Pages

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Talking About Book Series

Book series have been around for a long time. It is safe to say that they have never been more popular than they are today.  Lately, I have been thinking about how some books that are parts of larger series do not work as stand-alone novels. This leads me to ask additional questions. Are there are some books that should not even be considered individual novels?  When a book series comprises such novels, is it more accurate to consider the entire series as one work? Are some books so incapable of standing alone that they are really only half books, or one-third books, or one-quarter books? 

Books that are in series or connected books go back to ancient times. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad are connected stories. There are many more Greek and Roman myths that can be considered as part of larger mega-tales that contain shared characters and situations. Similarly, the Bible as well as the Hindu Holy Books tell connected stories. 

Many consider François Rabelais’s The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, originally written in five books, to be the first series written in the modern style. A little later, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixotewas comprised of two separate books written years apart.

Later came Author Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, which pioneered a lot of concepts and was enormously influential in terms of what followed. Many other mystery series followed. Fictional detectives created by writers such as Agatha Christie were featured in multiple books. Some mystery series have expanded into dozens of books written over the course of decades.

Since the 1980s, the number of series in science fiction and fantasy genres have exploded. Recently, while looking through recent Hugo and Nebula award winners, I had trouble finding books that were not part of larger series.

JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of The Ring Seriesis a good example of a series composed of books that cannot really stand alone. To make any sense, they really need to be read together. It can be argued that they were originally separated because the length of the series was so long. Many people really look at The Lord of The Rings as a single work anyway. 

There are many other series where the answer to the question that I raised is not clear cut, however. Frank Herbert’s Original Dune can clearly stand as an individual work. However, its sequels really cannot abide an independent existence. With examples such as this, it gets tricky. Many people consider the Dunesequels inferior works. For the record, I like the Dune sequels written by Herbert himself a lot, though they do not match the original. I would not suggest that they be included in the science-fiction masterpiece that is the first book. Yet, I believe them to be very good science fiction that just cannot stand on their own. 

Anthony Trollope’s Chronicles of Barsetshire gets really interesting. Most of the books in the series can exist as stand-alone novels. However, the last two books, The Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset, are really not independent books. The Last Chronicle of Barset is a mixture of threads connected to the earlier works. In my opinion, it is a very high-quality work.  I think that it was the second-best book of Barsetshires. Trollope himself thought that it was the best of the series. Yet, a reader just jumping into this book might be befuddled and miss much of its emotional impact. How can this novel be evaluated? I would also add that while Barchester Towers, the second book in the series, can work fine as a stand-alone, reading its predecessor, The Warden,first, strengthens its artistic merits. I use Trollope’s series as an example, but similar issues arise withy many series. 

One can say that all of this does not matter and that one should just read and enjoy books. This is true, but I think that all this is relevant when discussing and reviewing books. I also find the topic very interesting. 

Thinking about all this, I conclude the following: Series comprising of books that really cannot stand independently, such as The Lord of The Rings, should just be considered as one single book.  In addition, a stand-alone work is a stand-alone work, thus books like Dune should always be considered stand alones.  The same is true for the first four books of the Chronicles of Barsetshire; they are stand alones. However, when a book is connected to others in a series, the entire series should also be considered one work, even if the series contains individual stand-alone novels. No matter their artistic merit, books looks likeThe Small House at Allington and The Last Chronicle of Barset do not work as independent novels. 

No system of classifying books and book series is perfect. There are also countless variations on the examples that I have mentioned that raise their own questions. Nor is it critical that books are looked at in such a systematic way. I think that this is an interesting thought exercise though. Despite the thoughts that I outlined above, some of the questions that I raised here really do not have answers. 

Sequels to human stories are almost as old as stories themselves. Only one thing is for sure, and that is that people will continue to create sequels and series, regardless of how they are classified.  We cannot get enough of great stories and great characters. We keep wanting more.

50 comments:

Stephen said...

Sometimes series are invented! For instance, Isaac Asimov wrote a few stories that he later declared had the same timeline. Then he wrote a series of mysteries, and wrote another series of interesting stories which were unrelated. Then, after fans kept pestering him, he declared that all three series (Empire, Robots, and Foundation) were part of the same universe, and wrote MORE books linking them.

So many books, so little time said...

I absolutey agree with Lord Of The Rings and I actually love it, I have two copies (one three set and one gigantic edition). I have read it three times so far I think and seen the movies countless times. Fantastic books. Dune I haven't read, I have only read one Sherlock Holmes but I did enjoy it. Finally Brian a post about a book (series) I have actually read yaaaaay, it has only took how long of us following each others blogs. Will check the others out at some point, hope you are well xxx

Lainy http://www.alwaysreading.net

JacquiWine said...

