Here’s a Short Story Which Explains How We Can End the Year of the Tyranny of the Mega Fantasy Novel Series

5679910978_b54b80655e_bInspired in part by the financial success of The Game of Thrones and Lord of The Rings, many publishers are producing longer and longer works. It's gotten so bad that 2015 is about to be proclaimed the year of the broken metatarsus.

Over the past week no fewer than four editorials have been written on the topic, and after I came across all 4 stories this afternoon I noticed a common thread and decided to post a round-up. (Actually, I just wanted an excuse to mash up the 4 titles into one.)

  • Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction (The Guardian)
  • Fantasy cannot build its imaginary worlds in short fiction (The Passive Voice)
  • Fantasy must shake off the tyranny of the mega-novel(The Guardian)
  • March of the megabooks: it's all Donna Tartt's fault (The Guardian)
  • The Year of the Very Long Novel (Vulture)

Natasha Pulley starts us off with an argument that the mega fantasy novels are a necessary evil because it is simply impossible to craft a world in less than a thousand pages.

Or rather, she lacks the ability to find enough short works to fill out a syllabus:

Last year, I was teaching on a short fiction course and agreed with the convenor that I’d do genre fiction while he covered high literary, New Yorker-style stuff. But although I read truckloads of fantasy, and write it, it was very difficult to find fantasy short stories that don’t lean in some way on an existing corpus of novels. There’s a very good reason for that, and it’s nothing to do with market forces – and everything to do with the requirements of the genre itself.

High fantasy of the George RR Martin kind hinges on world-building. When there really is a whole world to build, and not just a historical period or a particular country, world-building does not take a few paragraphs in a short story; it takes chapters. Add to that the anvil on which creative writing schools hammer their students now, show don’t tell, and these details take even longer to convey.

Obviously she is wrong; simply typing "fantasy anthology" into your preferred search engine will provide an excess of stories, and if that doesn't work you can find a long list of great fantasy short stories both in the comment section of her article on The Guardian website or in the comment section of The Passive Voice (where I found this article).

Pulley was responding to an editorial by Damien Walter which was published in The Guardian on Friday. Walter argued that the overlong series like Game of Thrones was doing more harm than good:

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 thenews 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.

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

Aside from his apparent belief that Game of Thrones isn't schlock, I agree with him completely. I thought that series, both as a whole and as single volumes, was an overlong exercise in torturing readers.

Natalie Haynes also thinks that books are getting longer than they need to be. Writing in The Guardian on Wednesday, she notes that the bloated novel has been around for a while:

Last week, backstage at the Auckland book festival, I expressed the mild view that The Goldfinch would be a vastly better novel if it lost 200 pages. And when I said 200, I obviously meant 300; I was just being polite. Someone asked if I would ever read The Luminaries, which is even longer. I explained that I’ve read it three times, because I was on the Man Booker panel the year it won. Even then, it wasn’t the longest novel submitted: that was The Kills by Richard House, which is, I think, the longest novel I have ever read at 1,004 pages long.

...

I don’t fear the long novel as much as pine for good editors. A book can be any length, if the words earn their keep on the page. I rarely see the point in huge chunks of prose that don’t serve the story: writing has to be mesmerisingly good before that doesn’t feel self-indulgent to me.

Boris Kachka raised a similar point, noting in Vulture on Tuesday that the rise and fall of very long novels are actually one of the long running cyclical trends of publishing industry:

When Doubleday editor Gerald Howard acquired Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 736-page novel about a New Yorker with a hellish past, he told her they’d have to cut it down by a third. She countered that Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, both longer than her book, were poised to do pretty well that year. She also emailed a list of successful long novels, as well as a “passive-aggressive picture” of her manuscript beside a 900-page issue of Vogue and a paperback copy of Vikram Seth’s 1,400-page classic, A Suitable Boy.

...

Like most “trends” in publishing, it’s been going on more or less forever, with cyclical variations here and there. In fact, Garth Risk Hallberg, one of this year’s most notable high-page-count writers (whose 944-page novel,City on Fire, will be Knopf’s most important literary debut next fall), wrote a story for the Millions way back in 2010 titled “Is Big Back?” Arguing that big books’ success complicates simplistic narratives about our collective ADD, he marshaled ample evidence, including Joshua Cohen’s Witz, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, and thousand-pagers by Jonathan Littell, Adam Levin, and David Foster Wallace that were widely read (or at least discussed). Perhaps Hallberg was just being savvy, laying the groundwork for the multi-million-dollar sale of another doorstop — his own.

Nearly five years later, that list of megabooks is even longer. ...

And thanks to the rise of the ebook and the opportunities created by POD, the list of megabooks is bound to grow even faster.

Just don't expect me to read any of them.

