Do Fantasy Books Really Need To Be As Long And Meandering As My Posts?

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Ryan Noonan

Ryan Noonan is an economist with a small federal agency. Fields in which he considers himself reasonably well-informed: literature, college athletics, video games, food and beverage, the Supreme Court. Fields in which he considers himself an expert: none. He can be found on the Twitter or reached by email.

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67 Responses

  1. Avatar North says:

    I really enjoyed dance and I think a lot of it was specifically because of the world building chapters.Report

    • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to North says:

      ADWD doesn’t suffer solely from the boringness of world-building as an exercise. It’s also really incredibly stupid world-building. Essos is almost entirely uninteresting. It’s the Robert Jordan/George Lucas lazy-ass style of world-building, in which every member of a country/planet acts exactly the same as everyone else from the same place. Can you accurately describe to me the differences between the various citizens of Meereen and how I would recognize them in a lineup?Report

      • Avatar North in reply to Ryan Bonneville says:

        Possibly? I don’t recall the regional peoples being monolithic. Mereen had the freed slaves, the moderates (under the Green Grace), the closet old guard and then the active old guard (the Sons of the Harpy).

        Since the story is told from a characters POV that necessarily limits the scope in a way that it wouldn’t if it was told in a different narrative style.Report

      • Avatar Brett in reply to Ryan Bonneville says:

        <blockquote>Can you accurately describe to me the differences between the various citizens of Meereen and how I would recognize them in a lineup?</blockquote>

        Pleasants/Ex-Slaves: Limited clothing, olivine skin.

        Nobility: Taller, red-dark hair shaped into horns (unless they’re completely shaven), with an overly large wrap designed to make walking difficult.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to North says:

      I have a theory about Dance. (Spoilers follow.  You have been warned.)

      Game begins abut a decade after after what should have been a heroic victory, Robert and Eddard defeating Aerys the Mad King.  Things have gone badly downhill. Robert is a terrible, incompetent king.  The kingdom is bankrupt. The court is run by intriguers like Varys and Littlefinger. Now the Hand has been murdered.  (By the way, I’ve never figured out Littlefinger’s exact motive for that.  Did he just assume that he’d profit from whatever chaos ensued?)  This is the background for the story that unfolds over the first three books.

      Storm ends with a few things that look positive. Dany frees the slaves and decides to learn how to become a wise ruler.  Jon is elected head of the Watch. Arya finally escapes from the Riverlands.  Joffrey dies and Tommen becomes king.  Martin’s original plan was for a hiatus of six years or so before the fourth books began.  I’m guessing that all of these positive things have gone to hell too, and what we’re slogging through in Feast and Dance (Dany’s political problems, Jon’s political problems, dragons making bad pets, the start of the Targaryen restoration) was intended to be referred to as backstory rather than described in detail.Report

  2. Avatar Jaybird says:

    Stay away from the Wheel of Time books. A dear friend said that the last 50 pages of each book made the first 950 worthwhile.Report

  3. Avatar Kimmi says:

    Anne McCaffery’s books just flew by… Then again, I hear the Mars Trilogy is long too…Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    HP3 is a really great book – one of the best pieces of children’s literature written in the last 20-odd years. 

    It is by far the best of them, which is a damned shame.  If it had been like HP4-7, I’d have given up on the series and saved dozens of hours.Report

    • I was a fan of HP5, myself.

      But I would be.Report

      • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Jaybird says:

        HP5 was decent, but HP3 was the best – I agree. These authors need editors instead of yes-men damnit.Report

        • Avatar Brett in reply to E.D. Kain says:

          Really? Personally, HP3 was my least favorite book. The plot is mostly a one-off thing with limited connection to the rest of the series, it relies on an absurd deus ex machina that we never see used again even though it would be incredibly useful (the time-turners), and so forth.Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Jaybird says:

        Hmm.  Phoenix, to me, was the most bloated and the biggest chore to finish.Report

        • Avatar KenB in reply to Mike Schilling says:

          I had a hard time dealing with Harry’s teenage rebelliousness, partly because it was annoying to read but mostly because it seemed unrealistic given the gravity of the whole situation and was an obvious device to keep him once again from consulting the knowledgeable, experienced, powerful adult wizards and just plow forward into his own adventures.

