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  1. #1

    Economy of Words in recent fantasy vs. classics from the 70s

    In another thread I mentioned that I picked up one of my old favorites, CJ Cherryh's Morgaine Saga, beginning with Gate of Ivrel. First of all, I was struck by what an excellent writer Cherryh is (was), and this one of her first books; it isn't perfect, but it is immersive, atmospheric, and with a striking economy of words that is so lacking these days. Re-reading it for the first time in decades has inspired me to revisit some of my other favorites from the prehistory of modern fantasy, in particular Patricia McKillip's Riddlemaster Trilogy and Ursula K Le Guin's original Earthsea Trilogy. Together these three series are great examples of post-Tolkien fantasy series that are non-derivative, strikingly original and vivid. In other words, they are real fantasy worlds that are not shadows of Middle-Earth.

    Anyhow, for a few years now I have had a hard time finishing books - of those that I pick up, I probably end up finishing about a quarter. I have questioned why this is - is my attention span diminished? Do I get too easily distracted by other things? Etc. But reading Gate of Ivrel has reminded me just how different fantasy and science fiction has changed over the last forty years, and how a particular style has become dominant, at least in fantasy, especially over the last couple decades. We could call this "in the style of Robert Jordan" or Jordanesque: long-winded, excessive description with (I would say) undo attention to trivial details. Perhaps more than anything, Jordanesque works reveal a complete lack of economy of words. I imagine that if one were to transpose a 1,000-page Jordanesque novel into Cherryh's style, we would get a book around 300 pages long, give or take 100 pages (and Cherryh's prose is nowhere near as economical as, say, Michael Moorcock's early work).

    So my issue with finishing books is likely a complex affair, but I think this issue of word economy is crucial - I simply lose interest in what often seems like page filler or even, in some cases, a kind of literary self-indulgence, like listening to someone who likes to hear the sound of their own voice.

    This is not to say that I do not enjoy complex, in-depth, lengthy fantasies - I do. If anything I prefer long, many-volumed tales that you can really get lost in to shorter, single books that give you more of a taste of something rather than a full meal. But what I would love to see are long tales written with greater economy of language. Reading Cherryh has reminded me that it is possible to become deeply immersed into a shorter work, that one does not require thousands of pages to be in and of a fantasy otherworld, or to become intimate with the characters.

    (Despite the great length of Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen, I don't quite get the same sense of "poor economy" that I do with Jordan and many post-Jordan fantasists,and I'm not entirely sure why - it may be that he simply packs so much into his pages; even with George RR Martin's Game of Thrones, I felt the prose was too densely packed, with too many words, too much description; skillfully done, yes, but still the problem of an awkward "word-to-happening" ratio, so to speak, or at least not one to my preference).

    I don't have a specific question, or rather I have many questions but am more looking for discussion. What are your thoughts on this shift in narrative style? Is there room for a sparser approach to writing in the secondary world fantasy field? Are there fantasists writing with that approach?

  2. #2
    Without knowing exactly what you're looking for, I'm going to venture a 'yes.' From my point of view, there are plenty of fantasy books not written in a wordy style. I'd have to scroll through my kindle to give you a decent number of examples, but Scott Lynch comes immediately to mind, along with Douglas Hulick (just finished that recently) and Carol Berg (one of my faves). There isn't a lot of fighting with Carol Berg, but to my mind not a lot of unnecessary detail, either.

    I'm currently leafing through Michael Moorcock whenever I have the time. I disagree with you about his writing. I find a lot of description in it. Almost every time someone arrives on the scene there is a paragraph about his/her appearance.

  3. #3
    I learned to read when genre novels rarely went over 300 (mass market paperback) pages, and most were in the 175 to 250 range. Complete plots with fair to middlin' (and sometimes exemplary) characterization of people and places, and even thematic richness, without multiple volumes: Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy is a good example, and for something even shorter, consider Peter Beagle's first two novels, A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn.

