Every time you wake up and ask yourself, "What good things am I going to do today?" remember that, when the sun goes down at sunset, it will take a part of your life with it. — Indian Proverb found in Tolstoy's Calendar of Wisdom for 21 November
Can I just say that I really hate series books? Yes, I did make a comfortable income and a beautiful bookstore off of little but the proceeds from the relentless churning out of narrative fiction in installments. As a bookseller I loved the series. Always another sale on the horizon. But as a reader? Ugh…
Most narratives don’t benefit from the padding that goes into turning one story into several books. There are few worlds as densely imagined and interwoven as Middle Earth. Tolkien needed at least four books to pull all his ideas out of his head (the actual tally is closer to twenty). He died before completing that project to satisfaction, his or the reader’s.
Some storytellers since have created epics at close to the same scale, though notably most build upon Tolkien’s vaguely medievalist foundation (many even using his invented words and creatures… forcing the reader to wonder where the praise of imitation shades into plagiarism). Not many have created whole new ideas that needed thousands of pages of entangled plots to illustrate properly. Ursula K. Le Guin. Octavia Butler. Ian M. Banks. The duo behind “James S. A. Corey”, Daniel Abraham and Ty Frank. To a much more limited extant, J. K. Rowling (because oi! the recapping! whole chapters of nothing but rerun…). What sets these series apart is the depth of creation involved. They need more words to explain more things because there is less similarity with anything the reader has experienced before, in books or in life. A common facet of this creative world building that tends to characterize a “necessary” series is at least one robust but novel world view, a belief system, a culture, with an explicit nod from Banks toward this last in that he called his space epic series The Culture.
Most series do not create culture. Most series hardly even create new worlds. Most series do have interesting subplots, but little that so intrinsically alters the story that there is a need to meander along those side paths for pages… chapters… whole darn books… Most series are just tales that we recognize set in the same world that we live within with hardly even a fresh perspective on that familiar world. It’s just another story. Like all the others.
This does not necessarily make the story unenjoyable. We humans love familiarity, whatever the modern adage might want us to believe (no, it does not breed contempt… it breeds comfort…). A dozen fairy tales, a hundred love triangles, a thousand coming-of-age progressions. We lap that stuff up and beg for more. It’s great reading. It’s comfort food for the hungry human mind. What these things are not are long protracted epics.
The average folk-tale can be printed on not much more than a page of text. Yet it contains nuance enough to keep the mind churning out meaning for generations. Dense layers of linguistic and imaginary symbology. Connection and relationship. The ability to shape-shift and draw new significance to itself. Culture, in a nutshell. Most series these days are little more than fairy tales. Some explicitly so. As a reader and as a writer, I enjoy the stories, but I think they could be more impactful with less said. An actual fireside folk-story is durable and life-changing. That really can’t be said about most series fiction. And I think this is precisely because series fiction is bloated beyond all utility and import.
But that’s the analytical side of my brain. The right brain also hates series. In fact the right brain, that which spews out poetry and imagery and vast webs of intersectional relationship, is outright offended by series. It’s up there screaming, “You could have said all that in twelve words and it would have been more beautiful, more true and more inspiring!” I get done with a series book, particularly those lost books from the middle, and feel like I’ve either missed something crucial in the story, some reason to have written all that, or that I’ve wasted many hours staring at a stagnant oxbow stream that goes nowhere. Or at best, it leads right back to its point of departure from the main narrative flow.
And this is getting worse in my old age. Maybe this is because I’ve read so many of these things by now, series writing being the bread and butter of juvenile market literature. A few decades ago it all felt fresh, stimulating, couldn’t wait for the next book of dozens of series. Now, I could recite the next book and the next and the next from the first paragraph of the first — and that just doesn’t inspire a desire to read.
There is another problem with age and installment writing. I forget. The more so with the more time between installments, of course. I might be able to deal with a monthly series, but a year? A decade? Forever? (Looking at you, Patrick Rothfuss… just finish the goddam story before I die, will you…) I can’t even remember that there’s another chapter to the story, another book to anticipate and acquire. To pull up details of the books I’ve read, of character and setting, narrative and symbology (if that’s a thing at all…)? Pfft! Nothing doing. I have to go back and re-read all the past pages to even keep the names straight. And I don’t have that much time, never mind the inclination to give that much attention to a story that I think could have happened in a single elegantly written book.
