Monday, February 3, 2014

Some thoughts about the "Big Book Syndrome"

One of the joys of the reading and writing life is the catalog of 
great reads and experiences one assembles. We have all taken turns 
gushing about our favorites, spreading the word about great tales that 
others might have missed. I know I've expanded my reading list over 
these last few years, acting on the suggestions of my fellow authors 
and friends I've encountered at cons and on-line.  I'm happy to report 
that almost all of those suggestions have proven memorable--with a few 
exceptions.


The blog post last week got me thinking about the industry, again, and 
our ongoing crusade to push small press houses and the important 
responsibility they shoulder in safeguarding the essence of story.  
While it may be sour grapes to some, I suspect there are growing 
numbers of us who seriously question the divide developing between the 
big house publishers and the small presses. When I look at what 
dominates the shelves, I have to confess I get a little chippy.  I see 
way, way too much sameness in title, cover design, presentation and 
content. Additionally, I see a proliferation of the "big" book. I've 
written before about series that seem to go on too long and outlast 
the vitality of the initial story. In my mind those tales and their 
writers have fallen prey to sales over substance. They became cash 
cows that bred marketing campaigns rather than deepening the well of 
artistic expression within the genre.


Sometimes I wonder if the slams against our genre aren't warranted by 
such mismanagement of intent.


I mentioned "big book" above, and that is the core of my concern 
today. In short, I think the big houses currently are too in love with 
the big, sprawling tome. Now, I like the big book experience. I love 
tearing through pages, enjoying the story, and thumbing the mass, 
taking solace that there are still 200 pages left, wow!  I think you 
know what I mean. There are stories that take us on a journey where we 
read like mawkish tourists taking photos of every vista, fountain, 
rocky outcropping or cute local kid dressed in native costume. Those 
stories exist, but my contention is that too many try for that effect 
and fail because they just aren't good enough. Even when I use the 
term but author A gets away with it well enough, suggests a falling 
off.  There shouldn't be any falling off.  I think such an effect is a 
tragedy for the idea of story and renders the genre subject to 
parody. Has anyone taken a glimpse at IFCs The Spoils of Babylon? 
Yes. That. I think those books get too much attention just for being 
big.


I think we do a disservice when we stretch a single volume beyond the 
organic limits of the story;  we risk repeating ourselves or risk 
injecting cliché and overused tropes into the mix, which demeans both 
the story and the reader.  I have found elements of this farce in the 
works of some of my favorite authors, so I don't think I'm overly 
biased because I still enjoy their work. Oddly enough, I find these 
lapses encouraging: even the popular ones don't always have control.


My most recent example of what I see as a manifestation of the quest 
for profit over reigning in a story to its proper scope is Rothfuss's 
Kvothe tales, The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man's Fear. I've 
enjoyed the read so far, but I keep getting the feeling that I am 
walking on familiar ground. Some of the criticisms leveled at 
Paolini's egregious Eragon novels apply here, at least a little. For 
example, I am having a hard time deciding what Rothfuss wants these 
tales to be. He romps along, developing a great character, and then he 
throws in a pastiche of already told things. Kvothe in Tarbean sounds 
eerily similar to other urchins-in-survival-mode scenarios. Arya, 
anyone?
  The University and Kvothe as a budding arcanist is almost too 
reminiscent of Hogwarts. In fact, I think it is Hogwarts, with warts, 
as it were. And then in book two, he takes us on a ninety page 
digression into the Fae with Falurian, and then he takes him off to 
the Ademre to become the fantasy ninja. Honestly, I'm on page 800 of a 
1050 page paperback and I think I'm reading the plot lines to Kung Fu 
Panda. Oddly enough, out of the nearly 2000 pages of narrative, I've 
liked the somewhat less than a hundred pages of Kvothe as innkeeper 
than all the rest combined. Rothfuss is actually subtle in those 
scenes, which is sad because the rest is excessive and increasingly 
derivative.  And yet the second volume has FIVE pages of author blurbs 
attesting this author is the second coming of Aesop. 