I agree, there are some series where the core story runs through each instalment effectively meaning they read like one extended book. Miklos Banffy's Transylvania Trilogy and Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels definitely fall into this category. Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles is an interesting one, though - I hadn't appreciated that the early books could be read as standalones.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Stephen- I should have mentioned Asimov. I remember the point in The Foundation series where he tied that to robot mystery books. I read the book shortly after it was published. I remember thinking how cool it was.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy- Lord of the Rings is really great. I loved the movies too. Interesting that you definitely post about some books that I have read. Stephen King comes to mind.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jacqui- I must try Banff’s works. A lot of people recamend Trollope’s books as standalones. I am a stickler for reading series in order though.

CyberKitten said...

I *love* it when you find a book you really like and then discover its the first book in a series. Sometimes it might only be a trilogy. But if you're *really* lucky it's like 10 or more books long!

RT said...

I wonder....how does the Bible fit into this discussion....hmmm...
Best wishes from relocated R. T. at
https://imaginarygardensrealtoadsblog.blogspot.com/

Mudpuddle said...

one of the indicators revealing the popularity of serial tales is the protagonist: at first i just thought of Montalbano in Camilleri's detective series taking place in Sicily, but then i remembered Ulysses in Homer's duad; and Mr. Poirot, and sometimes even families are featured in succeediing stories, like the Sacketts as created by Louis L'Amour... all in all, literature wouldn't be anywhere the same without series... if nothing else, they're a more or less guaranteed source of income for poor starved authors...

Carol said...

The Book Club I go to once a month scheduled 'The Wreath'by Kristin Lavransdatter the other month. It's the first book in a trilogy & I was going to buy it but fortunately, I bought the trilogy because it was better value all up. So glad I did! You just can't stop with the first book, or the second! It would be the ultimate frustration being left up in the air if you didn't read all three.

Whispering Gums said...

I love thought exercises like this too Brian. Even if there are not answers, the act of thinking can help clarify ideas in our minds. I'm not a big reader of series so can't really comment on the specific examples that you give. However, I did enjoy your discussion of The chronicles of Barsetshire, and how it includes stand-alone books and those that aren't.

There is a series that I'm reading at present, and am waiting for the next, and that's Hilary Mantel's Cromwell Books. I'd certainly say Wolf Hall can stand on its own. But, it's interesting to consider whether the second one, Bring up the bodies, could in the same way. I'm not sure. Maybe this is quite common with series, as I think you suggest - ie the first one can stand alone but successive novels often less so.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi CyberKitten- This is true. I also find it interesting when I find that a book it a series that I read decades ago has sequels that went on for decades and may still be going. I found that to be true of several series including Steven R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant series.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi RT - I think that the Bible is a lot like the Greek myths. That is, a list of connected stories written by different authors over huge stretches of time.

Thanks for the updated link.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Mudpuddle- You mention some great examples. The commercial aspect of all these sequels are worth noting.

Popular protagonists are all indeed a tempting reason to write, or read, fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

I Carol - I agree with not finishing sequels. There were a few that I did not read through when I was young. To this day I have not finished them. This is always the result of the first book being disappointing, or the early books being self contained and the sequels having a bad reputation. But usually, I cannot wait to finish a series.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - Indeed, life is full of these fuzzy questions. I have been thinking of reading The Cromwell Books myself. I am curious as to what you think of them. I suppose a lot of first books in series were meant to be stand alones initially.

The Bookworm said...

Interesting question about series books. And funny because I thought of The Lord of The Ring books right away. They do need to be read in order, you can't pick up the second or the third without having read the first and although not part of the trilogy, The Hobbit should be read before those three I think.
And many other series, like Harry Potter just need to be read in order.

Enjoy your Sunday :)

Marian H said...

Fascinating topic... I think of the Chronicles of Narnia, and how it started with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, but then Lewis added a prequel and many sequels. :) I read it chronologically and can't see reading it any other way, though many people feel it should be read in publishing order...

James said...

This is a fascinating topic. I agree with your comment that "No system of classifying books and book series is perfect. There are also countless variations on the examples that I have mentioned that raise their own questions." The variations are endless. I think of Proust where the seven books that comprise In Search of Lost Time may be read separately (and the first, Swann's Way, most often is); but the individual books take on a different meaning when read together.
My most recent reading of the Maqroll novellas is an example where each novella was published separately and can be read that way (in any order), but they hang together by the connection of the character of Maqroll and his adventures, not unlike Don Quixote or Odysseus. It is worth considering as seen by your commentary and the responses it has elicited.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Naida - Indeed, the Lord of the Rings is really one book. I would also recommend reading The Hobbit first. Of course Harry Potter needs to be read in order. However, as I understand int, the first book was originally written as a standalone.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Marian - You raise another interesting question involving series. I tend to go with publishing order even if there are prequels. find that there are often surprises and neat plot twists that work better when a book is read that way.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I need to read In Search of Lost Time for many reasons, one is that I can fit it into my thoughts on series. The combination of books seem fascinating.

