Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:
Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole series in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings singly rather than as three separate works.
Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?
And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:
Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!
Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?
Me: Night Watch, definitely.
Person: OK, I’ll read that one.
Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.
Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?
Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.
Person: Where should I start, then?
Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.
Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?
Me: About forty.
In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?
To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively consider nominating - if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.
ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.