To paraphrase the immortal words of Anthony Ray, I like big books and I cannot lie.
It's quite true. There is nothing I enjoy more than having the time to curl up in my favorite wing chair, one or more cats purring at my feet, losing myself in a thick, enjoyable book. Fiction or non-fiction doesn't matter; I'm just as likely to pick up a nice chewy true crime book (Helter-Skelter or The Stranger Beside Me hold up well) as I am to reread The Lord of the Rings or Busman's Honeymoon or The Warrior's Apprentice. When I'm in the mood to immerse myself in words, the thicker the better, and if I'm a bit dazed and disappointed at the end when I have to return to my living room instead of Vorkosigan Surleau or Rhiminee or Los Angeles of the 1960s, it's well worth it.
One long series I've read several times for pleasure is Dorothy Dunnett's wonderful Lymond Chronicles. This sextet of historical novels follows a decade in the life and career of Francis Crawford of Lymond and Sevigny, a brilliant, dashing, and perpetually misunderstood Scottish nobleman of the mid-16th century. Spy, adventurer, poet, musician, confidante of rulers, target of powerful enemies, wounded warrior and self-sacrificing lover, Lymond is one of the great creations of historical fiction, a hero worthy to stand beside D'Artagnan and Edmond Dantes. His story takes the reader from Scotland to France, Constantinople to Muscovy, and along the way he encounters a host of vivid, compelling characters: the steady, quiet artist Adam Blacklock; the doomed Irish beauty Oonagh O'Dwyer; the magnificently evil Gabriel Reid Mallett and his appalling sister Joleta; Archie Abernethy, keeper of elephants and men, Jarott Blythe and his obsession with Lymond's sister Marthe, the manipulative and possibly prescient Camille de Doubtance….
I first encountered these marvelous books in college, and I still consider them old and much-loved friends. If they haven't had quite the influence on me of, say, JRR Tolkien, it's because I read them as a young woman after my love for adventure and dash had already been set. I can't imagine what I'd be like if I'd read them earlier, but perhaps I'd be more inclined to like historical fiction and romance than mysteries and science fiction.
Of course the Lymond Chronicles are far from the only long books I've loved. The Lord of the Rings itself began as a single immense novel and was split into three solely because Tolkien's publisher did not think a thousand page novel would be commercially viable in the early 1950s. T.H. White's lovely The Once and Future King, Lois McMaster Bujold's hilarious A Civil Campaign, Dumas the elder's The Three Musketeers, more literary fiction like John Dos Passos' U.S.A. or Thomas Bell's Out Of This Furnace - all have the capacity to grab and hold a reader for hours at a time.
That is not to say that every long book is good. A panel at Readercon last year examined the inflation of the average genre novel from 50-70,000 words to at least 120,000 words, and what that says about modern SF and fantasy. Is it publishers being willing to give their authors more room to experiment with character and plot? Self-indulgent writers who didn't know when to quit? Bloated epics penned by authors so popular that their editors didn't dare suggest changes? Is this good, bad, or indifferent? What does it mean?
Regardless of the cause, the recent trend, at least in fantasy, science fiction, and historical novels, has been the very, very, very long book. Sometimes these books need the extra room because they cover so many years - Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth is a perfect example - but others give the reader the distinct impression that the author is so in love with the characters, plot, or world that s/he simply doesn't know when to quit.
Sometimes it's a simple matter of giving the reader enough information to understand what's going on. This is particularly common in constructed milieus like science fiction or fantasy, where the author might need a few extra pages to explain why the starships behave the way they do. At the same time, is it really necessary for David Weber to stop the tense meeting of a political cabal dead in its tracks for six pages explicating the wonders of a starship drive? Readers who love Honor Harrington already know about the Warshawski drive, so why include it when there's so much else going on?
Many of these long books can and do hold the reader's attention despite the sheer volume of words; it's easy enough to skip an infodump, and if it turns out to be a critical to the plot, it's easy enough to turn back and reread for the tiny nugget of gold among the dross. Others, though, are the literary equivalent of doorstops: huge, unwieldy, and readily converted to the traditional heavy blunt instrument so beloved of "Professor Plumb in the conservatory with a pipe wrench" type mysteries.
In short, they're Oversized Books So Bad They're Good.
Tonight I bring you two excellent examples of the bloated bestseller. One, suggested by Annetteboardman, is a magnificently elongated work that is all too typical of the late outpourings of a Pulitzer Prize winner. The other began as a cute little fantasy series that quickly metastasized to the point that it literally outlived its creator:
The Source, by James A. Michener - James A. Michener was an unlikely author of enormous bestsellers. The adopted son of Quakers in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, he graduated summa cum laude from Swarthmore College, then taught at private schools and universities for several years before joining the staff at Macmillan Publishers as their social studies editor. The path of his life seemed set.
