Length and form in genre storytelling
Note: An earlier version of this post ran at Sunita’s personal blog, Vacuous Minx. We thought DA’s readership might be interested in reading and commenting on it here.
The first installment in Meljean Brook’s new serialized novel, The Kraken King, was released last week. Brie has an excellent review of it here (i.e., I’m sure it’s excellent, but I have to admit that I skimmed it while peeking through my fingers because I wanted to approach Vol. 1 with as little prior information as possible). I’d heard chatter about the story on Twitter because some of the installments have appeared on Netgalley, and a couple of the commenters agreed with Brie’s positive take on the first four installments.
But the vast majority of comments on the review were negative about the book, the format, the idea of serials more generally, and even toward Meljean. That took me aback, especially the author-directed criticisms, since if anyone has earned the right to experiment with story forms because of past performance, it’s this author. She’s written very high-quality books that respect genre boundaries while exploring them to the fullest, and she takes all kinds of worthwhile risks in her writing. For me, following her to the serial format is a no-brainer even if I weren’t predisposed toward the form.
I asked on Twitter why serial stories got such a strong and often visceral negative reaction and the conversation took off right away. The most common complaint was about price, specifically the fact that buying all the serial installments usually came to more than the price of a book of the same length. There were also a fair number of people who said they don’t like reading in installments, whether these feature cliffhanger endings or not, because they want to read the whole story all at once. And the third criticism was that serials aren’t really serials but are most often a book that’s been chopped up to allow for a cash grab by the author and/or publisher; this is related to the too-expensive argument but not identical.
All of these criticisms are fair, and we certainly see examples of serials that aren’t really serials in romance, erotica, and probably other genres as well. But at the same time, these are criticisms about execution, not the format per se, and they make the instantaneous rejection of The Kraken King (by people who haven’t read it) hard for me to take.
I should stipulate that I refer to Meljean Brook by her first name because she is such a warm and nice person that even I have trouble calling “Brook” in the normal academic fashion, not because we’re friends. I think I’ve seen her once in person (maybe?) and I’ve never corresponded with her or had any one-on-one interactions. My husband is a fan of her work, so I always alert him to her books, and I’ve read a couple of books in each of her big series, but I don’t really qualify as a Meljean fangirl.
Oh, wait. I do have to count myself a fangirl. Not because anything I wrote in the preceding paragraph is inaccurate, but because she wrote this. Anyone who can think up something like this and then blog it for all to see and enjoy has my permanent, undying gratitude. For those of you who don’t usually click through on links, you have to on this one:
Woke up. Googled self. Found a new positive review. Sent quote on to publicist.
Compiled all quotes ever received and sent to publicist. Just in case she lost the last quote. Cc’d to editor, and editor’s assistant. Bcc’d to self, in case they pretend they never received them later. I will know.
Put the best 25 quotes in my e-mail signature, and the signature for all of my Yahoo loops.
Opened Google reader. 1000+ review blogs to read. No mention of me or my work, except one who said “If you like M.B.’s work, you will like this new author’s work, too.” WTF? No one is like me. Made note of blog name. Would delete it from my feedreader but I need to know if she spreads more falsehoods and compares me to another hack.
And that is just the beginning of Diary of an Author. Read all 5 days. Put your coffee cup down before you start, and make sure you’re not eating.
Reading the antagonism to her new serial and to serials more generally reminded me of other price/length comparisons and criticisms, specifically those involving novellas and short stories. Novellas are all over the place in the romance genre these days, the longstanding tradition of category-length novels in Harlequin and the Regency trad lines having been amplified by the rise of ebooks.
But while contemporary and historical category novels adhered to many novella conventions, the new e-novellas frequently don’t. Sometimes they’re not even formally structured stories, i.e., with a beginning, middle, and end, but more like vignettes. And don’t get me started on short stories. A vignette is not a short story, no matter how much you call it a “slice of life.”
I think there are a couple of reasons why novellas are so prominent. For one thing, they seem easier to write because they’re shorter and tighter in focus. An author doesn’t have to do research in as many different areas as for a more complex novel, or keep track of as many characters and plot threads. Genre advice posts talk about novellas as a good style choice for beginners:
If you’re a beginning writer, I definitely recommend trying your hand at some novella length work. A 30k novella is a lot less intimidating than a 70k YA novel or a 100k work of women’s fiction. It’s easier to practice craft, and even if you don’t like the end result, it was only a month or two of writing, instead of a few years.
Romance authors point out the difficulties as well, but I have a feeling the argument that the books are more quickly written is a big draw in today’s market, where authors are expected to churn out multiple pieces of product a year if they are going to stay in the reading public’s eye.
I love novellas. And I love short stories. But I get frustrated when I read them in genre fiction these days because so many are not classically structured novellas or shorts. They are stories that are short, or novels that are short, which is not the same thing.
A friend and I were talking about short stories and the skill needed to write them, and she pointed out how much more demanding they are to read. You can’t look away or stop concentrating, because every word counts and the cognitive effort is more intense. Novellas are slightly less stringent, but only slightly. Think of James Joyce’s The Dead, which falls at the boundary of the short story/novella length distinction. I am not a Joyce aficionado, but that story is one of the most powerful works I’ve ever read. I’ve read it several times, and even when I know what is coming, it never fails to move me. I know the last line by heart, and it’s still shattering every time I remember it, because I can’t think of it without thinking of everything that has come before. And yet, what goes on in this story? Not much in terms of plot, but so much in terms of everything else. Every word counts.
Can you think of a genre novella or short story that has anywhere near that effect? I can definitely think of a few that are very effective. But if you use the “can your mind drift” criterion, the majority won’t pass that test.
And yet, if the novella is cut-priced, we’ll buy it. We’ll reject the short story, the novella, or the serial if it’s not “value for money,” but the value metric is almost entirely determined by price/length ratio. Many readers believe the argument that novellas are “easier,” and obviously they don’t provide as many minutes/hours of reading time, so that makes them worth less.
I don’t agree. There are 1000-page books I won’t read even if they’re free (my time is worth something to me, after all) and I’ve paid $2.99 for a genre short story and not regretted it. Was it “worth” $2.99? It was to me. Not only was it a very good example of the form, it contained in miniature many of the characteristics of the author’s longer stories, and because it was written before those, I felt as if the story provided a window into the creative process.
I paid similar prices for the short stories that comprise Petit Morts, a set of interlinked stories, of which the best are as good as anything we find in our genre. I’ve recommended them to others, but as with The Rifter, the price usually means they don’t buy them. I respect the decision but it saddens me. Another set of linked stories that I found to be exceptional, not exactly a serial but more than a set of shorts, is Dark Soul. I didn’t know what I was getting into when I started, but that was fine, because it was more interesting than I would have been able to imagine on my own.
None of these stories are perfect, but they have all stayed in my head long after I’ve finished reading them. Isn’t that one of the core definitions of a good read?
I don’t know how good The Kraken King is as a serial. But while I frequently mistrust the genre as a whole when it comes to formats other than the traditional novel, in this case I trust the author. For me, Meljean has earned my trust, and following her to a new form is absolutely a risk worth taking. If it doesn’t work out, I’ll chalk it up as an honorable failure. And honestly, $16 for 800 or so pages isn’t exactly mortgage-money level risk, if we’re talking price considerations.
As readers we’re frequently bemoaning the lack of innovation and the prevalence of same-old, same-old in the genre, and I’m definitely one of the complainers. So when something new comes along, I’m going to give it a shot. Innovation isn’t free, and it isn’t a sure thing.