The Maqroll adventures sound like the classic mysteries. They are of course tied together but they are can stand alone.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Brian, I have trouble finishing sequels. Sometimes its because as you say the first book wasn't very good but even with really fine sequels I end up not completing the series like I planned. Would like to hear your thoughts an reading an author's entire body of work. Good idea or bad? I have now read two novels by George Gissing Odd Women and New Grub Street and marvel at both and so I am tempted to read his 18 or so remaining novels but something tells me that might not be such a good idea.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Kathy - Though I always read books in series, as I get older I find that I am a more patient reader and am more likely to finish things.

As for finishing a writer'e entire body of work: some people do it. They love and connect with the writer so much that it works for them. I tend to think that most writers have some weak works so I do not think that I would likely try to do so unless a writer has not written that much.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Very interesting topic, Brian. I have never thought about series, their importance or value.

I cannot actually give an opinion but I am going to think about what you said. You always make me think!

The Trollope series I definitely want to read in the right order as I'm afraid to find out things before their natural development. Rather like giving surprises away.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon- Trollope’s series are definitely worth the read. He is the kind of author that is not big on suprises but his stories do evolve naturally.

Whispering Gums said...

I really liked the two Crowell books written to date - partly because of the particular themes - different in each book - that Mantel explores. I was a bit sorry that she gave in a little to criticisms of her third person voice in the first one and clarified it in the second book with "he Cromwell" on occasion. But that was a small grumble.

My sense though is that she's struggling with the third one - to the one that takes him to his death - because the first two were so well received critically and she's feeling a little frozen about repeating it a third time. I may be wrong but it is taking a while and I read somewhere that she doesn't want to disappoint her Cromwell fans. That's probably an issue for writers of series?

Violet said...

Danielewski's series "The Familiar" was supposed to be 27 novels, but the publisher bailed after only 5, because the books were too expensive to produce and they didn't sell enough. I was a bit disappointed about that.

It interests me that so many of the narratives we think of as classic novels were actually serialised stories when they were first published. Can you imagine waiting for the next installment of Anna Karenina or Bleak House? I think Dickens was paid by the word, so no wonder he went on a bit. :)

I had a bit of a thing for the Stephanie Plum series, but they were very formulaic and got boring after a while. I believe there are about 24 of them now! I'm not very keen on people writing "in the style of" books to add to an established series by a dead author, which is something that seems to happen quite often these days. I'm not sure what deceased authors would think about it.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi WP - I can imagine the pressure that a writer feels to follow up on success with sequels. I think that this is especially true when the early books are self contained and there must be some temptation to leave the story as it is.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet- You bring up some interesting variations on this theme. Serial writing as was done in the past by the classic writers does seem so odd to us today. I wonder how the Dickens works would have been different if he had not been paid per word.

Sequels written after the writer is dead are another thing. They have been somewhat popular over the years. Frank Herbert’s son had continued The Dune series. I read a few of the books but I did not like them.

It sounds as if The Famiar series would have been something else if it had gone to 27 books!

Andrew Blackman said...

I agree with the other commenters—this is a very thought-provoking exercise, Brian! I haven't read many series, to be honest. The "Rabbit" series by John Updike comes to mind, and I think they could all definitely stand alone as novels—they're just exploring different stages in life. I've always wanted to read Proust's In Search of Lost Time, but I've never got very far with it. Maybe this year :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Andrew - I have actually been thinking of starting The Rabbit series. Once I start I will likly want to read them all. In Search of Lost time is also on my list. I have heard how challenging it is.

Suko said...

Brian Joseph,

Your very interesting commentary made me think about my own experiences reading books in a series. In the early days of my blog, I was reading a very enjoyable series of books, The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency, which I greatly enjoyed. But generally speaking, I don't read that many series, although I'd like to. I tend to read the first, "most famous" book in a series,and then don't continue to read the subsequent books; I'm not exactly sure why.

Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins said...

You're spot on about the explosion of spec-fic series: I'm struggling to come up with a single sci-fi or fantasy standalone off the top of my head :| And you raise a really interesting point about the way that this question impacts book reviewing/blogging - to use your Lord Of The Rings example, I don't think it would really be fair to review The Fellowship Of The Ring on its own, as so much of the story is yet to be explored/resolved. And even outside of the spec-fic space, I'm wondering now (having read your post here) about my decision to review Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend on its own. As with LOTR, it was basically a very large book that has been divided into a series of four for practicality's sake. Hmmm... as always, Brian, you give me so much to think about. Thank you!
(P.S. I really want to read your last post on Robinson Crusoe, but I'm going to be reading the book for the first time v. soon and I'm saving it for after! Looking forward to talking it over with you!)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Suko - I think thaf Sometimes it is not worth going beyond the first book. But I think other times series are well worth it.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sheree - For all my talk here I still review each book in a series, even when they are not all that self contained.

