Fans hold novels set in their favorite universes to a different standard than they would original works. At least, I assume they do, because if they don’t, people’s standards for quality fiction are even lower than I thought.
What I mean is, what passes for an “I’ll totally read this” book when it’s got “Star Wars” on the front and Star Wars characters and locations inside can get away with shoddier plotting, weaker dialog, and less polished prose. For me, at any rate.
If Claudia Gray’s Star Wars: Bloodline hadn’t been Star Wars, I likely wouldn’t have picked it up in the first place, and I surely wouldn’t have finished it.
Not to say it’s bad. It isn’t. It’s just okay. But there are so many really great books out there I haven’t read that “just okay” isn’t enough place it above other titles in the reading pile. Except, again, that it’s Star Wars and covers events I want to know about, and has characters I want to spend more time with. So it gets a bit of a thumb on the scale.
Still, it could’ve been more. Alexander Freed’s Star Wars Battlefront: Twilight Company, the best book in the new canon, and by a country mile, managed the kind of nuanced and grown-up prose and characterization that makes Bloodline read like the work of a precocious high schooler.
Bloodline tells Leia’s story, as she slouches through a dull political career suddenly made livelier by uncovered secrets, unexpected betrayal, and a fall from grace. But the whole thing has a typically juvenile feel, like this is how an unworldly teenager thinks politics works or spying missions play out or adults talk to each other. There’s a lack of psychological plausibility, a lack of realistic emotional expression, and a lack of meaningful danger. And it’s all packaged in workmanlike prose that dulls the edge of whatever minor edge there may be.
Gray’s other Star Wars novel, Lost Stars, showed many of the same problems—though it was a good deal better than Bloodline. But that was intentionally pitched as a young adult book. Bloodline has the larger trim size and smaller type of a grown-up novel, yet it’s equally YA.
So, while not terrible, and certainly never outright boring, Bloodline gives little reason to actually read it, outside of that big Star Wars logo on the front. Which, I admit, for me, is reason enough.
Summer before last, I finished the Mass Effect trilogy and it left me wanting more space opera. I’d read a ton of science fiction in high school and early college, but then drifted into crime novels. Mass Effect gave me a newfound appetite for spaceships, galactic mysteries, and epic storytelling.
This took a bit of research, given how out of touch I was with the space opera genre. But I found Peter F. Hamilton, decided his Night’s Dawn trilogy was the place to start, and ordered The Reality Dysfunction. That was in July 2012. I finished the book this week. It’s a long book, but not that long.
Thing is, between starting my first Hamilton novel and finishing it, I read five-and-a-half more of his books: the two books of the Commonwealth Saga, the Void Trilogy, and the first part of Great North Road. In fact, from the time I picked up The Reality Dysfunction and today, Hamilton has accounted for a sizable chunk of my fiction reading. I’m hooked. I’ll likely polish off his entire corpus soon enough.
This book has everything that makes Hamilton great. Amazing world-building, economically-defined but still intriguing characters, terrific plotting. The pacing’s good, too, if you aren’t turned off by setting detail. (As a guy who grew up reading fat RPG books obsessively, I dig the stuff.)
But Hamilton made a poor decision in structuring the book, and it’s what caused me to take so long to finish it. While his later books feature lots of characters, he puts the focus on typically three or four. In The Reality Dysfunction, I lost count. Often, a lengthy section will be from the point of view of a character introduced for that section and then never seen again.
Anyone who played the Mass Effect trilogy–which, again, are what prompted my plunge into Hamilton’s books–knows that beyond anything else those games worked because of their characters. No matter how strange events got, they were grounded in a group of people you came to care about. Hamilton’s later books are the same. After finishing the Commonwealth Saga, I didn’t realize how much I missed some of the characters until they reappeared in the The Dreaming Voidand it felt like bumping into old friends.