The novels sell amazingly well: marketing 101 at the expense of a cool idea.  
Frankly, I find the whole thing a study in self-indulgence. If this is the 
price of big house success, then thank the gods for the financial 
restraints implicit in the small press experience. Their financial 
reality makes such books mostly untenable.  And THAT is the beauty of 
the whole thing. The very thing that enables excess in the big house 
experience actually forces restraint in the small press, and one of 
the unintended consequences of that fiscal restraint are tales that 
remain palatable with just enough tell to add to the show without 
sacrificing the magic of faery, the economy of the active voice over 
the passive, and the benefit of sound editing over market 
share/publishing date/timing to swoop and conquer.


Now, before you hang me in effigy or start searching for old candles 
to make into sangreal to vent your magical wrath, let me qualify 
things a little more. Rothfuss, Donaldson, Follett, Martin, Jordan and 
the other practitioners of the sprawling tale are great writers, and I 
own and have enjoyed ALL of their words. I just think they use far too 
many to convey their story.  As I see it excessive over-writing leads 
to trope, which leads to cliché, which becomes ordinary and, 
ultimately, boring. If I'm looking ahead, the book is dead.  After 
reading Rothfuss's Name of the Wind last year, I thought he took some 
liberties with plot and pace. And with The Wise Man's Fear so far, I 
keep thinking if he had just gotten rid of about 400 pages of fluff he 
would have a story that actually progresses rather than meanders about 
within its own inventiveness.  


I remember distinctly the moment when I  gave up on Jordan. It was 
after 900 pages of Winter's Heart where NOTHING happened. Wow. 
Rothfuss, et al, are not that bad, thankfully, but I really do think more 
restraint might provide a better service to  the art. I fervently want to 
think our audience can handle a little ambiguity, a little Celtic fog and 
glamour over the present practice of beating the reader about the head 
with matrix density details, something I like to call de-trails, because the 
effect is like wandering off the path in Mirkwood. For every  Bilbo-finds-
himself moment, there are a host of character and story carcasses moldering 
amongst the underbrush.

So, am I way off base here? Do you think the big book syndrome helps 
or hurts our genre?


~Mark Nelson

34 comments:

Terri-Lynne said...

"The very thing that enables excess in the big house
experience actually forces restraint in the small press..."

These are wise words, and, IMO, very true ones.

The big names get big books because whether or not the book is great, it will sell. Like you, after being a bit disillusioned with Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, bought and read the next in the series, and--let's be honest--you will probably buy the next in the hopes that it isn't more of the same. I've done it many times myself. To be perfectly honest, much as I absolutely love the Game of Thrones books, it started meandering with Feast of Crows and has not tightened up the pace since. Will I still be pre-ordering the next one, knowing full well it will be more of the same? Absolutely.

I have said it many times in the pages of this blog--there are definite advantages to being with a small press. One of them is, as you say, that we can't afford to be indulgent. And we can't afford to publish tomes, even if we were. In MY OPINION, big books hurt our genre in that it becomes the representation of what we are as a whole when it's a very small portion of fantasy fiction. The big books by the big authors get the big promotion, so...

BUT--it does us some good too, because there are few genres that even allow the tome these days. With attention spans seeming to get shorter, those of us who love those sprawling epics are going to be overlooked if the trends in the other genres cross the boundaries of ours.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Terri,

The syndrome reminds me of a scene from Miller's The Crucible where Rev Hale arrives to examine the girls. Proctor grabs Hales books. Huge tomes delineating the inccubi and succubi of the age.

"These are heavy books, Rev. Hale". To which Hale replies, "They are weighted with authority."

Terri-Lynne said...

Ha! I love it! And quite apt.

David Hunter said...

I'm not sure.

I tend to agree that series tend to run on past their natural end-point and rapidly become flaccid and tedious as the author runs out of story (indeed as Martin shows, that may happen even when the end-point has not been reached).

And while I agree that many longer books, be they late in a series or no, have issues, I also think that shorter books may well suffer from the same (though being over sooner are perhaps less obviously flawed, or at least more easily tossed aside lightly).

