Thursday, December 30, 2010

Til Death Do Us Part -- A Look at Reading Cycles and Series

My books of 2010 post has got me thinking about something: my reading habits. And, more importantly, how my reading habits have changed. I only had one fantasy novel on the list. Which might be odd, considering I want to be an, um, fantasy novelist.

Now there's a few reasons for this. One is simply that my reading tastes are much more diverse and eclectic than they once were. In that regard, the balance is necessarily going to change. When I was young I read mostly fantasy, with smatterings of other things. Now I read mostly other things, with smatterings of fantasy.

Now, I think that breadth of reading is good for me as a writer (and human being), even as a writer of fantasy. ***Which is not to say that it would necessarily be good for every writer of fantasy -- just for me, at the least.*** And part of it, too, is that I don't find as much fantasy as I would like that satisfies the complexity I desire in a story, and meets character, style and swordfight quotient needs. Which, of course, is part of the reason I write the kind of stories I write, because I feel there might be something missing, and that other readers might feel this lack as well.

Yet I've been thinking about something else, as well, and that has to do with the physical form of fantasy itself -- the series. Because a lot of the great fantasy writers (particularly in epic fantasy) work in series. And often pretty long series. And when I was young this was fine, because I was usually reading a whole bunch of series at once. I might be in the middle of ten or twenty at any one time. And new books in the different series would pop up fairly regularly, keeping me in reading material as I rotated endlessly through the different series. And if there was a lull, I could always search out a new series or author, or use that time to enjoy one of the smatterings, one of the non-fantasy books on my reading list.

But as the ratio started leaning more to the smatterings than to the fantasy, something else happened. It wasn't just a change in taste, but a change in the patterns of my reading. I was now separated from that cycle of endless series, interchanging and handing me off from book to book. And I now find it harder to keep up with series.

I find, now, that I start some good series, but divorced from that cycle of reading I don't wait for the next book, don't search it out when it arrives - even if I fully enjoyed the opening of the series. Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie... these guys are worth reading more of. But I'm out of that series loop.

It's a matter of habit, I suppose. Tracking series, targeting the new books when they come out, a matter of developing a fluid reading schedule. You kind of tie yourself in to a commitment: I'm going to read a bunch of books by this author, with installments coming over a few (possibly many) years. The reading life partly planned out long in advance...

I find this harder now. My choice of reading matter now is very... whimsical? Mercurial? I don't know what I'm going to read, usually, until I pick it off the shelf. A matter of feel, of tone, of trying to satisfy some sort of amorphous need I can't pidgeonhole let alone describe. It's an ephemeral path that connects my books, that links together my reading life.

And yet I miss series reading, too. That sense of engagement that comes with such a long narrative, the sense of familiarity and comfort.

One of my goals for the new year is to read more fantasy/speculative fiction. Yet I wonder if I can succeed? I'm curious to see how ingrained my reading habits have become. And if I'm successful, how will it affect those habits?

What about you, Fellow Sophisticates? Have your reading habits changed? What's your experience of series and reading commitments?


Jane Steen said...

My reading habits have definitely become more eclectic in the last few years. I find I'm more interested in the standalone novel than in series these days, and have been challenging myself with many new authors (partly as a result of scoring review books from LibraryThing).

The biggest change over the last few years is the shift from 95% fiction to about 50% fiction and 50% nonfiction. I'm not sure why this has happened - could be age. Is this happening to you?

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Yeah, part of the change is definitely more non-fiction than I used to read. I read very little non-fiction when I was young, but now I read a fair bit. My father was a history professor, so I guess I can't escape it. :) But yeah, a lot of history of history and memoir and other odds and ends, from science to religion.

And I hear you on the standalone. I think it seems like an easier commitment. Good or bad, it will be finished. And yet I still miss long series...

And I agree about trying new authors, too. So many interesting writers... it seems difficult to tie myself to one writer for ten books unless I absolutely LOVE their stuff. One book is a lesser commitment. I can try one book by lots of authors, but only so many ten book series.

R.S. Bohn said...

I found myself nodding my head quite a bit at what you've said. As a former rabid fantasy reader, I also had multiple series to read, so there was always something in one of those series to be read. Now, as I generally read more lit and less genre, that is a practice that's gone by the wayside.

Or is it because, as I've gotten older and become a more critical reader, I find those series irritating? GRRM "A Song of Ice and Fire" series is the best example here. The first in the series, "A Game of Thrones," blew me away, had me on the edge of my seat, and I couldn't wait to get my hands on the next one. But with each successive novel, I feel that the quality has gone down considerably. I'm very unhappy with what he's doing, and now, of course, the next book is years overdue, which doesn't help.

I've found that a lot of fantasy series are this way, with a first novel that lights me on fire, but the rest... meh.

Also, I've always been a huge fan of the short story. Even as a teenager, when I collected (and still do) anthologies. Love them. Don't know if that makes a difference.

You said:
Which, of course, is part of the reason I write the kind of stories I write, because I feel there might be something missing, and that other readers might feel this lack as well.

This is exactly why I picked up writing again, three years ago. And I thought, as I wrote my first novel in secret, that no one would like it, because it was different from everything else I was reading in that particular arena. And yet, I won multiple awards and had an enormous fan base, and all because of that quirky novel.