That’s what’s missing from The Reality Dysfunction. The world is excellent, the plot engaging, and I want to know how it all ends. But it reads like a series of events instead of the experiences of people. We’re not with any particular character enough to feel attached. Which made the book easy to drift away from. I liked it while I was reading it, but when I put it down for something else (a habit I appear completely stuck with), I didn’t feel much draw to go back. It’s one thing to find out what happens next. But what makes a book un-put-downable is wanting to find out what happens next to characters you care about.
E-book prices appear to be in a race to the bottom. When Amazon first opened its Kindle store, it priced most bestsellers at $9.99. Big publishers fought for higher prices, both to put more money in their pockets and to prevent “devaluing” books. But authors went the other direction. As David Carnoy explained in a recent article for CNET, “Just last year, the magic price point for a lot of indie (self-published) authors was $2.99.” Even this puny price–just a third what many mass-market paperbacks cost–didn’t last. Carnoy goes on, “But then something happened on the the way to the check-out cart. Some authors started saying, ‘Screw it, I’m not selling that much at $2.99, I’ll just go to 99 cents and see what happens.’ And bam, some of these books took off. And some really took off.”
Will Someone Not Think of the Authors?
This incredible shrinking price has provoked genuine questions about the future of the book, however. Today, a new fiction hardcover retails for around $30. Amazon discounts that, as do many bookstores, but even the discounted price far exceeds $0.99. Authors happily put in the long, long hours it takes to write a novel in exchange for their (surprisingly small) cut of $30. (“Surprisingly small” typically meaning somewhere between 10% and 15%, or $3 to $4.50.) Earning $3 for each copy sold without doubt beats the 29 cents Amazon gives an author when his book sells for $0.99.
The result of these one-tenth royalties, the worry goes, is fewer books. Who wants to put in the long, long hours it takes to write a novel if you’re only going to pocket a little more than a quarter each time someone reads it? (At $2.99, Amazon’s kickback to the author jumps to $2, which looks a whole lot better–and a whole lot closer to print book rates.)
Let’s set aside the reasonable counter that, at $0.99 (or even at $2.99), readers are likely to buy quite a few more novels than they did at $9.99 or $30. After all, no matter what the price, people only have so many hours in the day to read. It’s also why I believe $0.99 novels won’t mean fewer novels. Instead, $0.99 novels will mean shorter novels.
And that’s a very good thing.
Most Books are Too Long
Ed McBain’s first 87th Precinct novel, Cop Hater, publish in 1956, ran 166 pages. A decade later, in 1968, McBain published Fuzz, at 288 pages. By 1989, with Lullaby, the page count ballooned to 432. The length of McBain’s work fluctuated, but never settled to anything approaching Cop Hater’s sub-200.
Elmore Leonard’s famous 1961 novel, Hombre, runs a mere 208 pages. Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is only 217 pages, while Raymond Chandler’s classic, The Big Sleep, is only 139. Would any of these giants of fiction been better longer?
A place exists for long books, of course. Sticking with the crime genre, James Ellroy’s magisterial L.A. Confidential is 512 pages, without an ounce of fat. (The novel’s famously spare prose style in fact resulted from his publisher telling Ellroy that the original manuscript was far too long, Ellroy said to me at a book signing once. Ellroy went back and removed every unnecessary word, so as to bring the length down without impacting the labyrinthine plot.) Long novels can develop character and setting and mood in a way short novels often can’t. Long novels can, in that sense, be richer than their shorter peers.
But most authors don’t write rich novels. And most novels need not be rich. The bulk of fiction is not Charles Dickens or Marcel Proust, nor should it be. The bulk of fiction is story and stories frequently are better shorter. Infinite Jest (1104 pages) is great, but an armful of books like that would make any of us long for And Then There Were None (272 pages).
In Praise of Short Books
Few people walk out in the middle of a movie, even if it’s rather bad. Few of us will drop a novel once we’re more than a third in, even if the prose is miserable. We engage in such irrational behavior not because we’re crazy or because we don’t understand sunk costs. Rather, we stick with mediocre (or worse) storytelling because we want to know how the story ends.