          After the first book, she never really found a plausible motivation for Harry to avoid asking for help, but the HP5 solution was particularly unpleasant.Report

  5. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    The one I keep hearing about is Erikson’s Malazan series.  It’s done now (at least the main seqeunce): 10 books, all of them doorstops. It has 31 flavors of aliens practicing 57 varieties kinds of magic. I read the first one, was lost almost the whole time, but am told that if I keep reading, things will become clear. (This assumes, of course, that I remember things in more detail than “I was lost.”  Or that after finishing book 10 I’ll immediately re-read the whole thing.) For me this does not add up to “You should read them.”Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I have read several of these, and there really are brilliant moments, but they are too long, and the first one is a mess. They do get better, though.Report

    • Avatar Zach in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I’m just completing my re-read of the Malazan series. I realized halfway through that, as much as I enjoyed the series, I couldn’t recommend it to almost anyone. It personally engaged me in a way few books – let alone fantasy series – have. But it’s a hard sell to most people, and even most fantasy fans.Report

  6. Avatar Maxwell James says:

    As someone who enjoys reading the occasional doorstopper – while I value economical prose, I also grade on a sliding scale. Writing is difficult, and writing thousand-page tomes that are actually entertaining often strikes me as a monumental feat. After all, the world has no shortage of twenty-page short stories that mind-numbingly dull.

    So yeah,most of the Meereen chapters in A Dance with Dragons were awful, as was the dull Iron Island politicking in A Feast for Crows. The endless descriptions of Swedish bureaucracy in Steig Larsson’s books, even more so. And great as it is, even War and Peace gets pretty boring at times, especially during Pierre’s funny-but-tedious dabblings with Freemasonry.

    So yeah, there are days when I wish every writer was as fastidious as Borges. But I’ll also forgive a lot if a writer can successfully transport me to another world.Report

    • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to Maxwell James says:

      This is, I think, the real strength of Martin’s first three books, which are Not That Boring (although still a little more boring than is maybe strictly necessary). He creates a world I’m interested in with characters I want to see, and he flips around the genre conventions I’m used to, and all that stuff that everyone says about these books. But then he just loses it completely.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to Maxwell James says:

      And the interminable desciptions of furniture in the unabridged Princess Bride almost ruin the book.Report

      • Avatar Kimmi in reply to Mike Schilling says:

        am convinced that overly long descriptions of a particular set of things indicate some degree of fetishism on the author’s part. (as opposed to someone like Faulkner, who appears to just be more verbose about everything).Report

  7. Avatar Patrick Cahalan says:

    There’s nothing wrong with world building if world building is the point.  If the narrative is the point, there’s all sorts of things wrong with world building.

    For the record, I just threw out 2100 words of world building.  I’m afflicted with this disease.Report

    • Avatar E.D. Kain in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

      Personally, I like world-building that happens in the background while the story is told. The more I learn incidentally the better. Same with back story.Report

      • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        This is very hard, as a writer.

        You have to make sure that you’re revealing the worldbuilding properly.  You don’t want your reader to stand up and say, “Oh, that’s just a gimmick!” and throw your book across the room.  The incentive to provide too much worldbuilding rather than too little is hard to ignore.

        You really need to learn to trust your reader, and that’s hard.Report

        • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:

          But that’s mostly crazy. How many other books spend hundreds/thousands of pages establishing backstory? I guess you can say this is unique to fantasy – maybe it really is the point of fantasy – but almost any other novel that spent 1000 pages outlining the GD history of Portugal as something tangentially related to the plot would be pilloried.Report

          • Avatar Patrick Cahalan in reply to Ryan Bonneville says:

            Most people who write fantasy are probably crazy.Report

          • Avatar Maxwell James in reply to Ryan Bonneville says:

            But that’s mostly crazy.

            I’m not so sure. Consider the reception & reputed influence of this book, for instance. Or, somewhat less dramatically, this one. Neither is short on backstory and lengthy asides.

            I know your title is meant as a joke, but I think there’s a reasonable argument to be made that the game has changed. I reread The Great Gatsby last week; it’s a beautiful, delightful, and slender book, but is it the sort of effort top writers put their shoulders to nowadays?

            Long-form, conversational escapes seem to be where the action is lately. That includes blogging, television, and video games. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for elegant brevity as well, but if we’re living in an attention economy there are definite advantages to length. It just becomes a matter of how spellbound you can keep people.Report

            • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to Maxwell James says:

              That’s an interesting point. It’s certainly borne out by a lot of trends in both popular and literary fiction. My only caveat is that Infinite Jest – considered the crown jewel of DFW’s tragically short career and renowned for its inhospitality to the average reader – is the length of a SINGLE GRRM book. Even DFW didn’t need 10,000 pages to write the most insane novel of his generation.Report

            • Avatar Maribou in reply to Maxwell James says:

              I don’t think the game has changed, ie this is something new; it’s that the game has gone back to what it used to be.  I read Ryan saying “almost any other novel that spent 1000 pages outlining the GD history of Portugal as something tangentially related to the plot would be pilloried.” and I think of the 19th century & before.  Melville & Hugo weren’t exceptions, they were exemplars.  Even-more-so than everyone else, maybe, but not really contrary.Report

