Fantasy. Paranormal. Suspense. Popular genres today all seem to trend toward series writing. Maybe with changing technologies in publishing and reading, that’s where the market is. I’m not sure because marketing is a mystery to me. As a reader/writer engaged in the world of lit sans marketing, my opinion is that good books might well come in series, but great books are almost always standalones. Now that I have a few books out there (links below), let me ponder how, if at all, this opinion applies to my writing.
I don’t write series. Nor do I stick to one genre. Although I do believe genres can be useful tags – e.g., setting expectations that can help readers predict whether something suits their taste – best to treat genres as cloudy approximations. “Existence precedes essence,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. Similarly, the book precedes the genre. Leaving aside for now pulp fiction, which is written specifically to fit a preset genre, works of art, including novels-as-art, develop organically according to their own aesthetic, and once manifested in their own terms, it is the bookseller’s choice to more-or-less randomly determine which genre tags will best guide readers.
So my novels. I undertake each novel as a self-contained work of art, like a standalone sculpture. The concept of series just doesn’t fit my aesthetic register (not that my register is better than anyone else’s). Does this mean no threading between the (currently) five of them? Well, no. Take the latest, Alice. My previous novels blurred the lines of literary fiction, historical fiction, regional, magic realism, with one possibly cross-categorized as young adult as well as adult. Alice, though, is more of a post-apocalyptic adult hippie fairy tale – my first to occur in a fully imaginary setting. This put a new kind of pressure on me as a writer. Because the opening frame is like a weird, hippie fairy tale, one thing I needed was a population of characters who were individualized people and yet archetypal enough to match the fairy tale setting. So Alice’s little hamlet is populated by the rain king, the kleptomaniac, the sweeper, the mapmaker, the white witch, etc.
Besides the characters, though, another thing that holds the magical setting together is two kinds of wormholes. First, there are wormholes in time within Alice, enabling Alice to interact with a series of young women like herself – just coming into early adulthood – from different time periods. Different eras of history are, in effect, stacked up together and connected by wormholes. A lot of the metaphysical or philosophical elements of the novel, and Alice’s epiphanies, if you want to loosely call it a coming-of-age novel, come through these wormholes in time to other characters and settings.
In addition to the wormholes within Alice, wormholes thread into my other novels as well. I didn’t really plan it this way, but just as she interacts with characters across history, she interacts with characters across my writing corpus. Those characters carry their own baggage into Alice, but it’s not like you have to read the other novels to get this one. And it’s certainly not like a series, where you have a fixed setting and plot lines that continue more or less coherently across the books. It’s more like a character from another novel will pop up as Alfred Hitchcock popped up in his movies, but retaining the personality and baggage of the other novel. Again, each novel is a coherent, standalone whole and can be read as such, and yet there are these wormholes, these reverberations. There are touches of this in four of the five novels, sometimes working backwards (as in a character from the first novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones, might pop up in later novel, and the meaning that character acquires in the later novel reverberates back to the first).
The idea of independent novels with a connected underlay might bring up images of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. My wormholes, however, are different. Faulkner and Anderson each use that shared setting as an integrated space for their stories. My novels are not different stories transacted in the same space, but totally different spaces with wormholes randomly connecting them. And my wormholes don’t necessarily follow laws of space and time. Whereas in Faulkner you might get a collective setting that is realistic, integrated, coherent, my wormholes are almost a mockery of realistic coherence from the point of view of imaginative license.
This might sound outlandish, but if you think about it, this is not as unusual as it sounds. The history of literature is essentially a series of hyperlinks or wormholes, where all these novels and ideas and characters are continually building on each other, casting different lights and relevance on other novels. You don’t have to read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to understand Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar or vice versa – I pick those two because they are both quite separate influences on Alice. Indeed, on the surface they are unrelated novels from different countries and eras, and I don’t even know if Brautigan read Woolf. And yet, when you do read both of them, you start to see how each can illuminate something about the other – just like the fool in King Lear can illuminate a character in a Camus novel, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can illuminate aspects of 21st-century culture, just like anecdotes by Marx or Freud might cast a new angle of light backwards onto Shakespeare or Jane Austen, just like my Alice might make you want to go back and re-read Lewis Carroll’s Alice. It’s really wormholes everywhere. You can see an example of this in my own wormhole study of works by Umberto Eco and Bob Dylan. The history of literature is the history of all these continually interacting texts reverberating meaning off of each other. If literature has depth as well as surface, these wormholes are an essential part of the underground structure. And the organic development of wormholes across the landscape of literature is a fundamentally different activity than the deliberate production of novels in series.
* * * Click covers below for links * * *