In this way, long novels ask a great deal of their readers. If the novel is wonderful, the extra time the author demands will be repaid with dividends when the final page is reached. But most novels aren’t wonderful and almost all of us can think of several books we finished and thought, “That was okay or even pretty good, but it could’ve been half that long.”
The simple fact is that most novels are too long. We authors could learn a lot from the masters of the pulps, who churned out tale after rip-roaring tale, offering huge entertainment in very small packages. We may think our opus is worthy of 700 pages, but it’s probably not. And a 700 page book means asking our readers to forgo the other 350 page book they could’ve read if ours had been half as long. Or the two-and-a-half other books they could’ve read if novels averaged a reasonable 200 pages.
Cheaper Books are Shorter Books
That’s exactly what I predict will result from the price of novels dropping to a buck. Authors won’t give up writing (if we did it to get rich, few of us would be writing today, anyway). Rather, seeing that they’ll only earn a quarter for every sale will make writers look at their works not as monuments it took them ten years to craft and so it better take the reader that much time to appreciate. Instead, authors will shift back into the pulp mindset, seeing their books as stories to be written quickly for maximum entertainment, before moving on to the next.
In an ideal world, novels would settle into a happy length of around 50,000 words–or a little over 150 pages. That’s more than enough space to tell most stories.
And it’s short enough that readers can finish it quickly and move on to the author’s next 50,000 word, 99 cent pageturner.
Stephen Holmes and Cass R. Sunstein’s The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxespresents itself as, among other things, a rebuttal to libertarianism. Its scope is, of course, broader. The authors also want to get the goat of progressives who would underestimate the economic burdens created by government. The book is well-written and entertaining but, ultimately, a good deal less groundbreaking, revolutionary, or even intriguing than Holmes and Sunstein seem to think.
Stripped of the countless supporting examples and anecdotes, the basic argument of The Cost of Rights is this:
There’s a difference between natural rights and legal rights. Natural rights preexist government. They’re fixed and, well, natural. We can argue about what they are, but we can’t make up new ones. Natural rights can be discussed within a positive liberty vs. negative liberty context.
Legal rights can’t preexist government, because they are a) constructs of the state and its laws and b) claims by individuals upon the government (for services, for protection, for enforcement, etc.). Legal rights can’t meaningfully be broken into negative and positive sorts because even those rights that say we have a “right to not be X,” actually mean “we have a right to demand that government actively protect us from X.” (E.g., a right not to be killed is really a right to be protected, by the government, from being killed.) So, in this sense, all legal rights are positive rights.
Because all legal rights demand something from government and that something means government must expend resources (on enforcement officers, on buildings to station them, on infrastructure, an so on), legal rights depend on taxes.
Most things we think of as legal rights (e.g., the right to contract, to protection from violence, to private property and its enforcement) are only meaningful (i.e., can only be relied on to exist and be protected) if government expends resources to protect them. This means that a) government must exist and b) government must collect resources (taxes).
The bulk of the book’s 250 pages is paragraph after paragraph in the form of, “We have a right to contract, but that demands courts and police and politicians drafting contract law and judges interpreting it. And all that costs money,” followed by another like, “We have a right to be protected against theft, but that means police and courts and…” One gets the point quite quickly.
For there ever to be a right of any sort, by Holmes and Sunstein’s own theory, there would have to be an infinite hierarchy of people threatening to punish those lower in the hierarchy. Since there is no infinite hierarchy, we are forced to conclude that Holmes and Sunstein have actually offered an impossibility theorem of rights in the logical form of modus tollens: If there are rights, then there must bean infinite hierarchy of power; there is not an infinite hierarchy of power; therefore there are no rights.
I find this particular problem with Holmes and Sunstein’s thesis less troubling than Tom does. We have a right not to be abused by the police. To which Holmes and Sunstein respond, “Okay, so that means we need tax dollars spent on people watching the police for bad conduct and enforcing the laws against the police.” Tom’s infinite regress criticism means saying, “Ah ha! But who watches the watchers? Thus we need another layer of people enforcing the laws against the people enforcing the laws against the police.” And so on, for ever and ever.