I am a firm believer that brevity is the soul of wit; any novel which can't squeeze a story into a volume shorter than the phone book needs to be edited for length, in my opinion.

images by plentyofantsteclasorg

hat tip to The Passive Voice, for finding a couple of the articles first

About Nate Hoffelder (11587 Articles)
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader:"I've been into reading ebooks since forever, but I only got my first ereader in July 2007. Everything quickly spiraled out of control from there. Before I started this blog in January 2010 I covered ebooks, ebook readers, and digital publishing for about 2 years as a part of MobileRead Forums. It's a great community, and being a member is a joy. But I thought I could make something out of how I covered the news for MobileRead, so I started this blog."

17 Comments on Here’s a Short Story Which Explains How We Can End the Year of the Tyranny of the Mega Fantasy Novel Series

  1. If I remember rightly, Tolkien wanted The Lord of the Rings to be presented as one book. It was the publisher that broke it up into three.

    And I don’t mind multi-novels. Just as I don’t mind short stand alone novels.

  2. The word processor. The worst thing to have ever happened to literature.

  3. I am not a fantasy fan- not even of Tolkein. But this posting does bring forth an issue with self-publishing versus the old way of going through an established publisher. In the old way, the potential author was more likely to get his or her work edited and pruned. A lot of words used to be left on the cutting room floor.

    • Me, I like long books. I read fast, so I like a book it takes me longer than a day to read.

      It’s like tea – there’s all different sorts so I don’t have to drink the same thing every day. There are all kinds of books, and room for all kinds of books.

      To say, ‘I don’t like that, so it shouldn’t exist’, is pretty darn arrogant.

      • I’m on the same page here with you. I prefer a novel of at least 450 pages and am fine with an 800 page one. I tend to skip books that come in at 250 pages or less because they read so fast.

      • I totally agree! I love the big huge fantasy “door stopper” novels (the same with science fiction). A lot of came when I had to stretch my limited book buying budget – a 1300 page mass-market for $8.99 was a better value than the 300 page mass-market for $7.99. More comes from just what I personally like to read.
        I also adore short fiction. I get a high every 2 months when I get a new edition of Fantasy & Science Fiction. I chew through anthologies (which also usually fall into the good value argument above). For genre fiction to thrive we need a healthy market for all types and lengths.

  4. I approve of the trend. It makes it much easier to find worthwhile fiction in second-hand stores; they’re the books that aren’t taking up five centimetres of shelf space.

  5. It is the lack of editors who are afraid of pruning verbose authors that is the problem. I loved Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME, but the fact that his editor was his wife may have had something to do with the fact that the middle volumes went on for pages with little to nothing happens. On the flip side however, stands THE STAND, arguably S. Kings greatest novel. On its first pass by the editor, large portions were cut (and one subplot almost completely excised) only to have the deleted prose restored after King became a force to be reckoned with….and the book climbed the best seller’s list a second time…the deleted text was not “filler.” So, I say, look to the editors!

  6. Yeah I’m with you. Viva la novella!

  7. Excluding publisher greed (which may or may not play a role), I suspect this problem stems from the mistaken idea that a fantasy setting must always be described in its entirety (a whole planet!) and in exacting detail. Sure, you can do that, but it takes decades to do it properly. Tolkien needed 12 years just to write LOTR, and he almost didn’t finish, due to burnout. Keep in mind, he already had Middle Earth all figured out at that point!

    There could also be an inability or unwillingness on the part of authors to filter: what is essential detail, what is useful fluff, and what is just not worth mentioning. Which in turn may stem from the mistaken belief that the way to build a world is by looking down on it from above, like in a strategy game. But consider how most of us perceive the real one: we’re most familiar with our own neighborhood, our city we know well; we have a decent mental image of our own country, while the rest of the world is kind of a blur. And that’s in the modern age; in the preindustrial era, most people were much less educated and/or traveled, and information flowed about as well as molasses.

    And then there’s practice. Having successfully built compelling worlds in novelette-sized stories, I know for a fact it’s perfectly possible. But it does take a number of tries to get the hang of it. And having worked in a medium where textual descriptions are all-important, namely interactive fiction, certainly hasn’t hurt. Don’t limit yourselves, dear writers!

  8. it was very difficult to find fantasy short stories that don’t lean in some way on an existing corpus of novels

    What? Gaiman, King, Kadrey, Link . . .

    I just read your other post on long MG/YA, too. Interesting. I remember I read Needful Things in 5th or 6th grade, and I think that’s always skewed my perception of such things.

    Funny, King and Gaiman are masters of both forms, which is no easy feat. But I think that’s most common within genres — I’m trying to think of any authors of the “high literary, New Yorker-style” (which is an awful way to phrase it, but I sort of get what is meant). Does Franzen write short fiction? I think TC Boyle is about the only person I can think of who is equally accomplished at both forms.

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