So I'm not so sure that length is necessarily an issue in the way that never-ending trilogies are.

capomes said...

Oh, I salute anyone who can keep readers interested in a never-ending Big! Important! fantasy series. It may just be marketing, but the readers are still getting something for their money. After all, you can only abuse them for so long until your sales start draining away.



Cal

Terri-Lynne said...

Hey, Cal!

I love me a big epic, and would love for it to go on forever--as long as it doesn't end up being rehashed stuff, filler, tangents that lend nothing to the story. You know--like GOOD writing. :)

capomes said...

P. C. Hodgell has intimated she might, just *might* be finishing up the Chronicles of the Kencyrath in nine volumes.

The loss will leave me confused and whimpering.

Terri-Lynne said...

Cal, I'm totally unfamiliar. I'll have to check it out.

capomes said...

Baen reissued the first two volumes in The Godstalker Chronicles--with the most hideous covers in the history of fantasy fiction. Just squint past it--

cal

Clint Harris said...

Winter's Heart is where Bobby Joe lost me too. Compared to the Shadow Rising, it shouldn't have even made it to print. I'm reading Cronin's "The Passage" right now and have stalled 1/2 way through. It went from an interesting story to a post-apocalyptic future following a rag-tag group of survivors with a strong kick-ass female warrior lead. You know, just like every other $%^&* book out there right now. I don't have anything against strong female leads, but I get soooo sick of the cookie cutter warrior chick characters. Plus, Cronin made me reinvest brainstuff into a whole new set of characters. Here's an idea. Start a new book! Quit jamming more stuff into the story just to make it 800 pages! I'm fine with reading a 350 page book. No, really.

Also, I view Feast for Crows as GRRM's B-Side Import novel. You can get all hipster on that book. "I'm reading a Feast for Crows. It's good, but you probably haven't heard of any of the characters."

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--I can barely remember any of the non-core-characters in Feast for Crows.

David Hunter said...

A Song of Ice and Fire died at the Red Wedding, or shortly thereafter. What followed was a book of almost total irrelevance succeeded by a book of unutterably tedious travelling coupled with some dithering of the highest order in which two of the remaining four interesting characters were fatally undermined. Which is where I agree with Mark's older topic that the never-ending story is the curse of fantasy and has been since at least Jordan (but very possibly Moorcock).

However as I say I remain unconvinced that (non-sequel) fat books per se are worse than thinner ones.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Thanks again for a great post, Mark!

There's some irony in this topic. Just last September, Katharine Kerr posted here as a guest on "Saga, Series, and Just Plain Long Books" (http://heroinesoffantasy.blogspot.com/2013/08/saga-series-and-just-plain-long-books.html). She gave her take on why sagas happen from an author's point of view; the way even minor character threads tend to pull one inexorably toward entire new novels.

And then, we have the other situation I often see: That many presses won't even look at a book from a new author if it's more than 110K words (about 300 pages). This is true of small presses as well as large ones. So, when Hadley Rille decided to publish the 200K epic TRANSCENDENCE, and more recently, the equally long FIRE&SWORD, it seemed to me another example of how this small press was bucking the trend -- but in this case, a trend toward smaller books, not longer ones.

Now I don't know. I do think you have a point, Mark, that many series go on longer than they should, and that there are strong commercial interests behind the trend, especially when talking about series that have no soul (or that lose their soul somewhere along the way). But it also seems to me we may have hit upon a question here that's a little bigger than one post can handle -- which makes it fantastic that we've already had more than one post on it!

I will say that it annoys me when sagas sink into an endless spinning out of a tale with no clear resolution in sight. GRRM is the classic example of this, but there are many others. I also think it's somewhat disrespectful and unfair for an author to leave a reader "hanging" at the end of a novel. It's not that all endings have to be wrapped up and tidy, but I strongly prefer novels that stand on their own, whether or not they're part of a longer series.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here for a quite comment or five...