      • Avatar smarx in reply to E.D. Kain says:

        Jim Butcher does a pretty good job of this with the Harry Dresden series, and did it well with the Codex Alera series. His books aren’t door-stoppers and the action goes pretty quick, so there’s little time for long detours in world building.  And, Terry Pratchett’s Disc World series is about the same.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling in reply to smarx says:

          And Steven Brust’s Dragaera.  There’s lots of world, but we learn about it in bits and pieces, largely from unreliable narrators who mix in bad puns.Report

        • Avatar Mopey Duns in reply to smarx says:

          Jim Butcher’s Dresden series is an impressive example of what a writer can accomplish when he focuses on creating tightly crafted, fast-paced, complete stories which build upon one another.  The later books are significantly better than the earlier ones, not because the early ones were bad, but because Butcher develops the characters from book to book, so you feel like you are growing with them.

          Now don’t get me wrong; Butcher is not a great novelist by any means, but he is tight, disciplined and readable in a way that GRRM, Jordan and Erikson just aren’t.  He neatly avoids the 2 traps that, for me, kill long fantasy series: first, when the novel is a self-contained episode in which things happen and then afterwords everything resets to zero as if nothing ever occurred, a la Scooby Doo, and second, when  the book consists of sound and fury signifying nothing from cover to cover, a la Robert Jordan, GRRM, etc.Report

  8. Avatar DensityDuck says:

    I think I’ll quote Adam Roberts:

    There’s something or things about this series has resulted not just in many people reading them, but a good number falling in love with them too. Not me, or not so far at any rate, but I probably need to be more open to whatever this ‘thing’ or ‘things’ is/are. Part of me thinks it must have to do with the series sheer length; which by a sort of textual brute force can replicate the immersiveness a more skillful writer achieves through style, worldbuilding or character…

    By ‘length’ I suppose I mean more than just bulk of pages. I mean the immense accumulation of and attention to trivial details. Put it this way: there’s an interesting bifurcation in the ‘market’ (horrid term) for SF and Fantasy: on the one hand the texts themselves (as it might be: Lord of the Rings, Star Wars) which provide one sort of pleasure, and on the other immensely detailed and elongated fan encyclopedia-style anatomies and extensions of those texts: all the Star Wars novelisations, all the books of ships specs and timelines and whatnot. This latter body of writing appeals to a subset of broader fandom, those SFF fans who want to know every atom of the imagined world.

    The appeal of doorstop fantasies is not necessarily the plot or the characters, but the fact that they’re basically RPG sourcebooks. They describe every part of the world in such fine detail that the reader can easily imagine themself a part of it and construct their own stories in it. (I mean, this is what causes a 350-page story to turn into a 1000-page dictionary.)Report

    • Avatar Ryan Bonneville in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Oh my goodness, I’ve never read this fellow before, but these Wheel of Time reviews are gold.Report

    • Avatar Kimmi in reply to DensityDuck says:

      Martin’s world would be a hell of a place to set an RPG. Because everything depends so much on characterization, and on Singular Characters at That.

      I love his world, but it’s not really RPG material. To do it well forces the GM to

      1) Create viable “Personalities” for the big cheeses

      2) Create some way of leveling people up from n00b to “able to talk with big cheese” (I’m rejecting the “start with nobility players” route, as it involves a ton of backstory…)

       

      Jordan’s work is fantastic for RPGs — you get reasonably structured societies, and the degree of “questiness” of your average shmoo is a lot higher.Report

      • Avatar David H. in reply to Kimmi says:

        Not sure if you’re aware of this, but there’s been two separate RPGs set in Westeros–one by Guardians of Order (which went out of business a few years ago) and the current edition by Green Ronin.Report

  9. Avatar Pinky says:

    Piers Anthony’s Incarnations of Immortality series.  In the second book, the Devil sends the main character to different planets just for the purpose of distracting him.  The author admits this.  And we’re supposed to sit there and read the adventures on different planets which are acknowledged as having nothing to do with the story.  Yeesh.  Needless to say, I didn’t make it to book three of that series.Report

  10. Yes, HP7 was at least a disappointment.  First, it was predictable.  That’s not a bad thing in and of itself; a good story teller can entertain you even if you do know how things are going to end.  Second, though, the book was at least 100 pages too long, which detracted from the story telling.  Finally, the whole critical bit about what wands thought about property rights was just lame.  Again, not necessarily by itself, but if it’s that important then it should have been introduced much sooner.  If wands care about who owns them, don’t they also care about what they’re used for, and how competently?  Or if not, why not?

