Jun 232017

I hear tell of bygone days of yore, where a writer could actually make a living and support a family by writing short stories. Apparently short-story markets paid well enough (relative to cost of living) for this to be a viable career up until the 50s or 60s. I was surprised when I first learned this, because it’s never been the case in my life.

No one writes short stories for money. You do it to learn, or to make a name for yourself, or for the love of the form. The pay for short stories is beer money, or maybe fancy new shoes. It’s not “I can pay rent and eat!” money. One must keep a day job.

So many authors, once they get a book deal and start writing professionally, basically stop writing short stories. This is saddening, because I really like short stories by my favorite authors. But I understand the need to pay rent and buy clothes.

There’s been a trend over the last decade of moving to series. More than a trend, really – nowadays every publisher wants to know if your novel could be a series, and a majority of authors (at least in genre) all aim to write a multi-book series from the start. If it’s not the default yet, it will be before the decade’s out. And the reason is the same. Series pay better. Most authors can no longer support a family writing individual novels.

I really hate this trend, because it leads to the Marvelization of everything. The Marvel Universe is one of the most annoying things to have happened to cinema. Within that “universe” of tied-together movies, there are no movies that are worth seeing for their own sake. Every movie has to string the audience along, acting as an advertisement for the next movie in the series. This degrades the quality of the story in the current movie, often by a great amount. Nothing truly interesting can happen, because it would disrupt the universe, and the production schedules of coming movies. Characters can’t grow or change very much, due to the fact that they must be re-used continuously. How many life-changing character-arcs can a human have in one lifetime? Three, maybe four, if they have a very rich life and live for quite a long time? Certainly not 1-2 every year. And yet that’s how often we’ll be seeing them on screen. So most of the time they’ll simply be going through the paces without changing.

Marvel audiences no longer go see a movie because the movie itself tells an interesting story, but rather because they fear falling behind on events, or missing an important development (ha!). They’ve become hostages to the universe, continuing to sacrifice attention and money on the alter of an emotional obligation.

This emotional obligation was probably very useful back when everyone you knew actually existed, and learning about what had happened to them recently was valuable on it’s own, and strengthened your bonds. Emotional obligations to the intellectual property of Disney simply gives them a way to get your money without having to put in the effort of telling a good story. They can reneg on their creative responsibilities and still profit.

When it was movies, I just stopped going to extended-universe-style movies. But the fact that it’s taking over genre writing as well is depressing. Yes, some stories need to be told over multiple books. And the art of “series writing” is an actual thing, which is different from novel writing. But mostly what I see is writers abandoning the art of writing a good, strong novel, in favor of stretching a story out over 3+ books in order to make it a series.

This invariably degrades the quality of the novel. And it wastes the readers time (I’m very jealous of my time nowadays). And it exploits the same emotional obligations of readers, holding them hostage to characters that have stopped developing.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to say to someone “you should write in a way that removes this as a career option for you.” Writing is time consuming, and it’s hard to write while holding a full time job. Writing a series can make the act of writing a viable career for many. If someone is willing to dilute their art in order to be able to do it for a living, I feel like an elitist asshole to speak against that. Who am I to say “You should either be independently wealthy, or condemn your children to living in squalor?”

But dammit, who are they to say “Because this is the work I would rather be doing, I will use psychological tricks to get you to support my career, instead of actually producing an amazing product?” I hate this trend. I want to shake people and say “Stop devaluing your product! You’re just writing soap operas at this point!” :(

  6 Responses to “Not Everything Has To Be A Series (dammit)”

  1. I think maybe I’m becoming acculturated to this trend. You wrote in your review of Uprooted,

    Naomi Novik has done the same thing with Uprooted, covering an epic story and a grand character arc, within a single novel. This is a story that COULD NOT have been a short story. It absolutely had to be a novel, and I love and respect the hell out of Novik for making it a single, self-contained book.

    …but when I read it last week, I actually had the thought that I would have liked it better if she had taken it at a slower pace and written it as a trilogy.

  2. I have to disagree, not just because I like the Marvel movies and have fun watching them, but I feel that growing an extended universe / having a lengthy series is a good addition to the range of story lengths.

    There is an art to writing a compelling short story, there is an art to writing a good novel, there is also an art to writing an enjoyable extended narrative.

    You assume people who write longer series are “diluting their art”. I think that is a bit presumptive, whenever you hear Branon Sanderson talk or read his updates, it is clear he puts his whole heart behind each work. People seem to enjoy reading each installment, and I doubt most of them feel it’s a chore.

    It can and is done badly, but that should not damn a whole way of writing /storytelling. I for one am going to continue seeing Marvel movies / reading expansive series, and enjoying every second of it.

    • I probably didn’t make this explicit enough in the post, but I do believe that Series are their own art form, and can be done very well. Brandon Sanderson is a great example, I loved Way of Kings (and someday I’ll get to Words of Radiance, dammit!). But I don’t think it’s the way every story must be told, or should be told, and I find the strong pressure to make everything a series is bad for storytelling.

  3. I think it always depends on if it’s done right or not. In my opinion, Lord of the Rings could have been two or even just one book (I think two thirds of the last book is after they already destroyed the Ring, and the pacing in the other books is often so sloooooow too). The Commonwealth Saga had to be two books, on the other hand, because there’s too much going on for it to be just one book.

    I loved Rogue One and if the other upcoming Star Wars movies like the Han Solo movie are of similar quality I’m all for expanding the universe that way. It kinda sucks a little that all the stories that existed before StarWars went to Disney aren’t canon any more but I doubt that many of them would have made it on screen anyway.

    The Discword Series is another example where I don’t see Terry Pratchett diluting his art – although my favorite book of his was the Bromeliad Trilogy (which I had as a single hard cover book).

    So I guess, from a consumers point of view, I don’t have a problem with that. I like it when there are more stories from the same universe so if I enjoy it I can keep reading even if the current story is over. I like short stories too when the right people write them. For example, I don’t like Asimov’s long stories very much, there’s too little happening per 100 pages. But ‘The last question’, a short story, was awesome! I really like Scott Alexander’s short stories. But that’s mostly it. I think they might have been ruined for me because you have so many short short stories (the 2nd short is intentional) that were relatively uninteresting that you read in school that my brain at some point just associated short story with “probably boring”.

    I can see why it sucks from a writers point of view. Maybe it’s my inner socialist speaking here, but I’m looking forward to the robots taking over most of the work being done nowadays, people getting enough unconditional basic income to survive and can use the resulting free time to produce entertainment content if they want.

    • Yes, Pratchett is wonderful! :) I don’t have a problem with series simply because they are series. I dislike that there is a lot of pressure to make everything a series, even when it would be better not as one.

  4. I agree with this post. I agree a lot. While there are many stories that need to be series and many series that I’ve enjoyed, I think a lot of stuff gets forced into series that shouldn’t be.

    I’ve read a bunch of books where its clear the book (and the story) could have ended at the end of the first book (obviously with the ending being slightly different than the published series-setting-up ending) and it would have been completely awesome. Instead the ending is made less satisfying and less conclusive into to set up more books. And a good core idea is stretched over more books so that by the end of the second / third book it seems overused and thin rather than awesome.

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