Then war came to America, and everything changed.
Michener was drafted by the Navy and sent to the South Pacific. Thanks to a certain amount of confusion on the part of his superior officers, he was believed to be related to Admiral Marc Mitscher and sent on several fact finding missions that normally would not have gone to a civilian schoolteacher. He ended up on the island of Espiritu Santo in what is now Vanuatu, where he started to write down his observations and experiences. Soon the observations were a book of short stories, and barely two years after World War II ended and Michener was sent home, Tales of the South Pacific was published to great acclaim, excellent sales, and a Pulitzer Prize. Two years later, Rodgers and Hammerstein's adaptation, South Pacific, hit the stage, won yet another Pulitzer Prize, and added half a dozen songs to the Great American Songbook.
Michener quickly wrote several more well received novels, including The Bridges at Toko-Ri and Sayonara, plus a book of short stories that function as a quasi-sequel to Tales of the South Pacific. He wasn't at the top of the New York literary pyramid, but his books were solid, well crafted, and respectable if not dazzling, and if he wasn't the next Hemingway, or even the next James Jones, his place in America letters seemed secure.
And then Michener developed the formula that brought him fame, fortune, enormous sales, and a reputation as a treekiller on a well-nigh unprecedented level:
- Take a single historical event/place/person.
- Research the hell out of it.
- Write down every single geological formation, natural disaster, incident, anecdote, tragedy, triumph,
orangutan, breakfast cereal, fruit bat, and bit of trivia connected with the said historical event/place/person.
- Arrange it like a novel.
- Send it to your publisher.
- Collect royalty checks.
This formula, first seen in Michener's 1959 work Hawaii, led to over a dozen enormous books, among them bestsellers like Centennial, Space, Mexico, Poland, and Alaska. At least two other books about individual characters were carved out of Michener's encyclopedia volumes sprawling epics, and one (Centennial) was adapted for a successful miniseries starring Richard Chamberlain and a cast of thousands.
All of this was in addition to Michener writing somewhat less enormous novels (all meticulously researched, of course), art books, and poetry. He used his enormous royalty checks to endow an art museum, the Iowa Writers Workshop, the University of Texas-Austin, and his beloved alma mater Swarthmore, which now owns the copyrights to all of his books.
Among these books is The Source, an early and choice example of Michener's particular brand of storytelling. His subject was no less than an archaeological dig that explicates the entire history of the Jewish people, beginning with Ur of the Chaldees and continuing to the 1960s, when Israel was considered a model democracy and just recompense for the horrors of the Holocaust. Chapters include "The Song of the Hoopoe Bird" (the last years of the reign of King David), "The Voice of Gomer" (the Babylonian Exile), "A Day in the Life of a Desert Rider" (Islam comes to Palestine), and "The Fires of Ma Coeur" (the fall of Acre during the Crusades) as Michener goes into elaborate detail about historical events, the details of everyday life, and the lives of his characters, not one of whom is a patch on Nellie Forbush, Emile de Becq, or Lieutenant Cable.
If this sounds like a real page turner, well...not so much. It doesn't help that Biblical archaeology and interpretation has made tremendous strides since the 1960s, especially regarding the role of women in early Hebrew society, or that Israel's reputation has, to say the least, taken a big hit over the last half century. There's a great deal of sympathy for the Jewish characters' plight, especially as the rise of Christianity means the rise of anti-Semitism, but that leads more to saintly condescension than well rounded, memorable characters.
None of this prevented The Source, all 928 closely printed pages of it, from selling briskly when first published, or from remaining in print to this day. The same can be said for almost every one of Michener's other books, except possibly his poetry. There's even a James A. Michener Society devoted to preserving his writings and legacy, and for the mere price of $12, you, too, can join in this worthy effort. There might even be time to register for the annual meeting in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, this year (or Chicago next year, or St. Louis in 2014).
It would almost be worth reading The Source (or Sayonara, or Chesapeake, or Centennial) just to be a fly on the wall for that.
The Wheel of Time, by Robert Jordan (completed by Brandon Sanderson) - Robert Jordan was yet another of the colorful journeymen who seem to figure so often in this diaries. Born James Oliver Rigney, Jr., he was a decorated 'Nam veteran, alumnus of the Citadel, Freemason, and High Church Episcopalian. He wrote historical fiction under the name Reagan O'Neal, dance criticism as Chang Lung, a Western under the name Jackson O'Reilly, and several Conan the Barbarian novels under what became his primary pseudonym, Robert Jordan.
The Conan books were successful enough that Jordan pitched the idea for an epic fantasy trilogy to Tom Doherty, editor-in-chief of Tor Books. Doherty, who liked Jordan's writing, thought that was a splendid idea. However, the final contract was for a six book series, not a trilogy; Jordan had a tendency to "write long," as they say, and Doherty didn't want to publicize a trilogy when the series would actually run to four or five books.