David,
Guy Kay's work has always seemed to me to avoid the pitfalls I describe in the post. Tigana holds together wonderfully. And yet I also note that Kay's novels rarely stretch beyond 500 pages or so. The 1000 plus long marches of the present era just don't have the story qualities needed to sustain them. And that is just my opinion, obviously.

Karin,

Yep. I caught myself too late before I posted this one. And yet I do think it is still a relevant question: Books too big for the tale, Series too long for the skills. I think our genre needs to get a grip on the art we seek to show. Something has slipped.

Clint Harris said...

Terri,

I'm pretty sure the POV characters of Feast for Crows all wore thick framed glasses and talked about Dubsteb a lot.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint :::snicker:::

Terri-Lynne said...

IMO, as a reader, writer, and editor, I feel that every book needs to have a satisfying conclusion. Of course, in much series work, there can't be any satisfying the main story arc until that final book*, but each of the NOVEL arcs have to be complete, stories in and of themselves. Satisfying. Cliffhanger endings are not satisfying, especially if it is going to be several years before the next release.

*And that final book can't be too long in coming. Of course, the Jordan books are the ones everyone cites, because that arc just got tooooo long and weighty and by the time you get the the final book, who the hell cares anymore??

David makes a very good point, about the The Red Wedding. I'm going to go one further.

It happened way too soon, considering. It was, IMO, the biggest moment in the series thus far. Everything after that just couldn't measure up.

David Hunter said...

I don't think the Red Wedding happened too soon. I do think that an unfortunate result of what is one of the greatest moments in fiction was that Martin was forced into breaking a certain structure (consciously imposed or not) concerning the number of new points of view introduced and a more serious, and unforced, error with regard to chapter length (AFFC doubles the chapter length of the previous three volumes). It's true that nothing subsequent compares to the Red Wedding, but nothing previous does either. To my mind the real issue is that nothing subsequent really compares with anything previous.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here!

David: Ironically, it becomes as muddled as the 14th century politics it paraphrases. Read Tuchman's Through a Distant Mirror. It's practically a primer for GRRM's exercise.

Terri-Lynne said...

Considering the trajectory of the story, and considering the various climactic points both before or after, something with the scope of the Red Wedding should have come in Dance With Dragons, IMO.

The other (and better) alternative would be to have given each book a moment as big as TRW, or at least close to it. If that is the biggest moment we're going to get, he should have saved it, IMO.

I know he couldn't have, or the story could not have continued as it did. My actual point is more about the lack of such moments in general, not the actual placement of TRW.

Not sure I'm saying this clearly enough...

David Hunter said...

Mark - I read A Distant Mirror a while ago, I should probably read it again.

Terri - I don't believe the Red Wedding could have been equalled, and I certainly don't believe Martin will reach such giddy heights again. To be honest I think the problem isn't where it's placed, it's that Martin lost the story subsequently (and also that he completely lost the plot structure-wise in AFFC and lost it with regard to pacing in ADWD).

Currently the only characters remaining I give a dam about are Arya and, to a lesser extent, the massively compromised Jaime (who was classic until he was made unnecessarily more 'complex').

But I enjoyed AGoT and ACoK despite their being no real 'resolution point' and many unresolved plot lines. Equally ASoS. The flaws of AFFC and ADWD are to my mine therefore not so much to do with lack of resolutions or their open-endedness, more to do with flaccidity, poor structure and a stalling of plot.


Terri-Lynne said...

What I'm saying, poorly, is he hit his high note too soon and nothing is going to compare. Maybe that's all the flailing about he's done since.

I have to say, I love how he brought Theon back into the story. He has a way of making us feel for really flawed characters--like Jaime, and even Tyrion to an extent. I do notice that he likes to redeem the flaws in his male characters, and yet doesn't seem to be as concerned about doing so for his womenfolk.

Then again, my view of that might be a bit skewed; and after all, I'm only a woman. ;)

Clint Harris said...

