The Tyranny of the Mega-Novel: A Fisk

Yesterday’s fisk covered a lot of stupidity, and there is more to be slapped down today. There is a counter-argument for yesterday’s article, also from The Guardian, and it was written by someone who is dumb enough to deserve multiple fisks (see here and here), Damien Walter, or, as The International Lord of Hate calls him, The Guardian’s Village Idiot. Counter to yesterday’s post that it is impossible for fantasy to be written in short fiction, our friend Damien thinks that fantasy needs more short fiction. On the surface, we can agree with him, but fear not! The stupidity is right there beneath the surface, like an iceberg waiting to ambush you.

Ah, time for some more slapping fun.

Smash

As usual, the original is in italics and my comments are in bold.

Fantasy must shake off the tyranny of the mega-novel.

Why lookee here, another bold title. This one employs a significant amount of hyperbole. Tyranny? Really? I think you’re delusional. No one in the fantasy genre is required or compelled to write mega-novels. They do not possess oppressive power. Go get a dictionary. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

The triumph of George RR Martin has made publishers greedy for multi-volume stories, but not all authors can write them — and why should they?

Of course publishers like multi-volume stories. Because they like to make money. That doesn’t mean that it is impossible to make money off of other kinds of stories.

If, like me, you haven’t had the chance to catch up with John Gwynne’s ongoing four-book series The Faithful and the Fallen, then you might have greeted the news he’s landed a “six-figure deal” for another three novels with a shrug. But the arrival of yet another writer “in the tradition of George RR Martin and David Gemmell” has set me thinking about how the fantasy genre found itself overrun by multi-volume novels.

Overrun? Why is this a bad thing? The more people read fantasy, the more popular the genre becomes, which does everyone who writes fantasy a huge favor. People who like Martin’s stuff might look at another book and say, “hey, I might try this one.” You’re almost as bad as that lady who seemed to think that J.K. Rowling should stop writing so that the little guys could have a chance (she has already been exposed as an idiot a while back by Catholic Geeks member Matthew Bowman, on his own blog). Rowling helped every fantasy author in the world, because she expanded the audience for fantasy. No one author can occupy the audience for the whole time, and no two audience members will read exactly the same thing. So why not celebrate the increased audience?

I see the problem! You’re just jealous! You think that because Martin makes a ton of money, he’s somehow stolen money from other authors, specifically, from you. You’re stupid. Martin did you and all of us a favor with those mega-novels.

And, just to remind you: nobody ever said you HAD to read mega-novels, if you don’t care for them. There are plenty of other options available.

Money talks, of course, and ever since Tolkien laid down the basic three-part formula,

Actually, Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings as a single-volume story. His publisher was the one who decided to break it into three parts.

Bubble

his vision has gradually expanded into the multi-volume moneyspinners of today. If every reader has to buy 15 separate volumes of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time at £8.99 a pop, that adds up to a 44m-copy pay day for his publishers.

So? Last time I checked, making money was a GOOD thing! And since when do those readers “have to” do anything? If they got tired of the story, they could stop buying the books.

But this commercial appeal is clogging up the genre with tome after tome of schlock, as anyone who has had the misfortune of being trapped in a confined space with only a Terry Goodkind novel for entertainment can confirm.

Once again, you liberal maniacs are busy confusing your own opinion with cold, hard FACT. Why can’t you just admit that YOU personally don’t care for Terry Goodkind’s books? I only read the first one, and while I loved the worldbuilding and the characters, I took issue with some of the near-X-rated content, and resolved to never pick up another one. See, that is my OPINION. I never said that the whole series was “schlock” (meaning cheap, shoddy, or inferior, of course), or that Goodkind ruined the genre. Or that he was busy subjecting me to some kind of “tyranny.” All I did was decide not to buy any more of his books. I’d rather read Monster Hunter International.

And as popular as those Terry Goodkind novels are, SOMEBODY must like them a lot. So they must not be very “schlock” after all. Some people would love to be “trapped in a confined space with only a Terry Goodkind novel for entertainment.”

Stop trying to make your opinion the only viable option for the rest of us.

Series novels are common in many genres of fiction, none more so than crime, mysteries and thrillers. The formula of a lone detective investigating a new murder in each book has changed little in the decades between Agatha Christie and Lee Child.

