Monthly Archives: September 2009

Why I’m not buying A Dance With Dragons (immediately, anyway)

Jo Walton at Tor has been blogging about George R. R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire. The blog posts start with this one, which is a pretty good description of the series for those of you who haven’t read it. I recommend the books, but I also recommend waiting until he actually finishes the series (which could be far in the future, when we’re all reading it on our retinal implants while waiting for the mechanic to finish changing the oil in our jetpacks).
Indeed, these were the books that led me to adopt a general policy of not reading any fantasy (or sci-fi) series which had yet to conclude. I had already given up on Robert Jordan, but that’s because his books were getting progressively worse. In Martin’s case, that wasn’t the problem (although A Feast for Crows was a bit disappointing), but the lack of closure at the end of each one, followed by a multi-year wait during which I’d forget important details of the complicated plot, was getting annoying. It became clear that the series would be a much better experience if I could read it all the way to completion in one go. So I’m waiting until I can do that.
Series bloat seems to be endemic in fantasy, for which I mainly blame Tolkien: everyone seems to think they need to write at least a trilogy. But some of my favorite fantasy novels are standalone: Perdido Street Station, The Lies of Locke Lamora. Lately I’ve been seeking out more like those and avoiding epic series unless I know it’s finished. (Which has led me to read less fantasy and more sci-fi, where I tend to find less of a serial tendency.)
Again, it’s not that I don’t like epic series, it’s just that they’re more satisfying when I don’t have to wait for the next volume. Books of this type, at least the good ones, compel the reader to keep turning the pages and devouring the storyline, and because there’s no resolution at the end of each volume, that desire to keep reading persists but is frustrated. Jo Walton talks a bit about this quality:

Firstly, they have a very high “I-want-to-read-it” quotient. This “IWantToReadItosity” is hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good. Who can say why Robert Heinlein and Georgette Heyer and Zenna Henderson have it for me and Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley don’t, despite the fact that Hesse and Huxley are major world writers? I’ll happily acknowledge that The Glass Bead Game is a better book than Job: A Comedy of Justice, but nevertheless, Job has that IWantToReadItosity, and if you left me in a room with both books and nothing else, it would be Job I’d start first.
Now even within genre this is something that varies a lot between people. The Wheel of Time books don’t have it for me, I’ve read Eye of the World and I didn’t care enough to pick up the others. Ditto Harry Potter, where I’ve read the first three. These are books that have IWantToReadItosity for millions of people, but not for me. The Song of Ice and Fire books do, though, they grab me by the throat. This isn’t to say they’re gripping in the conventional sense–though they are–because IWantToReadItosity isn’t necessarily to do with plot or characters or any of the ways we conventionally divide up literature. It’s got to do with whether and how much you want to read it. You know the question “Would you rather read your book or go out with your friends?” Books have IWantToReadItosity if you’d rather read them. There are books I enjoy that I can still happily put down to do something else. A Game of Thrones is eight hundred pages long, and I’ve read it six times, but even so, every time I put the bookmark in, I put it in reluctantly.

I was thinking a bit about her comment that IWantToReadItosity (we need a better name for this) is separate from whether a book is actually good. And certainly it’s easy to think of really terrible books that have it (The Da Vinci Code, for example), and great books that don’t (much of what we were assigned in high school). In fact, there’s a strain of thought that Great Literature should be difficult and challenging, and therefore shouldn’t have IWantToReadItosity. I don’t think that’s true, though. It’s not that the two qualities are anticorrelated, they are just orthogonal. I even came up with a diagram to illustrate this:

Which is not to say that Haruki Murakami is a better writer than Melville, just that reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a different experience from reading Moby-Dick. (And Wind-Up Bird really is difficult, just not because of entire chapters dedicated to the details of the whaling industry.) However, it is to say that these guys are both better writers than Ayn Rand, because she’s pretty bad.
Discussion is open: what books in the literary canon have IWantToReadItosity? And what are some standalone fantasy novels or completed series I should read?