Features of fantasy that (in my opinion) need to die horribly: Part III

My last two instalments of this rant have focussed on the actual stories themselves, specifically features of setting, and narrative tone. Today is a rant less about the quality of word on the page, and more about quantity…

3. Bloat

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What is bloat? In some sense it can be objectively defined – it’s too many pages for too little pay-off. Butter scraped over too much bread, if you’ll pardon the expression (and a shame Peter Jackson lacks self-awareness). Sometimes, it’s the author being unable to write concisely. This is the least harmful variant – some people are perfectly good writers, but just happen to have a penchant for verbosity. Sometimes, the likes of Mervyn Peake spending a lengthy paragraph on a bit of wall is part of the charm.

But there are worse variants out there, and indeed the temptation to write really, really long books is a structural feature of the fantasy genre these past sixty years. In itself this isn’t a problem. Consider the sheer size of The Lord of the Rings – you’d expect a fair amount of bloat. But there isn’t – a lot happens in that 1100 pages, and apart from Tom Bombadil, there is little that immediately demands cutting. The Lord of the Rings is also a self-contained story, and isn’t merely treading water until the sequel. What you see in much modern fantasy, however, is the phenomenon of doorstopper novels that are themselves merely one book of an on-going series – a series that can now extend beyond a mere trilogy. The reasoning (or at least convention) is that epic subject matter ought to require epic length. The question then becomes whether there is sufficient butter to justify so much bread.

Perhaps. But with the drop in printing costs over the last century or so, there are fewer economic constraints on producing doorstoppers. The Lord of the Rings became a trilogy precisely because of such constraints – in Tolkien’s case, paper shortages following the Second World War. Modern authors, however, have the luxury of lovingly detailing the clothing or food or hair of their protagonists, or indulging in sub-plots that could be cut if the book really, really needed it. This isn’t a matter of epic subject matter, this is the writing expanding to fill a larger container. In theory, this is what editors are for, so long as they employ, to quote J.K. Rowling’s Mad-Eye Moody, Constant Vigilance.

This is where bloat becomes a much darker sign: the symptom of an incompetent editor, or (worst of all) an author who has become too big to edit. You can fix or replace an incompetent editor, but when faced with a rabid readership who will buy anything with a particular author’s name on it, the temptation to simply get the book out as soon as possible becomes irresistible to publishers. It’s money, after all, and publishing is a commercial enterprise. Unfortunately, getting the book out as soon as possible means editing gets neglected, which means bloat, which means those rabid readers lose out with a sub-standard product. Even a publisher who might be tempted to dig their heels in over an edit have to live with the fear of their big-name author going elsewhere. Since big-name authors provide a financial breathing space for publishers (and therefore actually free-up money for new authors), this is not a trivial fear.

That said, there is an element of the subjective here too. One person’s pointless 300 page introduction is another’s lush storytelling. I just think that modern fantasy really needs to realise that doorstoppers are not compulsory, and to borrow a crude expression, size matters less than how you use it.

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