscribe to new comments by email without leaving a comment.

To save this page you must answer this question:

Please say HELLO.