    I think questions about the lack of economy in story-telling and langauge is part of why I'm wary of massive fantasy series -- I keep wondering if the writer really has a story that needs that much space. Which doesn't mean an individual work can't be long: I would call the language and Susannah Clarke's use of it concise and to the point in Jonathan Strange & Dr. Norell even though the book itself is quite long.

    Still, I find a work sticks with me longer if the prose is tight, the scenes well-integrated and pertinent to the final destination of the story, and it doesn't matter whether it's the concision of a hard-boiled voice or a poetic one or something inbetween.


    Randy M.

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Mazarkis View Post
    I'm currently leafing through Michael Moorcock whenever I have the time. I disagree with you about his writing. I find a lot of description in it. Almost every time someone arrives on the scene there is a paragraph about his/her appearance.
    The Moorcock books I've read are the original six book Elric sequence, the first Runestaff/Hawkmoon trilogy and a couple other Eternal Champion books, so everything is from the 60s-70s; from what I can remember (it has been decades since I read Elric, about eight years since the others) the prose was very sparse and a lot happened in a very short number of pages.

    Are you talking about more recent works?

    Quote Originally Posted by Randy M. View Post
    I learned to read when genre novels rarely went over 300 (mass market paperback) pages, and most were in the 175 to 250 range. Complete plots with fair to middlin' (and sometimes exemplary) characterization of people and places, and even thematic richness, without multiple volumes: Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy is a good example, and for something even shorter, consider Peter Beagle's first two novels, A Fine and Private Place and The Last Unicorn.
    I still have not read Beagle and have a copy of Innkeeper's Song in my collection. Maybe I'll have to pull it out and read it this summer; he keeps on coming upon my radar!

    Quote Originally Posted by Randy M. View Post
    I think questions about the lack of economy in story-telling and langauge is part of why I'm wary of massive fantasy series -- I keep wondering if the writer really has a story that needs that much space. Which doesn't mean an individual work can't be long: I would call the language and Susannah Clarke's use of it concise and to the point in Jonathan Strange & Dr. Norell even though the book itself is quite long.
    Yes, which is why I cited Erikson as someone who does seem to need the great length of his books, at least through the first three that I've read (I just started the 4th and plan on reading it alongside a couple others over the next month or so).

    Quote Originally Posted by Randy M. View Post
    Still, I find a work sticks with me longer if the prose is tight, the scenes well-integrated and pertinent to the final destination of the story, and it doesn't matter whether it's the concision of a hard-boiled voice or a poetic one or something inbetween.
    Yes, exactly, although I find that I enjoy seemingly slow chapters with little action if it is interesting; what I don't find interesting is excessive description and a focus on secondary minutiae, which leads to a feeling of "empty content" that seems so often the case in many big fat fantasies; thus "Jordanesque." Even Martin, whose prose is exceptional, seems to have a penchant for excessive wording and inclusion of a lot of stuff that fills out a given chapter, although it has been some years since I read A Game of Thrones (and I haven't read the others).

  5. #5
    Quote Originally Posted by Alchemist View Post
    The Moorcock books I've read are the original six book Elric sequence, the first Runestaff/Hawkmoon trilogy and a couple other Eternal Champion books, so everything is from the 60s-70s; from what I can remember (it has been decades since I read Elric, about eight years since the others) the prose was very sparse and a lot happened in a very short number of pages.

    Are you talking about more recent works?
    I have Elric: The Stealer of Souls, Chronicles of the Last Emperor of Melnibone Volume I which is, I understand, a new collection of older works. Inside it are: At the Beginning, The Stealer of Souls, Stormbringer, and some other stuff, all of which are collections themselves of shorter stories or vignettes. That might not be at all helpful, but on amazon I was advised to get this first (it was for my son, but he didn't care for it).

  6. #6
    The Doctor is in.
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    I agree with you that in general, books have become way too long. There is absolutely no reason a story needs 1000 pages if the editor correctly pares things down.

