Monday, July 14, 2008

Yeah, I'll have another...


How, could you possibly need more than one book to tell a story? I’m gonna grab two books off my shelf as best I can at random… what do we have; Brandon Sanderson Elantris and Nicolai Gogol Dead Souls; two great, contrasting examples: complete and fulfilling, and not multi-volume epics. In a publishing world that seems to appreciate concise storytelling, the need for book two and three in a ‘series’ seems to be an oxymoron. Naturally, you can have it both ways if you’re making money.

It would seem that some genres lend themselves better to a series than others from the point of view of the publisher (can you imagine Water for Elephants or 19 minutes as a trilogy?) In my mind, the only thing worse than a planned series is a successful ‘first’ that found an audience and then some how turned into a series. Happily, I feel this happens more often than not in film where the revenue gain is higher in both percentage and dollar value (can you recall the sequels to the Matrix or Pirate of the Caribbean?)

Why can’t a complete story be told in 450 pages? 99% of the time that I read book two of three, I always wonder ‘what is the idea/character that is so inflated in this story that it needed more than one book?’ Weak characters that take up pages, plot elements that aren’t essential to the main story and host of other reasons are the main issues.

Gogol didn’t exactly have to end Deal Souls when he did; point in fact he didn’t. The book, ends with an ellipsis and an author’s note saying “here the manuscript breaks off.” But how many sequels did Gogol write? (None) Elantris left me fully satisfied but raised many unanswered questions. It is perhaps begging for a sequel, but on top of not burdening me--the reader--with superficial fluff, I was allowed to make the book my own.

I, the reader, can come to my own conclusion from what Sanderson gave me but perhaps didn’t explicitly conclude. The narrator; in Dead Souls calls the reader out (in that weird fashion that only 19th century writers could do and get away with…) and challenges you to take up his train of thought. Again, at that point it is my book. I would think it a mark of success to tell a story and have the reader be able to take part in it and not just at the end but all throughout. Anyone can dictate, but to engage is something more subtle, difficult to achieve, and infinitely more rewarding. (I dare you to imagine how brilliant Harry Potter or Robert Jordan’s twelve volume epic--that he DIED before he could complete because it was so long!--would have been in one story…)

There are always exceptions: Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is all kinds of long as was The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova for two off the top of my head, but they are two very controlled and patient authors (perhaps even too much so for her own good in the case of Clarke; I kind of wanted another 200 pages from Kostova) but these are indeed exceptions and not the norm.

The publishing world has raved about The Name of the Wind for a few years now. The reason I haven’t read it is because it is one of three and only one is out at retail. I like fantasy and generally when that many people say, ‘it rocks,’ it does. But even still, I have to wonder does any one story merit three plus books at 700 plus pages each? I mean, I got bills to pay and life to live, sadly I don’t get to read as much as I’d like. Let’s be real, War and Peace, Don Quixote; both are only one book and 1,200 pages. What does an author have to say that is so important that it demands at least three years of my time and 2,100 pages to say? There are some fantasy series, not to call anyone out by name, that span seven years of wizarding school or twelve volumes of early adulthood ass kicking…

To play the part of Machiavelli, (Wayne, have you read The Prince and The social Discourses? They perfectly explain our: America's--and yes, you are an American!--folly of Iraq) I should say I have no problem with extended world building. I would argue James Clavell didn’t write direct sequels and there are many others that build upon previous settings, history and characters as he did.

Perhaps, I’m not that good a writer yet. Perhaps, I’m lazy, or just not focused enough on the needs of the publishing industry to make money as opposed to superficial 'artistic interest' of the story (which are subjective; I know, I know). Either way, sequels--outside of the bartender asking if I want another-- just don’t do it for me.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to start book three of Gene Wolfe’s series concerning Latro and I’ve heard Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy is quite good as well...


Anonymous said...

Ahh, by your last comment I see you're a victim (and a sucker) like the rest of us!

I haven't read the book you mention; I'll soon be looking for something new (relatively speaking that is--I am after all only 2/85ths of the way through War and peace...we need to talk about this translation by the way); I'll be looking for something new as soon as I've finished the ONE I'm on. It's added to my list.

I'm brewing up an argument against (or maybe 'for') your complaints on follow-ups.

My impulse is to say this: book series don't grow only out of commercial potential, nor are they necessarily the result of inefficient writing.

Admittedly the Harry Potters illustrate your point perfectly. For example, an important fact made known once is invariably repeated in all the books that follow for the benefit of those tuning in late in the game. I know this of course, because the sucker writing this comment read six of those blasted things.

I gotta think this over well. One unavoidable fact remains as if dictated by natural law: 'sequel' generally means 'disappointment'.


Chad Hull said...

Not all sequels are bad. I just can't think of any good ones.

Anonymous said...

Claudius the God is a good sequel to I, Claudius.