Author Gail Gauthier's Reflections On Books, Writing, Humor, And Other Sometimes Random Things
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
The Book Of Revelation
My impression from reading my listserv and other blogs is that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows discussions are so over. I, of course, just finished reading it two days ago and am just bursting with thoughts.
For instance, I was reading along in my borrowed copy when I got to page four hundred and something and a character who had not appeared at all in this book suddenly showed up to save our hero's sorry heinie. I had one of those flashes of unsupported insight that Harry often gets. You know, where he suddenly knows something and thus the story can go on?
What happened was that I was reminded of the evening when I was watching one of the seasons of 24 and Tony Almeda suddenly showed up to save Jack Bauer's sorry heinie. I jumped up and down on the couch and shouted, "Toooooneee! Tony's back!"
And at that point in my Deathly Hallows reading it hit me. The reason I have trouble appreciating the uber-serial Harry Potter, and all serials, is that I keep thinking of them as books. Really, they are far more like television series.
Each book is the equivalent of a television season with actors/characters moving in and out, which causes no problem because the audience expects that sort of thing. That is how you watch television, and that is how you read these books. A character showing up halfway through a book, with no foreshadowing, no build-up, is a big flaw in a traditional novel. But it's not a flaw in these serials because the readers/audience are the book's fans and will recognize characters from earlier seasons/books. And if readers/audience members don't recognize a character, particularly a minor character? We figure it must be somebody from the last season/book and keep moving on.
A character is a whole lot better with magic than we remember? It must have happened in one of the other books. (With TV that kind of thing happens in other seasons while we were in the kitchen getting something to eat.) A lot of scenes drag on and on? Doesn't matter because we've been reading about Harry, Ron and Hermione for six books/seasons now, and we really don't care about the action, we care about them. (Sort of the way the politics behind the Mafia business in The Sopranos was always way over my head, but I didn't care because I was only watching for Tony and Carmella.) A major character we've barely seen this season/book dies and his story is told in a series of flashbacks afterwards? Okay. We're used to flashbacks. (They use them all the time on Lost.)
One of the things that kept freaking me out about serial novels was that writers were intentionally writing third or fourth or sixth or seventh books that a big chunk of the reading public couldn't possibly get much from. Why would a writer do such a thing? Why write a book so many readers won't be able to make heads or tales of? We're supposed to be communicating here, and these writers were setting up huge barriers to the communication process. Well, the writers of shows like The Sopranos and Lost don't worry about attracting new viewers with seasons three, four, six, or seven, do they? They worry about writing for and keeping the fans they already have.
Besides, new viewers can always buy the DVDs and catch up that way, much as they can buy the earlier books in serials.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying, "Oh, woe. Television has influenced literature, and civilization is going to fall." I like TV. I can see what's attractive about these books to a reading population that has been watching TV for three generations. And we're only talking about one type of literature, here, after all. Serials can co-exist with other literary forms, much as wizards can co-exist with Muggles.
You just have to understand how to read them.
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But didn't serials exist long before television anyway? Or were those fundamentally different than what we're now watching and reading?
That thought did cross my mind. Serial movies certainly existed. And people have compared the excitement over the last Harry Potter to people waiting for the next installment of some book by Charles Dickens. But I don't think serial books, where the author can expect readers to refer back to earlier volumes for characterization and plot points, were a particularly popular or well-respected literary form in the twentieth century until Harry Potter brought them back.
I think after watching television for half a century we were ready for a merging of television and print.
Gail, I got in big trouble when I wrote that reading Harry Potter was like watching Scooby-Doo. Watch your back.
But this is a good thing, Roger. I enjoy the Harry Potter experience much more now that I'm thinking of those volumes as TV/book hybrids. I was mystified when I tried to think of them as books.
As a TV lover, I think you make some great points; but I also don't think some of what you say as a negative is a negative.
A joy of Buffy was not knowing when Ethan Rayne would show up again; just like, in real life, you don't know when certain people will show up. It's not just TV; part of the brilliance of the film Fat Girl is that the ending was so out of the blue.