No Rush on Robinson Crusoe, I am curious as to what you will think about it.

Felicity Grace Terry said...

Fascinating, totally fascinating. How I'd love to sit down and discuss this very subject with you.

The number of series I've joined in the middle, never to read the first book, then there are those that I have dipped in and out of and then there are those which I have religiously followed to the bitter end, often long after the books actually appealed to me.

As I said, a fascinating post.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Tracy. I should hand mentioned it in my post, but as I’ve noted in the comments section of your blog, I am a stickler for reading series in order.

Maria Behar said...

OUTSTANDING post as usual, Brian!

As you know, I read a lot of YA fiction. Series are very common in this genre. I don't think any YA authors write ONLY stand alones. They do write them, but right along with series.

I have greatly enjoyed Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books, Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy series, and, of course, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. There are other series that I have not finished, but want to, such as The Grisha Trilogy, by Leigh Bardugo. I've only read the first book, "Shadow and Bone". Then there's the Rebel of the Sands series, by Alwyn Hamilton. I've only read the first book -- "Rebel of the Sands". And there are others.

As for classics, the first series that comes to mind is the one you've mentioned, featuring the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. I LOVE these books!! I see them more as interconnected stories or novellas, though. I want to embark on a project of reading them all! Then I'll be able to review them.

I also want to read the Barsetshire series, which you've praised so much! Alas, there are SO many great books out there.... :(

It seems to me that the whole rationale behind book series is the human tendency to hold on to great, enjoyable experiences as long as possible. Such experiences are all too fleeting, unfortunately.... We get attached to them, and don't want them to EVER end. Thus, we don't want to come to the end of a book, and never encounter those characters again! We have fallen in love with the world and characters created by the author. Thus, readers have been known to actually whoop with joy when they find out that their favorite book will have many sequels. This was especially the case with the HP series. Of course, a series will eventually come to an end. And then many readers will start to re-read it!

I think book series are part of the joys of reading, and I sure hope authors will continue to publish them!

Thanks for your insightful thoughts!! <3 :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks so much Maria. As you point out, there are so many serious out there, especially in the YA - science fiction genre.

Sherlock Holmes. like most fictional detective series, really are just related books and most work as stand alones.

You are correct about the popularity of series. We really do not want to let go of the experience and we get so attached to the characters. Series really do enhance the entire reading experience.

Caroline said...

Interesting topic, Brian. I make a difference between trilogies, which, in my opinion, are books in three volumes, but need to be read chronologically, and series that are much longer. There are exceptions to this rule, but hardly any trilogy I know is comprised of standalones.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - It is true that most trilogies can be looked at as one volume. However there are exceptions. Cixin Liu's Remembrance of past earth series comes to mind. The first two books of that series work very well on their own.

HKatz said...

It's also interesting to consider the role of fanfiction. Some fanfiction is written very well, and expands on or more deeply explores the world/universe created by a particular series - including adding sequels and spin-offs. The original author isn't writing the fanfiction, but the fanfiction is still a testament to what the author has inspired in the people who love the books and don't want to stop playing around with the characters, ideas, and plots.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Hila - Indeed fan fiction opens up a whole new world of sequels. It is out of the original authors control so one can get into all sorts of questions as to how it should be classified and looked at.

JaneGS said...

I think most mystery series are standalone, held together by a common protagonist and often a cadre of friends. Most other series, except Trollope’s imo, are simply really long books. For example, only the Outlander book 1 really works as a stand-alone book. All the others, despite the backstory that Gabaldon inserts, depend on the previous ones for the reader to make any sense of the plot, issues, character development, etc.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - I have read enough literary series to be sure if more are like Trollope or not. I think that there is a lot of variation out there. For instance, most of The Dune books seemed to work well as the end of the series, but Herbert just kept writing more.

thecuecard said...

Interesting thoughts about book series. In general I prefer reading novels that are stand-alones. That said I have enjoyed some series such as the Lord of the Rings and some private investigator kinds of books. But I do like when books stand on their own ... even if they share characters that are in other following books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - There is something to say about self contained books. Even, as you say, they are part of a series. I think that it is safe to say that we will see both kinds for a long time to come.

Evelina @ AvalinahsBooks said...

Series seem to have become more popular these days for sure. But I think that maybe the stories being told are just too long to be told in one book. Then again, I think it's also financially better for the publishers. And we like prolonging the good experience.
I guess for books like Dune, it's more that the sequels are spin offs than sequels, because Dune can be read alone :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Evelina - I remember back in the 1980s when the popularity series really exploded. You raise a good point about the financial advantage of writing series.