July 17, 2007

HP 6

It’s easier to criticise than it is to become a worldwide bestselling author. So I’m going to do that.

J.K. Rowlings’ books have become longer and longer (just look at them). Are they full of engrossing detail or indulgent verbal runoff?

My contention is that, ever since her books took off, she’s got an editor who simply looks the other way when the verbal diarrhea hits. I don’t think this is an unusual phenomenon in publishing. I think a successful author is a clear cash cow. Why inflict on them an editor who might disrupt the genius; why cause arguments? The books are going to sell anyhow.

So we started Harry Potter 6 (…and the Half Blood Prince) tonight and read the first chapter. Don’t worry - no significant book 6 spoilers here, nor really anything that would spoil book 5.

Chapter 1 deals with the real Prime Minister (presumably of Great Britain) and a visit from the Minister of Magic. The chapter is 18 pages long. Most of the pages deal with this visit. But right in the first few pages, Rowling pretty much establishes that this isn’t the first time they’ve met this way and that he’s not comfortable at all when it happens.

However, 5 pages out of those 18 are, in my humble opinion, superfluous. Rowling is a good enough writer to paint a picture of the previous meetings in our minds based on her character’s reactions. But she can’t help but recount those previous meetings (briefly, but unnecessarily) padding the chapter and not really giving us much of value.

Right there, that’s 28% of the chapter unnecessary. I have no idea if that’s representative. This book is 831 pages long. Cut out 28% of the pages and you’d have 598 pages. That’s about the size of Prisoner of Azcaban (HP 3) bur still quite a bit more than the first two books. I’m thinking 28% fluff is a fair but conservative estimate, and represents a time when Rowling had more reliable editing.

I don’t remember who it was — maybe Orson Scott Card — who called this “World Builder Syndrome” (Maggie reminded me). The inability to resist fleshing out your world and then blabbing it out to the reader. I admire a well-built world, but I wish some authors would keep more of it to themselves.

Posted by James at July 17, 2007 12:41 AM
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I agree - that is annoying. Other authors do it too - Evanovich and her Stephanie Plum series comes to mind Books 1 - 5, she handled it well and briefly, so rehashing storylines served it's very short purpose of helping make her brain candy novels stand alone to the new reader. Now, in books 6 - 13, it's as if the rehashing has become the entire story, with only a handful of new material. Very annoying.

Posted by: leslie at July 17, 2007 8:01 AM

Books five and six are my least favorite of the series due to poor plotting and redundancy. I have higher hopes for the last installment which comes out this week. I'll definitely read it, and that may be the problem. As the subject matter has turned darker she may no longer know if she's writing for kids, adults, or the smaller group of fantasy fans who eagerly absorb as much of a new world as possible.

A seven hour ultra-extended version of "Return of the King"? With bathroom breaks? Bring it on!

Posted by: Mike at July 17, 2007 8:39 AM

(Oops - posted this comment on the wrong thread)

While Tony Hillerman did not give in to world builder syndrome, we've noticed a lack of editing in his novels. Misspellings, and mistakes as heinous as the wrong name being used for a character (I think one character's name was used for another) here and there in a way that completely messed up one chapter.

Mike: Tolkien was one of the ultimate world builders, but many people think he pulled it off. I guess some are better than others at it.

Posted by: James at July 17, 2007 8:55 AM

In D&D there was always a problem where if the DM bothered to describe anything, you knew it was important. If the characters went into a bar and the DM taks about the mysterious figure in the corner, you knew that you had to either talk to him or fight him. If the characters go into a room and the DM talks about the red pen on the desk, you know its important.

One of the reasons Rowling's books work is because she buries the important facts in a ton of other detail, so you barely notice them at first. Then on second reading there's a lot of "a ha!" moments. For example, in Goblet of Fire there are mentions of a beetle in two scenes that are barely noticed in the first reading (Krum picking the beetle out of Hermione's hair at the lake, a beetle on a leaf at the ball). Only at the end of the book does it become important. That's part of what makes the books fun. You never know what is actually going to be important.