Somebody ought to make an unwritten law. Sorta like they do with mystery novels. You cannot introduce a new character to the story in the third act (and have them be the murderer). The reason these "sagas" get so bloated is because the author keeps introducing new characters and making us give a damn about them. I think, unless they are obviously padding a series and perpetuating it, there is no reason to introduce new main characters past the midway point. Secondaries, knock yourself out, but like with ADWD, we have new people we are supposed to be rooting for, and I'm just not feeling it.

The Red Wedding was the culmination of efforts among many POV characters and flat out violated the sanctity of the bread and salt rule. From here on out, the rest of the story should just be watching the house burn down. Now he's got new Targaryens and the Southron nobles taking center stage. F that noise.

David Hunter said...

One of Martin's great mistakes was writing out Cate after ASoS.

Daenerys has always been too serially wet to be anything more than irritating and Cersei was made a damn sight less interesting when she got her own chapters.

Martin's trick of undermining expectations would be a good one if it weren't overused, which it is.

Of the women, only Arya has become more interesting with the passage of story beyond book 3.

Of the men, nemo.

Terri-Lynne said...

Clint--YES!!! How am I supposed to root for this Targaryen when he comes in during the final hours??

There should be a rule--if the series is one like GoT, wherein the whole arc takes several books to encompass, NO NEW MAJOR CHARACTERS AFTER BOOK THREE!

Terri-Lynne said...

Dave, Arya--totally agree. Dani? Pushing the "I WILL be a mother!" thing too hard. Sansa grew on me for a while, but she is in jeopardy of losing my interest again. I'll see how she handles Littlefinger before I decide.

Some of the best female characters are the Dornish women, and they suffered for the way the books were structured, taking the same timeline and making them into two books with two separate sets of characters. It's been so long since I've "seen" them, I am forgetting.

Cersei...I liked thinking she was simply ruthless. Smart, and ruthless. I do NOT like that she's being made to be ruthless and stupid. Even Mellisandre is starting to wilt. And Brienne...WTF!? We leave her in AFFC shouting out ONE word! ONE word I waited several years to discover. And then she appears in ADWD...just appears. No explanation. Nothing. I don't care that he will make it clear in the next book--she should NOT have been given that all-important "not line" then dropped into the story like that.

Not sure what's going on with GRRM and his women, but...Arya can't hold them all up.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here!

T: In my opinion, Arya is not a women in the sense that she confronts the world from a purely female sensibility. Arya is the proto child--the only Stark child who seems capable of adjusting to her surroundings without the anchor of her father's ethics holding her back. Obviously, I like her as a character, and by comparison I find almost all the other female figures in his works come off as pale things of little substance. I liked the mother, then we get the Red Wedding. Not only did it blow my mind, but quite quickly it blew away my deeper interest. I'm not giving up on GRRM like I have with other writers, but he's in a bucket with this tale and he better re-find the art or risk losing all of the magic.

Terri-Lynne said...

Mark--word. I feel the same way.

By my comments, one would think I didn't enjoy the books. I did! I do. I will. I do find a lot has gone amiss since AFFC, but I'm still hooked.

That hook, however, will get shaken from my jaws should things not get reined in soon, though.

David Hunter said...

I think also the general trend for never ending series is that they have a natural end-point (usually the third book as often they're conceived as trilogies) and once they pass that the wheels come off sooner or later.

In Martin' case this isn't true of course as there's really been only one book with anything like a natural conclusion (AGoT with Robb as King in the North and even that was undermined by the stupid dragon chapter that followed). Increasingly he has attempted to end with 'cliff-hangers' although unfortunately he's done this now so often that it's a bit like a comic book where the hero is always in dire peril at the end of a strip before a leap and a bound sets him free (in Martin's particular case generaly to descend further into self-loathing, impotence and/or misery).

I think once he extended beyond Starks, Lannisters and the tediously dithering Dani he went wrong. Who in all honesty gives a stuff about Dorne, for instance? Almost everything he needs to keep the reader updated on could have been covered well enough by character-chapters from Stark, Lannister or Dithering Dani (I'd allow Theon as an honorary Stark here becaus ehe was established as such early).

What would have happened then?

