Friday, January 21, 2011

Is one out of three the same as one third?

First in a trilogy - cliffhanger ending, but still its own book
Once again, a thought provoking post from Greg Zimmerman of The New Dork Review of Books on trilogies, but one where I find myself vehemently disagreeing.
As one final note, I've always thought it interesting that many readers are afraid of long, thousand-page novels, but don't seem to have that same terror of trilogies, that when taken collectively, add up to much longer pieces of fiction. I can see how a reader with this idea would argue, "Well, if I don't like the trilogy after the first book, I can just quit, and I'm not committed to reading another two-thirds of a novel I'm not enjoying." But the kind of reader who would quit after one novel in a trilogy is also the kind of reader who would quit after one-third of a very long novel s/he isn't enjoying, right? So I'm not sure I buy that logic. Anyway, no real point here — just an observation on others' reading quirks.
On the one hand, Greg is right that a trilogy is often longer than a single chunkster book. Collectively, trilogies (or any series, for that matter) can be looked at as one entity. Someday, they very well may be combined into one volume. My favorite examples of this come from our beloved classics. What is War and Peace if not something like twelve serialized books, each one ending with its own dramatic cliffhanger, each beginning with its own brand of Tolstoy philosophy? Psychologically speaking, yes. It's easier to take in individually wrapped books.

But one volume, one entity... this does not make it one book.

Whether in a series or not, books have (hopefully) a beginning, a middle and an end. Some books, it's true, don't really have endings (The Subtle Knife, I'm looking at you) and some books clearly leave a lot of plot holes in anticipation of sequels, but I would say that most books that belong to series still maintain some semblance of independence and self-sufficiency. Compare that to most fat books (not even counting fat books that are allegedly part of trilogies... whew!), which, like their shorter counterparts, have a beginning, middle and end. When someone gives up on a book midway, it's because that book - that section of beginning middle and end - is not satisfying.

Each book still viewed individually
The interesting issue at the end of the day is why it matters. Is giving up on a book midway such a shameful thing? Should we discourage abandoning a disappointing series after the first book simply to be able to say, "I read the whole thing"? This kind of thinking is seriously flawed in my eyes, especially when discussing series. Not every book that belongs to a trilogy is necessarily completed by the later books.

My favorite example of this is Pullman's The Golden Compass. While The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass clearly continue the story, it's a book that can still stand alone and complete without the other two propping it up. It's a trilogy of three books - albeit where one directly leads into the next book. Each book comes with its own themes, its own struggles and its own style. The story that binds them together is not enough to justify looking at it as one book.

So in answer to Greg's theoretical question, no. No, I don't believe that the reader who gives up on a trilogy partway is the same kind of reader who would give up a fat book partway (as for whether or not that's even a bad thing... another time). Trilogies may seem like very long books split up for convenience's sake, but most at their core are comprised of individual, independent books. It's an important point to remember.


  1. On the one hand I agree with your last paragraph. On the other, I find the trilogy trend very annoying. If I'm into the story and want to keep going, I generally have to wait a year, by which time I need to reread the previous part(s). That seems unfair to me as a reader.

  2. I think I feel less like a failure at books if I give up on a trilogy, than a single book. Also, I agree that trilogies are not the same animal as large single books. It's -- I don't know, it's chapters writ large. I don't do at all well with books without chapter breaks. My brain needs the tiny break. Trilogies are more manageable for me than massive books for the same reason. Plus, I kind of like waiting for sequels. :p

  3. but there are some trilogies/series that are just parts of one giant story.. a song of ice and fire is perfect example, with wild cliffhangers at the end of each book (and around each character), but no sense of completion whatsoever. quite opposite to the stand-alone-ness of the golden compass. maybe he is referring specifically to this type of series?


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