My problem with Rowling is that she creates these ridiculously complicated plots that are utterly meaningless. For example, in Goblet of Fire, the entire TriWizard Tournament is all an excuse to get Harry to grab the cup which has been turned into a PortKey. There's a yearlong plot to ensure this happens. However, at any time during the year notMoody could have turned any common item (a book, a pen, a beaker, whatever) into a Portkey and said, "Hey Harry, can you get that for me?"

Likewise, in book six the work Harry does for Dumbledore that's supposedly going to help them defeat Voldemort seems pointless... Harry only 'discovers' what Dumbledore seems to already know.

That sort of stuff bothers me more than extra descriptions or flashbacks or side-trips into romantic involvements and the like.

Posted by: David Grenier at July 17, 2007 9:46 AM
The inability to resist fleshing out your world and then blabbing it out to the reader.
Two words: Robert Jordan.
Tolkien was one of the ultimate world builders, but many people think he pulled it off.
Two words: The Silmarillion.


Posted by: Barry Leiba at July 17, 2007 10:02 AM

Thanks for refraining from giving spoilers, James. I know there's only so much a person can do after a book's been out for a while, but I feel like I know more than enough already.

For years I've called the phenomenon you describe "Stephen King Syndrome." If you love Stephen King's lengthy digressions on various irrelevant subjects, then they're great. If you wish he would stick to the plot, then good luck finding it among all the verbosity. There was a stage when I enjoyed the digressions, but at some point they reached a critical mass and became unbearable. I haven't looked at a Stephen King novel since The Regulators. (I thought the original version of The Stand was too long... couldn't believe it when the "unabridged" version came out.)

As for Tolkien... I always felt he was too verbose, mainly because I didn't care about the things he was talking about. I can understand why other people enjoyed it, but I have to say that LotR is probably the one and only example of literature that I was truly grateful to see converted to cinema.

Posted by: Julie at July 17, 2007 11:21 AM

Yes, but it's more lucrative to be a best-selling author. So, I think you can be forgiven for opting for the critic route. That comes with the territory of lucrative. ;-)

Late to the party as usual and David has eloquently summed up why I enjoy the books.

The issue I have with them is how supposedly intelligent characters do stupid things to advance the plot. In HP5, Harry pulling the tired "I don't want to bother Professor Dumbledore, he has too much on his mind" act. That could fly in books 1 and 2, but given everything that happened afterward, when the sh*t gets weird, he should know enough by this point that he has to.

Posted by: briwei at July 17, 2007 11:45 AM

Hmmm... where to begin

Tolkein... J.R.R. didn't actually write the Silmarillion to be published of course. his greedy son (OK, maybe that's a bit harsh) cobbled it together from his notes. Poorly.

Harry Potter... I think these stories are character, rather than plot, driven (think Patrick O'Brien for teens). they are far more about harry and company growing up (or not) than they are about any given plot. I find them to be fun characters and stories. not necessarily well written but certainly enjoyable. Rowling certainly has an fertile imagination.

Orson Scott Card... If he said that he needs to go back and reread it himself. He simply cannot END a series. I love his books but he's ended the Ender series at least 3 times and the Alvin Maker series should be long done by now. He can't seem to help returning to his worlds.

Posted by: B.O.B. (bob) at July 17, 2007 12:05 PM

I really like Card, but I found the tail end of Alvin to be a disappointment. I love stories with alternate versions of history, but that series lost its way for me some time ago. I think it 'concluded' for the moment with book 6.

Posted by: briwei at July 17, 2007 1:22 PM

I've never read any of the Potter books and have only marginally enjoyed the bits of the movies that I've seen, so I'm really not in a position to comment. When James described the opening chapter of book 6 to me it sounded like a world-builder in love with her world, but if Bob's right (and I'm assuming he is), then as a person who can enjoy reading Maturin's train of thought on any given subject for three pages straight, I'm not one to criticize somebody else's love for a character-driven series.

I think we love character-driven fiction because it strikes a true chord, but generally has the characters in much more dangerous situations than we usually find ourselves, and we like to believe that we'd behave as the nobler characters behave.

The only Card I've read is his book Characters and Viewpoint, which I'd consider a bible on writing fiction, and is actually an entertaining read. The man is brilliant.

Posted by: Maggie at July 17, 2007 1:50 PM

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