Maybe because people LIKE them?

Serials, which tell one ongoing story with the same cast of characters that continues through each volume, are considerably rarer.

Really? I take it you’ve never read John Carter of Mars, or Tarzan? Those were written by Edgar Rice Burroughs back in the 1920s, so they’ve had plenty of time to permeate the culture. I guess you live under the same rock that Natasha does.

But it’s exactly this serial format that has come to dominate the fantasy genre.

Make up your mind, idiot! You just said they were rare! They can’t be rare AND dominate the genre! Those two words are mutually exclusive!

Dictionary

Fantasy novels have grown so vast that even the serial concept no longer quite captures what they are doing. In a recent essay, the sci-fi novelist Eric Flint suggested the term “mega-novel” to better express what fantasy serials of this kind are doing. While they may be broken into separate volumes for commercial reasons, these are really just very big novels, often with multiple heroes, each surrounded by their own cast of supporting characters. They’re not just big and long, but structurally complex in a way that requires that extra space.

So what? I guess authors have big stories to tell. Nothing at all wrong with that.

The mega-novel is by no means new. War and Peace and Les Misérables were the mega-novels of their day, exploiting the novel’s almost infinite space to tell stories that swept from the drawing room to the battlefield, from high society to the gutter. The real world is massive and chaotic beyond the scope of any story, but the novel has always been the storytelling medium that could come closest to capturing it. And the novels that dared to really try — from Hugo to Tolstoy — are often the ones that have endured.

You just made my point for me. The novel has “almost infinite space” to tell stories, especially ones with a lot of settings, characters, and layered plots. And so they endure. That’s a good thing!

So, why is imitating that model in fantasy a bad thing? If you have an epic tale of the same scope as Les Misérables, by all means, tell it. Take a few thousand pages to do it. I’ll “drink it in like a fine wine,” as that history professor of mine used to say. If I wanted a quick snack, I’d pick something small.

Oh, that’s right. That would mean that I have to use my free will to pick something out of a myriad number of choices. THAT’S what you people really have a problem with, isn’t it?

The reigning contemporary master of the mega-novel is George RR Martin, of course, whose books now sell in such vast quantities they could be used to build a mile-high wall across the north in real life. I’ve already written on the qualities of Game of Thrones, from the way it revitalises the common archetypes of fantasy fiction to its Shakespearean skewering of powerful elites. But it’s also a staggering technical achievement as a work of fiction, which very few writers could pull off.

Again, how is this a bad thing? I object to Martin’s stories from an aesthetic and moral standpoint, but that’s only my opinion. Even so, I can’t argue with the fact that he’s made that “staggering technical achievement” which “very few writers could pull off.” It takes work to write that many books all in the same series with connected plot lines and characters.

GRRM was in his 40s when he began A Game of Thrones, with a substantial writing career already behind him. He won his first Hugo in his 20s, published a bunch of bestselling novels in his 30s and then spent a decade or so honing his storytelling skills in Hollywood development hell. That’s the kind of experience a writer needs to tackle a project like A Game of Thrones — native talent isn’t enough.

You mean he had to WORK for a good deal of his life and gain a ton of experience before he could become a mega-bestseller? Say it ain’t so!

In that case:

Doomed

But when publishers went looking for the next GRRM, they somehow forgot these vital steps.

Really? How? Do explain to us pathetic mortals.

A deluge of multi-volume epics has been published over recent years, each one in turn hailed as the next Game of Thrones, only to disappear within a few months as disappointed readers found reality didn’t match the hype.

For example? No? I guess you’re making this up out of whole cloth, then.

Some were by excellent writers who don’t quite have the breadth to tackle a full mega-novel, telling stories that would have been better told in a single volume.

Like what? Give me an example to support your claim.

. . .

Or not. Guess you don’t have any of those, huh?

Most were by debut novelists, often interesting writers with some good short stories under their belt, pushed far beyond their technical abilities by an industry hungry for instant commercial success.

Like who? I haven’t seen anyone being “pushed far beyond their technical abilities” into writing a book they didn’t like or couldn’t handle. Isn’t it more likely that they got a little too big for their amateur britches and tried to write something too long for their story to support (*cough cough* Christopher Paolini)? Yeah, that would be the author’s fault for writing it, and their publisher’s fault for printing it when it wasn’t any good. I don’t think the industry had anything to do with it.

