Thursday, January 20, 2011

Sometimes Thinner Is Better

Recently I began a Very Big Book, a close-to-700-page epic that's the first installment in a trilogy. Now, I enjoy value as much as everyone else. Give me a pair of extra batteries in my AA pack, a few free ounces in my box of Raisin Bran, and lots of engagingly written pages in my books. However, the weed-like multiplication of series has gotten me wondering lately if authors ought to start reaching for pruning shears instead of the Miracle-Gro.

For writers, compositional expanse can act much like an extra length of rope: It makes it that much easier for them to hang themselves. Extraneous characters, needless description and narrative drift spring up readily when given greater ground in which to grow. Consider Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time, a series so interminable that it has somehow spawned three additional volumes even after its creator's death. Or how The Passage, an overall excellent title, ended with such an abrupt cliffhanger that it sent wrathful readers hurtling to Amazon.com to leave one-star ratings. Such missteps become even more apparent when considering my current read, a book with an elegant framing device that neatly sections its action off into tidy episodes. It's a Very Big Book behaving like a small one.

By now your eyebrows may be hovering an inch-or-so higher than usual. "But isn't high fantasy supposed to be grand?" you ask. Well, sometimes. But it takes a steady hand and a keen mind to make it so. Aimless series feel exactly that. Compare Neil Gaiman's monstrously bloated American Gods to his earlier Stardust, a short novel that can't run much more than sixty-thousand words. While the former feels about as fun as mining for coal with a garden trowel, the latter is slim and bright as a stiletto and goes straight into your heart just as easily. Sometimes thinner really is better.

(Picture: CC 2006 By
ti_lapin_tom)

15 comments:

Jim Murdoch said...

I just got a review copy in the post today that's 450 pages and I'm balking at reading that. I could count on one hand the books I own that exceed 400 pages and three of them I'll bet will by my biographies of Beckett. I honestly don't think I own a single work of fiction longer than 400 pages other than Ulysses which I've not read in full. I'm a great believer in saying what you have to say and getting off the page. I particularly hate long and involved descriptions of ... well, anything. Just tell me as much as I really need to know. I think all I tell you about my current protagonist is that she's female, fifty, at least two-stone overweight and big-busted and that is it. And that's enough. Let the reader use his imagination.

C. N. Nevets said...

The difference between Yeltsin and fighters in his hypothetical weight class was that the fighters were all muscle.

Ben-M said...

Something else I loved about Name of the Wind is that it started life - before publication - as a complete trilogy (well, a complete story which Rothfuss had to break up into volumes).

This is a far cry from a number of other series openers: Ringworld, Dune, or Wizard's First Rule, to name a few. In each of these latter (to the best of my knowledge) the author provided a very well formed, discrete story. But each then later had sequels written for them, resulting in a disjointed (imho) trilogy/series as the author attempted to draw tenuous plot threads out of the original to form the backbone for new, additional volumes.

I can understand the business reasons for this ('hey! a three book contract!', and 'hey! you already have an audience if you write to this milieu again!') but for a truly satisfying experience, the trilogy-that-was-always-a-trilogy is what gets me excited. And is why I'm looking forward to the next book in Rothfuss' series.

Well that, and the fact the guy knows how to structure a novel so as I can't put it down.

Scattercat said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scattercat said...

Now if I can only rein in my own tendencies towards bloviation...

Loren Eaton said...

Jim,

Yup, there's something beautiful in brevity. Myself, I don't necessarily dislike longer works. I just find it difficult to make them excellent.

Loren Eaton said...

Nevets,

Wait, are we talking about Boris here? I get the idea I'm missing an allusion.

Loren Eaton said...

Ben,

Huh, I didn't know that. You know, that's exactly what happened to Tolkien. His publisher didn't think people would buy a massive, single-volume tome, so it split the book up. Ironically, that's why there's some ambiguity as to the precise identification of The Two Towers. Well, Rothfuss is quite good so far. I'm enjoying it.

Loren Eaton said...

SC,

See, I like your longer stuff, but that's because you're good.

C. N. Nevets said...

haha The allusion was to this: big can be tight and strong or big can be flabby and weak.

Chestertonian Rambler said...

The problem with series is that they exhibit a unique paradox. The longer they get, the more readers complain--but the more money they make.

I suppose that at some point you have a series that has hooked an increasing pool of readers, but has suffered in storytelling. Kinda like a recent four-letter TV show about people on an island.

The only exception I can think in recent fantasy/SF memory is The Dresden Files. But then, by your standards it cheats--the series is going strong at 12 books (with Amazon.com pre-orders selling like mad for book 13), but most of them have been short--and all volumes, except the last, have been entirely self-contained. (Even the last told a very complete story; it just climaxed in a mysterious cliffhanger of the type that makes fans scream.)

They're interesting (and fast) reads, if you have the time. It's also fascinating to see Butcher's writing improve--his last novel is miles above his first in terms of characterization, prose, and worldbuilding, though all share the same pulse-poinding intensity and disarmingly nerdy sense of humor.

AidanF said...

I used to be one of those who really enjoyed long stories, and felt cheated if they were "too short", because I wanted to spend time with the characters. However, I believe I'm beginning to change on that. A good example for me was Cory Doctorow's Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, which felt like the perfect length and still felt full.

Loren Eaton said...

Nevets,

Ah, got it! Methinks I'm a little slow on the uptake.

Loren Eaton said...

CR,

I suppose that at some point you have a series that has hooked an increasing pool of readers, but has suffered in storytelling. Kinda like a recent four-letter TV show about people on an island.

THOU SHALT NOT MENTION THAT SHOW!!!1!

(Seriously, I feel as though I wasted six years of my life. I may never watch a serialized TV show again.)

Loren Eaton said...

Aidan,

Yeah, length does funny things to me, too. Sometimes I feel disappointed by an especially thin volume; sometimes a super-thick one just makes me feel tired. But when my rational mind is humming away (which seems to require more and more coffee nowadays), I probably tend towards slimmer, just because I think their authors generally go a better job.