Do Fantasy Books Really Need To Be As Long And Meandering As My Posts?
(Minor spoilers for the Harry Potter series and medium spoilers for the A Song of Ice and Fire series contained within.)
In the wake of the death of Google Reader (which is only mostly dead, I guess, but still), I accidentally sparked quite a thing on Google+ this morning. I was responding to this post (warning: medium spoilers for the last few books of A Song of Ice and Fire) by Sean T. Collins. In it, he writes about how the last of the Harry Potter book fails to deliver on the earlier books’ promises of social justice (and his related hope that George R. R. Martin’s books won’t drop the ball). That’s actually a pretty interesting conversation, but it’s only tangentially related to where I’m going here.
Anyway, I linked to Collins’ post on Google+ along with some comment about how I think Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (hereafter, HP7 – a nomenclature I will adopt for discussing all books in the series) is underrated in its terribleness (I called it “aggressively terrible” at the time). Needless to say, I got some pushback! I’ll summarize my argument, but then I’d like to pivot to a deeper discussion of why exactly we read fantasy.
My main complaint about HP7 is that it’s just too long. There are sub-complaints about the proliferation of MacGuffins, the walk-in-the-woods scene, the pseudo-Christian showdown between Harry and Voldemort, and some other things, but what that all comes down to is length – or, more accurately, flab. Some books are long because they need to be; most that are long are that way because their author or his/her editor is undisciplined. From the Publishers Weekly review (which I found on Amazon):
It’s hard to escape the notion that the first three volumes were more carefully edited than the last four. Hallows doesn’t contain the extraneous scenes found in, say, Goblet of Fire, but the momentum is uneven.
That’s about as negative as the reviews not written by me get, I guess, but it is the (Hor)crux of my complaint. HP3 is a really great book – one of the best pieces of children’s literature written in the last 20-odd years. I challenge you to find a single wasted word in the entire book. HP7, by contrast, is full of so much extra nonsense that I could probably cut as many words out of it as there are words in HP3 without losing any major plot points.
I’m not picking solely on Potter here. What struck me about Collins’ post is that he tied HP7 together with the Meereen segments of A Dance With Dragons, which I also found, as above, aggressively terrible*. These scenes interest Collins because they make a comment about social justice; they turn me off because they’re sloppy and boring. And, to make matters worse, and to finally get to my point after all of this text, Martin himself has said he will never do a POV character from Essos because the story isn’t about Essos. Dude! If the story isn’t about Essos, why are you writing a story about Essos?
So: my point. This stuff drives me crazy. I have next to no interest in reading 1,000-page books in 10-book series (so why do I keep doing it?) if 500 pages of every book are not about the central story. I want a story! It doesn’t have to be a pure plot-based narrative – I rather enjoy the R. Scott Bakker books E.D. keeps proselytizing about, and those are very contemplative books where a lot of what’s going on isn’t really “plot” – but there shouldn’t be things in it that don’t matter to the story itself.
I suspect this doesn’t drive other people crazy. These books are 1,000-plus pages for a reason. As our libertarian interlocutors would say, the market is incentivizing this behavior. People do seem to really care about all this stuff. “World-building”, I guess. I don’t. I mean, I want a world where everything that happens is coherent and fits together with everything else that happens, but I do not care all that deeply about what the people in the next village over like to put on their eggs. (And I for sure do not give a crap about Tom Bombadil.)
I’m not sure I have anywhere I’m trying to go with this. Maybe I’m the Jerry Seinfeld of the League (notwithstanding that “Did you ever notice fantasy books are long and full of details you don’t care about?” is a terrible standup routine). Maybe we can put it on the pile of fantasy vs. sci-fi posts we’ve had around here – fantasy is building a world, sci-fi is slightly altering a world that already exists. In any case, I do think this is one problem (among many!) that keeps fantasy confined to its ghetto status. If it bothers me this much, and I’m a pretty prolific fantasy reader, how in the world does it make the uninitiated feel?
*I think a good indication of what I mean by “aggressively terrible” is “not just awful, but written such that it could only really be intended to piss off anyone fool enough to try to read it without skimming”. Think interminably long, boring, and contributing almost nothing to the story.