    Alex Bledsoe has a couple recent fantasy books that are a nice 300 pages, and can be read in a few hours.

  7. #7
    Webmaster, Great SF&F owlcroft's Avatar
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    And it itself is pithy.

    In M. John Harrison's blog--well worth following--this brief entry says much.

    Randy is, as usual, correct. Try older books, from the era before everything morphed into a doorstop. Though as he also notes, a book can be long but still pithy (for example, Richard Adams' Shardik).

    I started to make a little list of others, but it quickly got very long. Most good authors do not, I think, spend any great time on world-building; Tolkien was a special case because the world he was building was really the goal, and the fiction set in it a sort of by-product. Too many writers were unable to see that basically simple point, and came to believe that massive world-building was an inherent component of any secondary world. A well-conceived world just, as Harrison put it, acts by being. (For those reasons, books not set in a secondary world are often pithier because little or no world-building is neded.)

    (A few offhand samples of pithy tales in secondary world: James Blaylock's "Twombley Town" tales; Michael Cisco's "San Veneficio Canon" duology; and Eric Eddison's "Zimiamvia" trilogy.)

  8. #8
    Just to be clear, I'm not as much talking about the length of books but poor economy of words; oftentimes they do cross-over, but they are not inherently mutually exclusive.

    Take The Lord of the Rings, for instance. It is about the length of a Robert Jordan novel but it includes as much "goings on" (not just action) as three or four Jordan books.

    I realize this has something to do with personal preference. If the protagonist walks into a chamber, I prefer a few well chosen and evocative sentences to describe it, rather than the few paragraphs that many recent authors employ.

    Owlscroft, by world-building do you mean the work a writer does behind the scenes to create the world or are you talking about exposition within the narrative?

  9. #9
    Let me be your gateway Chekhov's Avatar
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    It seems to me that modern fantasy is far more bloated and contains much more purple prose than earlier works do.

    I understand your point about economy in writing; a long story is not bloated if it also contains a lot of plot, but you mean an excess of description and other padding. Personally I dislike this grandiose kind of writing; I feel that good writers can say more with fewer words.

  10. #10
    Webmaster, Great SF&F owlcroft's Avatar
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    Actual words.

    Owlscroft, by world-building do you mean the work a writer does behind the scenes to create the world or are you talking about exposition within the narrative?

    Exposition. And therein lies the crux. To quote one critic:
    There is in this worldmaking business a clear example of the oft-cited observation that circumstances generate their opposites. In years not yet beyond living memory, it was a commonplace of science-fiction and fantasy criticism to assail writers for careless and thus inept worldmaking: suns of impossible color for their size in the sky, cities off in the middle of mountain ranges with no conceivable economic basis for existence, that sort of thing. It was, and apparently remains, an article of faith with science-fiction and fantasy authors that readers care very much about such matters and will recoil in horror from any such inconsistencies. (To me, barring comically gross ineptitude, such flaws are invisible, but I must--as with the joy of drinking tea--take it on faith by report that the phenomenon exists; I suspect, however, that few of the carpers, if such there truly be, are of voting age.) In consequence, a new generation of science-fiction and fantasy writers undertook never, ever to tell a tale set in a world for which they had not worked out exactly the exchange rates of seventeen various currencies, the tidal height at the equator and both tropics, the number and names of all spices added to stews (by season), the geomorphology of five separate continents (if Doctor Watson wishes to distinguish between separate continents and whatever the alternative kind may be, let us not differ), and the sexual habits of uncountably many species of domestic animal. That, in itself, was harmless: idle hands do the devil's work and it kept such folk off the streets at night.