Jordan began writing. And writing. And writing. And lo! six years after that initial pitch meeting with Doherty, The Eye of the World, first book in The Wheel of Time, was published. It was not short, even in paperback - 782 pages and over 300,000 words, or slightly more than twice the length of an average fantasy paperback - but Doherty had liked it so much that he had sent free review copies to every bookstore in the United States. He was convinced that WoT would be the biggest fantasy series since The Lord of the Rings, and he was quickly proven correct when the entire 40,000 copy print run sold out before the second book, The Great Hunt, came out less than a year later.
Soon WoT was a publishing phenomenon, as eager fans snapped up new volumes as soon as they arrived at the bookstores. It was a rare SF or fantasy fan who hadn't read at least one of the installments, and if the books were were always thick (one was nearly 400,000 words), the increasingly complex plot, vividly drawn cultures, and conflicted characters made it worthwhile.
Did I mention that the original six books were now projected to be twelve? And that Jordan, who was now one of the bestselling fantasy authors of all time, planned at least three prequels and three "outrigger" novels set in the same world but concerning different characters and events?
Um, yes. Really.
Readers still read, the books still regularly hit the bestseller lists, but suddenly the subplots and subsidiary characters seemed almost more important than Rand al Thor, tormented Dragon Reborn. People, plot points, whole countries that had merited only a brief glance in the beginning were the focus of the action, and the overall plot was getting so big that there was fannish speculation that WoT would never be completed because there were too many elements for one author to handle. It was as if Tolkien had decided to stretch LOTR to a dozen books, with one devoted entirely to Legolas' backstory, and another to what was going on in Erebor, and another to Eomer's exile after the death of Theodred, and another about Rosie Cotton pining for Sam, and so on and so on and so forth. It would have been great fan service, but it certainly wouldn't have secured Tolkien's place in literary history.
And then came the ultimate blow: Robert Jordan was diagnosed with a terminal heart condition.
Jordan put a brave face on his condition, vowing to fight the disease and undergoing experimental treatment. However, he took the precaution of writing an extremely detailed outline of his plans for the end of the series so that if he couldn't finish it, someone else would. Jordan himself was convinced that this would be one book, "even if it reaches 2,000 pages," and when the end came in 2007, he went to his grave convinced that he'd done the best he could to ensure that his masterwork would not end with him. His widow, editor Harriet McDougal, then chose up and coming fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, to write the very last WoT volume.
You'll never guess what happened.
Go on, guess.
That's right, gentle readers. Brandon Sanderson looked at the outline for A Memory of Light, realized that even 2000 pages would not be enough...and so Tor announced that A Memory of Light would be not one book, not two books, but three separate enormous volumes, each over 300,000 words.
Wowzers, as they say.
To date, two of those books, The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight, have been published. A Memory of Light is in production even as I write, and is scheduled for publication in January of 2013. Harriet McDougal will then publish a comprehensive WoT encyclopedia that covers every single aspect of her husband's world, characters, plot, magical system, and so on. And of course there will be ancillary volumes, repackaged versions, role-playing games, and so on, all ensuring that Robert Jordan's epic of epics will remain fresh in the eyes and minds of SF and fantasy fans for years to come.
I'm exhausted just thinking about it.
2:06 PM PT: My PROFOUND apologies - this was supposed to go up TONIGHT at 9:00 pm! It wasn't quite finished, but that will change in the next couple of minutes. So sorry!
Readers & Book Lovers Series Schedule
|DAY||TIME (EST/EDT)||Series Name||Editor(s)|
|SUN||6:00 PM||Young Reader's Pavilion||The Book Bear|
|Sun (hiatus)||9:30 PM||SciFi/Fantasy Book Club||quarkstomper|
|Bi-Monthly Sun||Midnight||Reading Ramblings||don mikulecky|
|MON||8:00 PM||Monday Murder Mystery||Susan from 29|
|Mon||11:00 PM||My Favorite Books/Authors||edrie, MichiganChet|
|alternate Tuesdays||8:00AM||LGBT Literature||Texdude50, Dave in Northridge|
|Tue||10:00 PM||Contemporary Fiction Views||bookgirl|
|Wed||8:00 PM||Bookflurries Bookchat||cfk|
|THU||8:00 PM||Write On!||SensibleShoes|
|alternate Thu||11:00 PM||Audiobooks Club||SoCaliana|
|FRI||8:00 AM||Books That Changed My Life||Diana in NoVa|
|SAT (fourth each month)||11:00 AM||Windy City Bookworm||Chitown Kev|
|Sat||9:00 PM||Books So Bad They're Good||Ellid|