Well post Red Wedding the perspectives could have been Jaime, Tyrion, Cersei, John Snow, Theon, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Dani. Perhaps allow a couple more new characters that get their own chapters: Brienne would be an obvious choice. But 10 or 11 is plenty. With essentially those folk to follow the actual plot would necessarily move along much faster and AFFC and ADWD could probably been half their respective lengths and yet the geographic coverage would remain fine (you'd lose Dorne but as I say, who actually cares what's going on in Dorne? And if you do, why don't you care what's happening with Highgarden? The Queen of Thorns was easily established in her brief appearances as the best of the 'new characters' and she's disappeared for the length of several bibles).

Martin is clearly utterly absorbed in his made up world and clearly delights in discovering new characters. This was fine when he introduced one or two per book. With AFFC he broke that rule very badly indeed and the wheels have come off. it now remains only to see if he can salvage anything from the wreck. It's made a lot worse by the fact that the first three books were very good indeed.

David Hunter said...

Now here's a series that grew fatter and fatter and yet (although I didn't like it much) did not consume itself: Harry Potter. The word count goes like this:

77 000, 85 000, 107 000, 191 000, 257 000, 169 000, 198 000.

That's about a million words with a single volume accounting for roughly a quarter of them. And yet no apparent complaints of bloat or loss of interest/plot from those who liked the first two books.

Contrast Martin with his:

298 000, 326 000, 424 000, 300 000, 422 000.

They're all hefty and yet the size of each is more broadly comparable. It's not the mass of words per volume, it's the breakdown of structure and loss of plot. Martin is approaching 1.8 million words (well over three times that of LotR!) and he's at best 2/3 of the way through.



Terri-Lynne said...

The Queen of Thornes is the BEST neglected character in the history of literature! Do I exaggerate? I don't think so. She is cunning and blunt and powerful and...and...you know what she is. She's just amazing, and she was used and set aside--again, like many of Martin's womenfolk.

And honestly, I just don't get it. Why create these amazing characters like QoT and Margery only to have them languish? Why create Dani to be this mother of dragons only to have her falling into the great-mother trope? Why create Melissandra to be the ruthless zealot only to have her seem like a petulant hausfrau come ADWD? Petulant because she has been so misunderstood. She works for the good of all, don't you know!? Gah. And Cersei--CERSEI!!! You can't like her, but damn--she's a great character. Or was.

Jaime will be redeemed in the end. He's been setting that up from the beginning. Jon Snow, yup. Tyrion. Theon. I know there are a lot of male characters who will not be redeemed, who will languish into the obscurity of too much plot, but the ratio of really amazing BIG female characters who spiral into the abyss of their worst character traits or languish forgotten is vast.

Anyway, I totally agree with you, Dave--if the POV characters had been trimmed down to focus things, the books would have been better, and a whole lot less wordy.

David Hunter said...

Jaime should never have been redeemable -- he was by far at his best as an apparently amoral rogue. Ditto Cersei really, both were undermined by having their own dedicated chapters which revealed their thoughts.

Dani always irritated me, right from AGoT, and continues to do so. She's just too wet. Cate was miles better -- flawed but at least credible in her mistakes. By contrast, Sansa is irritating in a more convincing way by far then Dani.

But why the Queen of Thorns has not become a focal character passeth all understanding.

However I stand by my assertion that word count is no indicator of quality or of a maintenance of standards between books in a series (God-Emperor of Dune was not the longest book in the Dune series but it was far and away the most tedious).

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Wow! What a great group rant this has become. Not a whole lot to add on my part, save that I STILL haven't read Dance With Dragons, and I still feel a pang of guilt when I say that.

But since when is guilt a good motivator to read? I suppose I'll get around to it, eventually. Just like GRRM will get around to finishing the series, eventually...

Terri-Lynne said...

I read the first three books in rapid succession, because I was introduced to them long after book 3 was out. I didn't have all that long to wait for book 4. I have to say, the story suffers for how long it is between reads.

Better "eventually" than the marathon read I did the week before ConQuest when I learned I'd be moderating the GoT panel.