    But beware what you wish for: you might get it (there's no saw like an old saw). What was not harmless, though predictable, was those writers' feeling that having gone to all that effort nary a jot nor yet a tittle of it was going to be wasted time: you wanted planned-out world-making, you bleeping well got it, and five Appendices (Geography, Chronology, Vocabulary, Botany, and Biology are the commonest, but the disease takes many forms) to prove it, not to speak of endless sequences of pages (weep for the trees, oh weep) filled with things you don't care to know about your own home town much less some Podunk in another dimension. I suppose a large part of this tsunami of sludge was generated by the earthquake that Lord Of The Rings was in the ocean of science fiction and fantasy; but the diarrhea (or logorrhea--yes, it's a real word) still lapping at our bookshelves is as literate and persuasive as the things turned in at the annual Hemingway-Imitation contest (again yes, there really is one), and it shows, like its sibling the annual Bulwer-Lytton Imitation contest (yes, yes), how trippingly parody falls from the tongue. The difference is that the Hemingway and Bulwer-Lytton imitations are supposed to be excruciatingly awful.

    What a successful world-maker must accomplish is to fully imagine the world of the tale, then simply tell that tale in that world. Really, that's it: tell that tale in that world. Where the tale, of its own accord, intersects some aspect of that world that differs from our own, there are two basic possibilities: the difference matters to the tale, or it doesn't. If it doesn't, pass on: leave it that the heroine heard the haunting notes of a traditional kabba played mournfully on a drall. Does it matter a rat's ass what a kabba or a drall is? No? Then don't kill trees telling me about them. If it does, then--and then only--in the fullness of time reveal to me these things. Do you suppose Zane Grey devotes pages to explaining how an exploding compound of niter propels a blob of lead out of a short metal tube at so many and so many yards a second? OK, you spent a lot of time thinking through your private Brave New World: get over it.

  11. #11
    Webmaster, Great SF&F owlcroft's Avatar
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    Oh, and . . .

    I feel that good writers can say more with fewer words.

    There is a famous story, possibly apocryphal but I think real, about the noted author (in another century) who submitted a manuscript to his publisher with a note to the effect "I apologize for the length of the book. Had I had a few more months to work on it, it would have been half as long."

  12. #12
    Quote Originally Posted by owlcroft View Post
    Owlscroft, by world-building do you mean the work a writer does behind the scenes to create the world or are you talking about exposition within the narrative?

    Exposition. And therein lies the crux. To quote one critic:
    Ah, the old "show, don't tell" saw--or a variant of it, at least. I fully agree with what your critic says (if not resonating with his rather imperious tone ). In some sense it is the counterpart of what I'm talking about in terms of economy of words and the plot: A story is not the biography of the protagonist; one should "telescope in" on key events and moments, and the rest can be inferred or, but only occasionally, viewed through memory or flashback. But just as knowing the protagonist as if he or she was oneself helps one bring that character into vivid beingness, so too does deeply knowing and experiencing the world provide a rich palette for the author to draw from in telling the tale.

    Sometimes a good infodump is not only necessary but interesting, but only in a context that makes sense and is relevant to the larger story. When the Fellowship entered Rohan, Merry didn't turn to Gandalf and ask, "What's the economy of this place like, old chap?" And Gandalf did not reply, "Well, little fellow, Rohan is teetering on the verge of a free-market economy, but is still..." Blah blah blah. However, Gandalf might say something to the effect of, "Ah, Rohan, the green fields of the horse lords" or something much more elegant that gives a sense of what Rohan is, that paints a picture, so to speak. Furthermore, never do we want to say, "Shut up, Gandalf, no one cares about the history of Middle-earth!"

    To put it another way, revealing the world through exposition is not to be avoided but to be done carefully.

    I do think that in-depth world-building "behind the scenes" can only improve a story; even a good author can't hide a cardboard-thin stage set - that is, a world that hasn't been really thought out, that isn't truly alive, but is just a stage piece for the plot they devised. I would even argue that one might as well not bother with secondary world fantasy unless they make the world itself primary to the story, a living Being in a sense, that is the true protagonist of the yarn. This has less to do with knowing the minutia of the world's economy and geography and history, and more to do with knowing the feeling, the taste, the soul of the world...and out of that, out of the Worldsoul, can emerge details as necessary.