I'm trying to remember this as I embark on this next novel. If I find something lacking in a genre, then maybe others do as well.

Good luck to us both!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

Ha! A Song of Ice and Fire is one of the two big series I'm still "following". But I rather agree with you about it.

Frankly, I think he lost control of the story. I think GRRM has fallen in love with far too many of his secondary characters, turning them into primary characters and giving them POV... and sending them off on their own storyline adventures. Which means the overall story has bloated and slowed, and now lacks focus, to the point where instead of one novel he had to cut the story in two (still huge books) just to cover all the storylines. But some of those storylines shouldn't be storylines, in my opinion. Those characters should just be great secondary characters. But no...

At the beginning the focus was the Starks and Lannisters, which kept the story fairly tight. But it's spiralled out of control, a little. To the point where it seems like Martin himself doesn't know entirely what to do. Though I could be wrong! I shall now cease my amateur psychobabble. :)

R.S. Bohn said...

No, no, I agree with you. The Onion Knight, anyone? I'm still shaking my head over why he's got chapters.

When the focus is on the Starks and Lannisters, I love it. Or Daenerys, my personal favorite. But there are far too many secondary characters who now have a main storyline, and looking at the series as a whole, so far, I can see where massive editing would only help.

Also, where we can see actual character development -- Sansa, Arya, Jon Stark, for instance -- it's fascinating and believable.

Sorry to derail the discussion with geekdom, LOL!

Matthew Rush said...

Commenting before I read the post: Quit changing your avatar Bryan. And: How bout that Joe Webb?

Matthew Rush said...

What kind of boat is that? And is that a cannon on the prow?

Matthew Rush said...

Having now read the post:

First of all don't ever call me a sophisticate again. Second, I have a solution for all of this: Just remain oblivious to what's getting published until the whole series has been written and produced. I did this with the Hunger Games, hadn't even heard of it until just before the release of Mockingjay, and it worked out swimmingly.

Seriously though? I just follow the Wu-Wei principal when it comes to what to read: whatever comes floating down the river into my hand is generally what I pick up next.

Although I will say I'm still very partial to series-eses. I tend to remember them much more fondly than stand alone novels. One that I will suggest to you that you probably haven't read but I bet would enjoy is called the Bartimaeus Trilogy. It's MG by an English Author, and sure, it's a little like HP, but much, much funnier, and more irreverent, and it has the BEST ending ever.

That is all and Happy New Year Sir!

Anne R. Allen said...

This is a timely post for me. Back at home for the holidays, I saw a lot of my old books, which have been passed on to younger family members. I saw a pattern in my reading through my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood: fantasy, then romance, then mysteries--mostly all series, where I would seek out one writer and read everything he/she had written. Now I hardly read anything but literary fiction and nonfiction. All stand-alones. Not sure why, but I think the commitment thing you mention has something to do with it. Plus I don't feel I have the time to get swallowed up in a series. But I miss that.

Cheree said...

My reading habits have deinitely changed over the year. Before I only stuck to Urban Fantasy and Horror, now a lot more contemporary are finding their way onto my shelves.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Ann and Cheree

Glad I'm not alone! Maybe it's the simple time-crunch of it all? When I was young I had lots of time to dig in and read series. I remember once spending two weeks reading everything David Eddings had written... and that was a lot of books. That thought makes my brain hurt a little bit now. And the time needed to read a couple books a day... Ha!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...

@ Matt

I was in the mood for a change! And I thought a ship and the open sea would be good to start the journey of a new year. Hopefully a good year.

And the ship is a ferry I took on my honeymoon, crossing from Morocco to Spain. The beautiful mediterranean! And I only wish there was a cannon. I would have given those people on Gibraltar the what for.

And I've heard good things about the Bartimaeus trilogy. I was thinking I might start looking into stuff like that for my kids. My daughter's five, but we've already read her things like The Hobbit and the Prydain Chronicles. She'll listen for hours. I've been thinking about the early Potter books...

Damyanti said...

For as long as I can remember, I have devoured books. And they have been all kinds. Nothing much has changed there.

But I do find your point about series interesting. For me, if I like an author or series enough I'll keep a sub-conscious track, and zero in on the next installments at some point of time.

If not, I'll read the first of a series and happily forget about the rest.

Douglas Morrison said...

Happy Hew Year!

I still like series. My tastes have changed though.

Historical Non-Fiction seems to be my current trend. Just finished Egerton's "Year of Meteors". Great book!

I know the interviews have stretched my reading choices. I had never read a Zombie book, until Robin Becker became a guest.

Same with Paranormal and Dystopia. While I doubt some of the genres will ever make my reading list by choice, it has been interesting.

I still like the pic I used for your

Have a great New Year,


Matthew Rush said...

Well Bartimaeus is a bit darker than HP, and it's full of footnotes, which would be odd to read aloud. But the little ones might still enjoy it. Maybe in a few years time.

Indigo said...

I'm always been a horror reader. Still am, but these days I tend to veer all over the map. I think because a hefty dose of different taste in books, tends to give more variety to my writing. You want to stand out in your genre, not follow rut and mote as just another example.

What I haven't delved into is heavy romance. Yes, there is an element of romance in my books - more for the emotional intensity than the romance itself. (Hugs)Indigo