Cardinal Column #12: Long-Running Series

(Editor’s note: A bit more fanciful at the beginning to begin with with my invocation of H.P. Lovecraft, but one I like particularly because it allowed me to rant about a topic rather than opening it up for discussion. This expanded Star Wars universe past the Timothy Zahn second novels makes my blood boil and spit into the eyes of authors like a blood magus. I support many of the old Star Wars novels – despite having sent all of my collection with Zahn and Aaron Allston the exceptions to Half Price Books – and those New Jedi Order ones were worse than expanded universe comic books [a topic for another rant].

A couple style issues here were too similar to some of my other columns, but I think this one makes some geniunely good points and an argument that I will continue to defend even now. However, reading some of Parker’s work since this was published makes me more willing to cut him some slack since his later work is better than before.)

Les wishes authors knew how to quit you, bad series

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, March 22, 2006

For most vacations, I tend not to leave Wisconsin—my poverty from buying books and a natural laziness tend to keep me from hitting up exotic locales. I prefer to recharge my batteries by hanging around my old haunts, the bookstores and reading areas I occupied during my slightly more awkward high school years.

Unfortunately for my peace of mind this break, I made a discovery on par with learning that cephalopods of an H.P. Lovecraft-scale had crawled into my basement and established colonies with underfunded schools. (Now that was a weekend.)

What was this horror? The paperback release of “The Unseen Queen” by Troy Denning, one of the latest books in the expanded Star Wars universe. Apparently, no sooner had the Yuuzhan Vong been defeated (an act that took 21 increasingly long-winded books) then a new alien race appears to burn the galaxy for the umpteenth time.

The reason that this bothered me was not so much its defiling Star Wars—George “Let’s Photoshop Hayden Christensen into old movies!” Lucas has already done that—but that it taints some of my earliest memories. While other students were playing soccer in grade school I was finding a quiet corner under the slide to read Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” Star Wars novel series, a saga which was a huge influence in my youth.

Much like long-running television shows, literary series have a tendency to jump the shark, going on for so long and changing style so much they’re no longer worth reading. Robert Parker’s once tense and witty mystery novels are just going through the motions (frame-ups and psychological conflict has been replaced by white-collar crime) and Robert Jordan has been writing the Wheel of Time saga so long even he admits the books are getting worse.

For me, the best book series are those with a set time frame to wrap things up in, or series authors develop so long that they have an end in sight at the very beginning. “The Lord of the Rings” worked well because its main story was contained to a trilogy, and with J.K. Rowling limiting herself to seven “Harry Potter” books there’s a lot less room for weird experiments (when main characters are dead, the odds are favorable we won’t see them again).

An author with a long-running series of books tends to lose their focus—I sometimes lose track during columns so I sympathize—but epic authors like Jordan or Terry Goodkind eventually wind up struggling for plots. When there’s no end in sight, even after dozens of books and endless impossible situations, it looks more like the authors will retire before their characters can win.

Killing off characters isn’t a good solution either, since many are so popular that removing them provokes a huge backlash (witness the death threats thrown against R.A. Salvatore for blowing up Chewbacca). More often then not, authors will have the character cheat a death that would kill most action film stars, then have them reintroduced so many times that most other characters stop caring.

It disheartens me to no end that Star Wars novels have fallen so far from their original nature, going from inventive novels to published fan fiction. In my personal opinion, those authors—and other authors who have trapped their own work in a death spiral—need to be forced into new universes, turning their talents to books that aren’t doomed for the shelves of Goodwill stores.

Yes, it’s always sad to bid a saga that gave us such distraction farewell, but in the end authors need to learn the lesson Lucas ignored: at some point, you’re doing readers a favor by stopping.

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