But it’s far more dramatic to blame “the industry,” isn’t it? We can sneak in a few blows against the evil regime of Capitalism in an article like this, can’t we?

Capitalist

Even if that was the case, I still don’t see an example. Just vague generalizations that you like to throw out there, thinking that no one is smart enough to notice that you can’t back up what you say.

Wait, this is The Guardian we’re talking about. Maybe your regular readers won’t notice, after all. You’re good, then.

The mega-novel is a pinnacle of the storyteller’s craft.

Maybe. But maybe it’s just the best way for the storyteller to actually TELL the STORY they want to tell. Ever think of that?

When a writer appears who can really create one, it will aways be a major event. Gwynne’s six-figure deal is a sign publishers are ready to invest in big stories, but there’s more to reading than bingeing on epics.

*snicker* You and your editor forgot something. “Always” has an L in it, moron.

Sure, it’s a major event. Sure, I’m glad publishers are willing to invest.

Wait.

“There’s more to reading than bingeing on epics”? Seriously? There’s nothing at all wrong with reading epics. There are a lot of them, and if that entertains you, go for it. Why are you trying to ruin people’s fun? I read epics (Lord of the Rings, The Belgariad, the Malloreon, probably the Honorverse counts, even though it’s scifi, and The Dresden Files probably count, too), but somehow, my choice of reading material isn’t good enough for you? You can take your arrogant presumption and go:

Apone

Oh, wait. I remember. You people are all about rules. Right.

I have a rule for you: if you like it, read it. If you don’t, don’t. If you like it, recommend it to someone. If you don’t like it, leave the people who do alone. There. Rules established.

If the fantasy genre, and fiction more widely, wants to remain healthy, it needs to nurture all kinds of stories.

Healthy? When did we start talking about a person? Oh, right, we’re not. Your statement makes no sense.

There are great fantasy short stories, novellas and single novels that deserve much wider audiences, but are sidelined by the industry’s unhealthy fixation with the serial format. It’s time for the fantasy genre to tell some new — shorter — stories.

Yeah, because we have to worry about manipulating people’s taste in novels. If it’s a good story, people will read it, no matter what length it is.

And people do read short stories, novellas, and single novels. How about all those short stories I mentioned in yesterday’s fisk? Oh, right, those don’t count because they don’t support your worldview.

And, come to think of it, didn’t you just link to some short stories, novellas, and single novels?

Oh, wait. That first link is to Tor. Now I think I see the problem.

Instead of blaming the genre for treating you badly, have you ever stopped to think that maybe these short stories, novellas, and single novels don’t sell because they aren’t any good?

No, that can’t be the reason! It’s obviously some Capitalist conspiracy! I can’t sell anything I wrote because J.K Rowling has too many fans, and should stop writing in order to give ME a chance!

Damien, aren’t you’re the guy who wrote all that crap about having messages in science fiction and fantasy, using the genre to promote a message instead of just writing a good story? Have you ever considered that people don’t buy stuff like that because they HATE it? Because it doesn’t tell a good story? Because when they sit down to read a story — long or short, it doesn’t matter — they want to read a story, not some stupid liberal’s soap box?

Nah, that can’t be the reason!

How about this? You go off and play with your message fic, and we’ll stay over here with good stories of various lengths, from short stories to mega-novels. And we’ll laugh because we’re having a good time, and you’re not.


lsbFollow the squirrel minion to get to Lori’s website, Little Squirrel Books.

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2 Responses to The Tyranny of the Mega-Novel: A Fisk

  1. Damien is failing to note that short stories, novellas and stand alone novels are published every year, yet go nowhere in part because customers prefer multi-volume fantasy stories. Long before Game of Thrones was ever in my hand, I read Robin Hobb and Raymond Feist, both of whom had multi-book story arcs that I thoroughly enjoyed.

    Martin didn’t invent this, and he’s not responsible for it. He’s just ramped it up a notch or two at most. It’s worked because readers want it. Damien just can’t comprehend that.

    Like

    • Well, they don’t go nowhere. There’s still a rather large market for shorts. They just don’t tend to make you famous these days. If that’s what you’re talking about, then I completely agree.

      Like

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