The fantasy genre has been powered by serialized storylines ever since I can remember – Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Moorcock’s Elric novels, Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, Le Guin’s Earthsea, Silverberg's Majipoor, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars (categorized as science fiction but replete with fantasy elements), McCaffrey’s Pern, etc.
Elantris and Pandemonium by Daryl Gregory, are quickly becoming an endangered species…
There are some literally shelf-bending series out there: George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth, Robert Jordan’s unfinished Wheel of Time cycle, Terry Brooks’ Shannara, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake sequence, Steve Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, to name just a few…
Sanderson – the author of not only brilliant standalone novels like Elantris and Warbreaker and the Mistborn trilogy but also the writer who is going to finish the late Robert Jordan’s massive Wheel of Time – was a guest on BarnesandNoble.com’s Fantasy/Science Fiction forum recently and this is what he had to say about why more and more fantasy sagas are going looooong.
“When a standalone comes out, it tends to gather praise from both readers and reviewers. Then proceeds to sell far fewer copies than a series book does. The Wheel of Time didn't hit #1 on the NYT list until book eight or nine, I believe, and I don't think Sword of Truth hit #1 until book ten. Series tend to sell better. Even as readers complain about them. And so I think publishers do push for them.
But why do they sell better? Well, I think this is partially the learning curve factor. We like fantasy for the same reason that fantasy is hard to read: the learning curve. Starting a fantasy book can be tough because of how many new names, concepts, societies, religions, and laws of physics you have to learn and get used to. Epics, with their dozens upon dozens of characters, are even tougher in this regard. And so, after investing so much energy into becoming an expert in the world, we want to get a good payoff and be able to USE that expertise.
Beyond that, I think that fantasy is character driven – and when we fall in love with characters, we want to read more about them. Fantasy, particularly the epic series, allows us to follow characters across sweeping, life changing events. Fantasy… gives us lots of pages and time to know these characters. So we want more from them.
But the very thing that we love about fantasy in this regard also tends to present problems. We want lots of characters, but eventually this large cast overwhelms us and makes the books seem to drag. Personally, I think these complaints will be much lessened when some of these great series are done, and you don't have to wait years and years between volumes.
Anyway, Terry Brooks talks a lot about this in his biographical work Sometimes the Magic Works. (Bet you can find it here on BN.com, and I highly suggest the book as a quick, interesting, engaging read.) He mentions how, when he left Shannara to write other things, the fans begged and begged him for more. Until finally he broke down and gave them more books in the world.
A lot of authors I know tend to live in this state of perpetual wonder and amazement that, finally, people are actually enjoying and reading their works. (After all the years of failure trying to break in, I know that I feel this way a lot.) When someone comes to you and talks about how much they love one of your works, asking you to write more...well, we're storytellers. If people want a story, we want to give it to them. It's hard to say no. (Though so far I have.)
I intend to keep writing standalone novels. But I do so knowing that 1) they will not sell as well as series books and, 2) readers will ask me for more, and so each standalone will only increase the number of requests for future books that I can't write. I'm in the fortunate place that I can write, and publish, what I want – whether it be series or standalone – and no longer have to worry about the money.
But, in my heart, I've got a strong desire to write a big epic. I grew up reading them. I want to see if I can do one, my way, and add something new to the genre. So maybe that's the reason. Looking through Robert Jordan's notes, reading interviews, I don't think he ever artificially inflated the length of his series because of publisher desire or money reasons. I think he loved the long-form epic, and wanted to tell the story his way, no matter how long it took. And as he added more characters, it took longer and longer.”
Sanderson obviously knows what he is talking about – and I agree with his comments wholeheartedly. Looooong series probably do sell better and amass substantially more readers. But personally, I love a good standalone fantasy – I don’t have to invest decades waiting for the books to be released and then to eventually read them all to get to some kind of satisfactory conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a good epic fantasy just like the next person but it seems like every new fantasy or paranormal fantasy release that I pick up nowadays is part of a series and it’s starting to discourage me.
Is the standalone fantasy becoming passé? I certainly hope not...