Re lack of foreshadowing; I guess this is why I have issues with "big literature." Life doesn't have foreshadowing; tho arguably, we may look back at things and nod and say hmmm. (I like Melanie Thernstrom's take on this in The Dead Girl.) So I guess my only real disagreement is that I don't see the lack of Obvious Foreshadowing or Build Up as a flaw, because I think the introduction of the character at an earlier point in time is enough.
I don't see the character as suddenly showing up; I see an author who has created a vast cast, and knows that different people will enter at different points. What more foreshadowing is needed, other than the character does exist? As for how much a character has or has not changed, having started to reread the HP books from book one, what I'm most impressed about is the consistency of the characters combined with character growth & coming of age.
Re forgiving certain things because the story drags, etc: I think this depends on the person. For example, I have big issue with Silent to the Bone because the law doesn't make sense. I forgive it because the strength of the writer.
What I describe as negatives are only negatives in a traditional stand alone book. A novel is a closed universe with its own logic. Everything must make sense within the context of the world the author has created. Thus, we can "believe" what's happening in science fiction if the author has done a good enough job creating an orderly world and maintaining the logic and order of that world in that one book.
True, real life doesn't have foreshadowing. But the life in any one book is not real life. It's a created life and the author is supposed to adhere to some sort of logic in order to make us believe what's going on. Random characters appearing and disappearing defies logic. (Unless, of course, that's the point of your novel, which is a totally different thing.) I would even argue that they are a cheat as far as readers are concerned. Why should readers make an effort to follow what's going on when random characters will pop up with no rhyme or reason just as easy devices for an author to soldier on through her material?
With serials, though, you have a different situation. The world isn't limited to one book. With a serial, you can make the argument that no more foreshadowing is needed other than the character exists in Book 1 or 2. With a traditional, single book, if a character readers have never seen before suddenly has major importance on page 403 then he didn't exist before that point. There was no earlier book in which the character appeared. He's coming out of nowhere, a sort of deus ex machina, a device that hasn't gone over well since the Greeks did it on stage. But with a serial, the readers have to understand that they are supposed to draw upon all the earlier books. Anyone who was introduced at any point, can be used again.
After I read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, I suggested at one of the listservs that I didn't think the real identity of the half-blood prince had been foreshadowed at all. I thought it came out of nowhere. I meant within that particular book.
Someone responded that it had been foreshadowed in Book 4, Chapter Whatever. At the time, I couldn't believe that anyone would think that was legitimate foreshadowing, legitimate serious writing. But now that I'm thinking of serials as being related to television series, it makes more sense. Certainly, I've watched TV shows in which events were set up the season before.
I think the big difference between the Harry Potter series and the fine TV shows you name is that Rowling mapped out her overall narrative before she started while most TV production teams work on one season at a time.
TV shows are in that regard more like comic books or open-ended book series. They last as long as the writers and the audience hold out. Sometimes the writers have to scramble to find more material because the market demands another set of installments. Sometimes the writers have a chance to wrap things up, and then have to figure out what they were really trying to say. And sometimes the story just goes kaput. Those circumstances can excuse inconsistencies, shifts in tone, loose ends, appearances or reappearances of characters, etc.
Rowling's series of novels does, as you say, mirror the long-running, complex TV series we've enjoyed in recent years. But if she suddenly brings in a new character looking after Harry in the middle of the last book, then that's not because there's a new set of writers or the producer needs to add another cute kid because the old ones are growing up or Steve Buscemi is suddenly available. It's because her original plan for the series included that revelation. And if it doesn't work, that was a flaw in the original plan.
Well, as it turns out, the character she brought in in the middle of the last book was only new for that book. He had appeared in earlier books. If writers of serial novels are justified in their expectations that readers are aware of all the earlier books, and my impression from other readers is that they are, then what Rowling did would have worked for them.
Your comparison of TV series with comic books is probably a good one. But I think that with comic books, as with serial novels and serial TV, there is an expectation that readers make a commitment to the whole series and that writers don't have to create separate, complete stories for each episode/volume.
Just a couple of quick thoughts before work:
I view the HP books as one story told over 7 volumes, and best read as vol 1 to 7, just as a book is best read ch1 to chtheend.