A younger person is more profligate with time. Throws away whole fistfuls on alcohol and meaningless interactions. Five hundred thousand words spread over four books? No problem. Us old farts are seeing the deadline and are less inclined to fritter away that remaining interval. I once had a publisher’s sales rep who gave me a wonderful test that each book must pass. Subtract your age from one hundred. That is the number of pages from the first that a book has in order to engage your full attention. If it doesn’t thoroughly grab you in that window, then put it down.
You are under no obligation to struggle on trying to muster interest — not even for high-brow literature. Maybe especially for high-brow literature… does anyone actually enjoy the time spent with the mind of David Foster Wallace? (And should we worry?… ) Is it really necessary to waste any part of this life on things that generate no interest, no pleasure, and no meaning? Yes, a painful tooth extraction is sometimes necessary, but that’s not uninteresting, it just hurts. After which there is relief. A boring or meaningless story doesn’t create relief or anything else. It’s just a bore — much like many of the jobs we do these days… and note that the test fails faster the older you get…
Now, as I said, many of the series stories I’ve read are not boring. They are enjoyable. They pass the age test even to the zero-mark of a century. But there is so much in the middle that is unnecessary. If you start the age test at many points within the narrative, it fails. (If you’ve remembered to go find the next book, that is…) Going on with the story feels just like a job, boring plodding work. And even when I was young I stopped reading many a series because it just couldn’t inspire me to keep going. I found that I was getting nothing out of it. I’m sure I missed what might have been a fantastic finale in more than one epic tale. (Quit the Wheel of Time long before Brandon Sanderson resuscitated that lumbering zombie…)
But then, maybe not.
Because the motive of the series epic these days often seems to have less to do with the story and its satisfying conclusion than with keeping the path open to more sales. These are stories that never consciously and skillfully end. The series is a way to more the fairy tale. It is a marketing structure. It reels out the revenue stream until the story is so thin you can scarcely find it in all the packaging. Endings are a function of contract renewals… when the interest wanes, the publisher just stops releasing the books, regardless of where the story is.
Maybe this is a lesson for our times…
In any case, the publicists and publishers might be killing the cash cow. That there are no series now that generate the excitement of say, Harry Potter, is telling. I am very likely not the only person who is tired of the same old story spread out over two, three, Six, NINE $28 books. I am definitely not the only person who simply can’t afford that. Even libraries rarely make shelf-space — and budget-space — for all the books in a series.
Another indication that the series book revenue stream might be drowning its own too much is that we don’t remember… There is little anticipation, and that is a function of durability as much as memory. These stories do not last. I can’t name more than two characters from that woeful Twilight series. (Of course, I hated that story as well as its serial nature…) Books as marketing tools are not enduring tales, not even for those who enjoyed the stories. How many series get read again, start to finish? For the sheer pleasure of the story. For the timeless import in the tale. For the deep emotional reassurance of hearing it all again. I’ve read the Lord of the Rings repeatedly. Yes, Harry Potter as well. I find something in each reading. That is not true of too other many series. To the contrary, most series stories are so flimsy they can’t even survive another reading. There’s just nothing there after you’ve gone through it once. This is also true of many stand-alone stories written to sell, not to tell. I think this is the same old function of selling quantity and not quality. Volume makes more money — so it is very seductive to publishers — but only for the short interval in time before we all lose interest in the flood of junk. Disney puts out dozens of slickly packaged books every season. They are damned difficult to sell. Because even a child knows what will be in those pages… and is bored by it.
We’re all tired of the marketing. We just want a good story.
… a few dozen words… whispered around the campfire… that’s all many stories need… but there isn’t much to sell in that…
Not to shoot myself in the foot with my own point, but here is another view of what is ultimately the same problem… from the perspective of retail on Black Friday…
©Elizabeth Anker 2022