  13. #13
    Registered User Werthead's Avatar
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    The modern trend has been towards extremely large casts of characters (Jordan has 2,000 named charcters, GRRM about 1,200, and I'd guess that Erikson is also very high, maybe even more than Jordan due to his numerous, different theatres of action) engaging in storylines spanning multiple continents, or one very large one.

    For example, Lord of the Rings only has a relatively small cast of characters we follow: Frodo/Sam/Gollum, Legolas/Gimli/Aragorn and Merry/Pippin. And that's pretty much it. Their epic journey from the Shire to Mount Doom is about 700 miles in a straight line, maybe just a tad over 1,000 given their route, and the story overall takes about five months.

    Other, usually older books are much more tightly focused on just a few characters, and even where large distances are involved they seem much happier just saying, "Three months later," or whatever. Modern fantasy authors seem more loathe to include time jumps and time gaps of such a kind.

    The other issue is that market tends to demand larger books, due to the preconception that 'short books don't sell'. If you walk into a bookshop and find a 250-page book you'll polish off in an afternoon or a 1,000 one that will take a week and they both cost the same, the temptation to go for the longer work and get 'better value for money' is ever-present, though illusory (if the choice before you is the 250-page The Road or an 800-page Goodkind novel, going for the bigger option would be a major mistake). Some authors - Paul Kearney and Daniel Abraham - have specifically said they wanted to write concise volumes, but poor sales suggested that people wanted longer books; when they switched to writing longer books, sales rose (though Kearney didn't so much write longer books as his publishers fiddled with font sizes and margins to expand a 250-page ARC into a 450-page mass-market paperback).

    Ironically, during the mid-to-late 2000s, it looked like fantasy was getting slimmer due to the monstrously rising cost of paper. A whole bunch of new authors emerged (like Abraham, Stephen Deas, Blake Charlton, Ken Scholes and our own forum's Jon Sprunk) whose debut fantasy novels were very sensibly-sized 300-odd-page novels and generally seemed better for them. That also seems to be continuing in some areas, like Mark Lawrence's excellent debut novel which also packs a lot into its less-than-400 pages. However, given that most of these authors have only seen modest sales at a time when Rothfuss and Sanderson have delivered 1,000-page bestsellers, I'm wondering if the pendulum will swing back in favour of fat fantasies.

    I hope not. I think some books and series do need to be big, but an awful lot don't, and it'd be a shame to go back to the days of reading books that would have made excellent 300-page single novels had they not been stretched out over 3,000-page trilogies.

    When the Fellowship entered Rohan, Merry didn't turn to Gandalf and ask, "What's the economy of this place like, old chap?"
    Actually, he did. Or rather, Tolkien wrote a lengthy piece for LotR on the military organisation of the Riders of Rohan. He also later included a veritable novella about why Gandalf teamed up with Thorin and recruited Bilbo for the assault on Erebor. However, in both cases Tolkien trimmed the bits out and saved them for later (they both later wound up in Unfinished Tales).

    Generally speaking, Tolkien did actually write a lot of unrelated worldbuilding waffle, but in most cases had the sense to remove them from his books before publication if they did not directly contribute to the in-process narrative.
    Last edited by Werthead; May 25th, 2011 at 08:01 PM.

  14. #14
    Lemurs!!! Moderator Erfael's Avatar
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    Alchemist, curiosity makes me ask: Have you read Chris Wooding's The Fade? It is one of my favorite examples of concise worldbuilding. The whole thing is all of 300 pages, and the images he evoked are still with me years later. I'd be curious what you thought of it if you've read it.

  15. #15
    Give me a doorstop any day, most of the more concise novels I have read simply don't hold a candle to the massive tombs. And Mordsitt's early work is so parred down I felt like I was reading a synopsis - and not a good one. Of course most of my actual selections are based off recommendations, but if I am torn between two books I will always plump for the longer.

    Heck I've just read Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy and wished it was longer! Only Jordan has pushed it for me, and even then rarely enough.

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