I also see the use of prior mentioned figures as working because it has created a world; and there is the recognition that sometimes, those people pop up again. Since HP is one story, that someone is mentioned in book 1 and not again till later makes sense; it's one world. It also adds, to HP, to the hidden vastness of the wizard world, not just HP's narrow view of it (Hogwarts & Weasleys).
I also think one difference between HP and most TV (not all, but most) is that JKR always knew the basic outline of the story and didn't have to deal with people demanding one less season (see HBO's Rome) or adding seasons on because of wanting to make money(see almost every other show.)
However, I do wonder how she was impacted by popular reactions to the books as it was published; she has mentioned that some deaths were changed, and in reading the final battle scene and how Harry observed people individually rather than as a group, I realized how easy she had made it for filmakers to film (for example, to now discuss the current movie out, it looks like Emma Thompson was never on set with the children, and possibly wasn't on set with the other actors).
If the books had ever stopped selling, she would have had to deal with a demand for fewer books. How can publishers afford to continue a serial they aren't making money on?
I've noticed a great deal more of this serial type of writing since Harry Potter. Or maybe it's just because I've read a great deal more fantasy recently, and that's where a lot of it seems to occur.
Are there examples of serials that didn't cut it financially and were dropped in mid-story?
Personally, I wonder if the third Eragon book will ever be finished. Part of what I like about JKR is that she did deliver the 7 books; and I wonder if, during editing, the issue of "but I need it for x book" was raised.
Huntington's Ravenscliff series has yet to be finished.
I've been rereading Ellen Emerson White's books; and her vietnam series under the name Zack Emerson ended abruptly, with the story continued several years later in a book published under EEW's name.
I think your television analogy is a good one for many serial books published today, but I think that Harry Potter is not the right series to use as an example of this. As others have pointed out, JKR plotted out the overall story arc from the beginning, and all the books have details that set things up for book 7.
The fallacy in your statement, "And if readers/audience members don't recognize a character, particularly a minor character? We figure it must be somebody from the last season/book and keep moving on," is that fans of these books do recognize the characters and the details. They've read and reread the books and know how everything fits together - and fit together it does! Reading book 7, I was constantly amazed by how so many seemingly irrelevant details in the earlier books turned out not to be irrelevant at all. JKR knew what she was doing right from the beginning!
As I tried to convince you during our Cybils discussions, there is a difference between serials that never end and serials like Harry Potter which is really one story told out over multiple volumes. With the latter type, you still have all the elements of a complete story, just played out over multiple volumes instead of one.
I *expected* the character you mention to show up in this book, and I expected him to do something heroic, precisely because it was foreshadowed in the earlier books. It wasn't a random character cameo appearance - it was the culmination of one of the major subplots of the entire series.
While I am definitely respectful of Rowling's ability to map out her seven books and stick to her plan, I don't think that changes readers' experience in any way. If readers have to carry over the foreshadowing, the storylines, from one book to another, they are not taking part in a traditional reading experience. As you said yourself, it is more of a "fan" experience that you would see with TV viewers watching episodes across a season or even from season to season.
For instance, in the next to the last season of The Sopranos Carmella has dreams about Adriana and is concerned about her. Someone picking up the series in those episodes or even that season, would go, "Adrianna who?" But fans who go back to the beginning know exactly what that's about. It doesn't matter when the writers of that series planned Adrianna's story arc. The result for the viewer is the same.
In the Deathly Hallows, characters die who barely appeared in that particular book. Readers picking up that one book will feel little dramatic tension regarding those deaths, little interest in them. Only the fans who have read the other books will get and feel the significance of what is going on. Again, it doesn't matter whether Rowling planned those deaths way back in the 90s or five years ago or last summer. The result for the reader is the same.
Notice I am not saying serials are bad. They are merely a different type of reading situation/experience.
I wonder if there shouldn't be a separate category for serials in book awards because I don't think individual books in a serial can be compared to traditional stand alone books. I don't know if they can be judged with the same criteria.
By the way, I haven't yet seen the last season of The Sopranos and have been bending over backward to avoid the ending until it comes out on DVD. Just so everyone knows and doesn't use any Soprano analogies with spoilers.
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