    Of course, it’s a whole lot easier to criticize a novel or a series than it is to write a good one.Report

  11. I agree with the criticism of HP7.  As I read it I keep waiting for something to happen.  But notice that the previous sentence is in the present tense; because as much as I agree with Ryan’s criticism, I still enjoy the book.  I enjoy every book in the series, and have read each at least 4 times.

    I guess I am different in that I do like long books and long series.  I so often find myself disappointed when the story arc ends.  I want more Harry Potter books–surely something interesting happens to them all after Voldemort’s death, no?

    But then I’m a huge fan of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series.  There’s hardly a one of them I haven’t read at least 5 times–it’s my standard bedtime reading, and despite there being 20 1/4 books in the series, I still want more.

    The same with Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, although I’ve only re-read those about three times each.

    Not that I disdain Ryan’s tastes at all. I just find it interesting how different they are from mine.Report

  12. Avatar Ryan Bonneville says:

    I want more Harry Potter books–surely something interesting happens to them all after Voldemort’s death, no?

    Apparently not, since they all just end up married to their middle school sweethearts.Report

    • No, no, that was just a dream sequence the night following the battle.  There’s a fantastic story about the campaign to be the next minister of magic, with Lucius Malfoy illegally funding ad campaigns and the remaining Death Eaters imperiousing wizards on their way to the polls, unstoppable because there are so few aurors left.  Then  there’s a huge battle over the budget of the Ministry of Magic, with accusations of corruption in the Department of Mysteries.  And of course there’s the backstory of Harry’s inability to become an auror because he never passed his NEWTS, and his increasingly decadent behavior as he realizes he’s rich enough he doesn’t actually need to work, ever, which leads to a nasty divorce with Ginny, followed by his descent into a severe alcoholic depression.  And Hermione’s quest to find her parents in Australia and return their memories to them, only to find they’ve disappeared in the bush and are believed to have been eaten by dingos…or have they?    And that doesn’t even cover the Romeo and Juliet style romance between Scorpius Malfoy and Albus Severus Potter, which requires the wizarding world to decide whether to allow wizard-wizard marriage.

      It’s gold, I tell you.

      Hell, maybe I should try this NaNoWriMo thing.Report

  13. Avatar Benno says:

    Where does this leave us with work like Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, which as far as I can tell is nothing but details nobody cares about?  I mean, how many pages does it take Titus to walk down that hallway in book 2?  Granted, it is not a book for the fantasy novice.

    If the issue is world building, then I think it depends entirely on the reader: is it a world that you want to spend time in?  Ryan, you might not care about Tom Bombadil, but I love Middleearth.  I want to go to there.  Maybe not the first five, or even ten, times that I read LOTR or the Hobbit, the longer I spend rereading those books the more meaningful those kinds of details become to me.

    Then again, Shannara has spun wildly out of control, while Discworld represents an almost perfect exercise in fantasy world building.  Don’t care for Rincewind?  Go visit some other part of the realm.  Witches give you itches?   Spend more time in Ankh-Morpork.

    You will never convince HP die-hards (or god help me Twi-hards) that any part of their beloved worlds are soul-crushingly dull.  I don’t think it’s length that keeps fantasy in the ghetto, it the lack of imagination  by the myriad authors STILL trying to recreate LOTR who crowd out the actual talent.Report

  14. Avatar Plinko says:

    The Tom Bombadil diversion is a pretty important part of The Fellowship of the Ring.

    The problem is that the demand is there for more, more more, so writers feel obliged to give it to us. Might as well be them getting paid for it instead of others writing histories and map books and encyclopedias.I do much prefer to have it separate, though. If I could have a concise version of ASoIaF, I would love it.

    Iain M. Banks does a great job of building without going overboard, IMHO.Report

  15. Avatar James K says:

    Brandon Sanderson does world-building well, especially when it comes to the elaborate magic systems he’s famous for.

    There are always rules, and you almost always discover them at the same time as the characters do.  And you will discover there are more rules than you initially thought, and maybe some of the rules you thought there were aren’t quite what you thought they were.Report

  16. Avatar Mopey Duns says:

    I am actually half-convinced that it is not technically possible to accomplish the kind of series that Jordan and GRRM attempted without it turning into some kind of god-awful mess a few books in (You may note that most people think tha tboth GRRM and Jordan started to lose control of the series after book 3).

    Writing one viewpoint character is challenging enough; you cannot just keep adding characters and attempting to cover all of the angles without the story spooling away from you.  The technical difficulty in keeping the narrative under control is absurd.

    I actually think that A Song of Ice and Fire would be a significantly better series if GRRM had decided to stick with one or at most two or three viewpoint characters at a time and only switched away from them at their deaths.Report

  17. A late thought… does anyone else here read the Dream Park novels?  Anyone who does as disappointed with the latest one as I am?Report

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