Rants from the Kitchen #2 – Enough with the long fantasy series!
Let’s play a game – how many good and famous stand-alone fantasy novels can you think of? Well, ok, I know you can name quite a few. The situation with stand-alones is a bit more tolerable in English than it is in other languages, where mostly series get translated. Still, I asked around in several of the bigger SFF forums out there and it isn’t pretty. If we count all the brick-sized trilogies, quadrilogies, etc. (quadri-decem-logies? Uh, “lots-logies” is better (Robert Jordan, I love you man, but just…)) and compare them to the amount of fantasy stand-alones, the proportion looks like a basketball game gone ugly.
But why is this so? The easiest answer is, Well, that’s what folks want to read! Haven’t you heard of marketing? Supply and demand, and all that jazz.
Yeah, I’ve heard of it. I even studied marketing for a while, it’s a nasty and annoying thing. But it’s not the actual reason for this. Most of the people in those SFF forums that I probed said they love stand-alones and want more, but can’t really find enough of them. One guy who said he reads as much stand-alones as possible even checked his Goodreads statistics and it turned out that for the last year he’s read 33 fantasy novels from series and 5 stand-alones. As much as possible.
So apparently the reader wants more such books. Maybe the writers don’t want to write them? Now here we can see a bit more truth-crumbs on the kitchen floor. But why is this so? I can think of several reasons.
For starters, the commercial and most unpleasant one – although most readers say that they want solo fantasy novels, and many even say that they are tired of all those long series (let’s call it… “lots-logy fatigue”?), big series just sell better. Not because we all want long series of books, but because as a product they are easier to sell. If you liked a book and it has a sequel (or better yet, it ended on a convoluted cliff-hanger and basically gave you no closure whatsoever) it’s quite clear which is the next book you’re going to buy. However, if it’s a stand-alone, even if you liked it, you are less inclined to buy another of that specific author’s books. If you want to do so, you have to go ahead and research his other works, think about which sounds most interesting, etc, etc. And we all know that on the internet, every sale that requires more then a couple of clicks, is basically a marketing seppuku with a dumb blade. To this day there are people who are reluctant to delve into Pratchett’s Discworld because they don’t know where to begin (and have to look at such diagrams, you lazybones). It’s so much easier when the books are numbered, One, Two, Three, Many, and so on.
It’s not just the marketing however. The simple truth is that when you’ve spend X months or years building a vast and complex fantasy world, you want to use it for more than one book. Often the world itself is build because of and thanks to the huge story, that requires 5+ novels to be told. And then there’s the whole “worldbuilding” thing – the stranger and more interesting a fantasy world, the more pages it needs to be described properly.
Plus, there’s the cultural element. Ever since Allen and Unwin published “The Lord of the Rings” as three books instead of one, the tradition of the trilogies was established in the genre. Lots of people today claim that this is actually the biggest contribution of the Tolkien’s masterpiece, and many even go further to add that it’s a negative contribution.
My personal opinion is that no matter as how many books LotR was published, the market would’ve still said it’s word and we would’ve still be in this situation. Whatever the reason, I can undoubtedly say that in the moment I decided I want to write fantasy, long before such things as “marketing” and “what’s easier to sell?” popped into my head, I had already decided that I’m going to write a trilogy. Why? Well … because … that’s what you do, right? It took me months to realize that I don’t actually need to write a trilogy or a lots-logy and I can just write a stand-alone. A book.
So ok, that’s the situation, no matter why. But what is ahead of us? The majority of the authors stick to this tested formula and to the maxim “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” Isn’t the formula starting to break, however? Or rather, wasn’t it broken even initially? Both today and decades ago, the genre was always filled with unnecessarily bloated series. Series, that would’ve been much better if you cut out two thirds of them and just fit them into a single volume.
But most noticeable is the change in the readers’ opinion. For years most of us viewed stand-alone fantasy novels as inherently bad, because… well, because most of them were bad. After all, it’s hard to fit not only an interesting story and characters but also detailed worldbuilding in ~300 pages. With every good stand-alone fantasy novel however, more and more readers change their mind. And with every next series of million+ words, more and more readers get tired of them and fall to the deadly “lots-logy fatigue” (I don’t care if you don’t like it, it’s a thing now!)
So what’s the alternative? For me, it’s something that’s actually typical for a lot of other genres – thrillers, horrors, detective novels, etc. Series of stand-alones. It’s obvious that if you like one fictive world, you want to see more of it and not just one book. And the easiest way to achieve that, without forcing our readers to read through a million words to find out “who’s the killer”, is to give more self-dependence to the books in that world, instead of ending them with 19 different cliff-hangers. And that’s slowly starting to happen. More and more authors start doing a mixture of series of stand-alones, including some of the most famous names in the genre.
And will there ever come an entirely different structure for fantasy books, series and worlds? That remains to be seen. Fantasy has always been a genre that can’t bear monotony and keeps evolving both in style and in structure.