From the standpoint of strict logic, Tom’s rebuttal works. There is an infinite regress here. But it doesn’t bother me because, in terms of practical, in-the-world effects, Holmes and Sunstein have a reasonable response. Namely, with each additional layer, the protection gets better. Not all police will abuse us. If, say, 10% of police do abuse citizens and that’s without one layer of additional protection, then perhaps only 1% will do it with one layer of protection. We’re getting closer to absolute protection of our right not to be tortured by the police. A second layer might reduce the rate of abuse to 0.1%. A third to 0.01%, and so on. At some point, even though our protection isn’t absolute, it’s close enough. Thus we avoid the infinite regress.
… Signifying Nothing?
So if the infinite regress left me unvexed, and if I approach the argument in the very abstract form presented in the four points above (and accept without question the natural/legal rights distinction and the conclusions drawn from it), what’s the takeaway from The Cost of Rights? Unfortunately, not a lot. Because Holmes and Sunstein haven’t really offered an argument against much of anything, especially not mainstream libertarianism.
In responding to The Cost of Rights, the libertarian can adopt one of two tactics. The first is to say, “Yep, we do need people to protect our rights, but why do they have to be the government?” In other words, to raise the anarcho-capitalist explanations of how rights protections and the rule of law could happen without the state. The book never addresses this possibility. It just assumes–without acknowledging the assumption–that “protection” and “enforcement” can only ever be the provence of the state. They may be right–many libertarians are not anarchists–but the idea of the state as the only effective rights protector is by no means a priori true.
The second tactic is to say, “So what?” Just because we need the state to protect rights doesn’t mean we need this huge state we have now. Minarchist libertarians, for example, say that yes we need the state to protect our rights and yes we need to pay the state to do that through taxation (or voluntary payments), but the state should be limited to protecting our natural rights and enforcing contracts and providing defense and that’s it. In this sense, the overarching, adumbrated argument of The Cost of Rights given above is, when it comes down to it, compatible with minarchism.
In fact, when Holmes and Sunstein attack “libertarians” and “limited-government” folks (they use the terms interchangeably), it’s clear that what they actually mean is “anarchists.” In other words, they think libertarians want no state and attacks them for holding that obviously (to them) silly position.
The Cost of Rights fails to genuinely wrestle with the actual arguments of its opponents.
If you listen to Cory Doctorow, ebooks wrapped in DRM are an evil plot by Lemurians and the Gnomes of Zurich to plant blasting caps about the ankles of western civilization. He may be right. But what I want to assert—and what seems so uncouth to say on the open culture Internet, especially coming from the mouth of a fiction writer—is that it doesn’t matter very much. DRM, in books, isn’t a big deal.
Let’s start with one vision of how people interact with books. This is the romantic vision, where a book is a loved member of the family, an intellectual artifact to be turned to again and again, passed down to children and grandchildren, and eventually bequeathed to a library for the enjoyment of our eventual flying-car-piloting, vat-grown-beef-eating descendants. This vision sees books as icons, as treasures. It doesn’t limit this to the physical objects. With an ebook, there is no physical book, just electric stuff floating in physical stuff and made manifest via screen technology stuff. But what matters to the romantic vision is the idea of the book, and that idea is bound to no particular medium.
But most people—or, at least, most people so far as they relate to most of the books they read—aren’t romantics. Instead, they adopt what might be called a pragmatic vision of readership. These are the people who buy the latest Alex Cross novel, read it on the airplane, the subway, and for a couple of hours before bed, finish it in a week, and then either stick the paperback on a shelf, sell it to a used bookstore, or just throw it away. Their interest is not in perpetual ownership of artifacts but in consuming—and hopefully enjoying—a story. That done, they move on to another James Patterson or John Grisham or Dan Brown. While I don’t have the numbers to support this, I’d comfortably bet that far more books are bought in furtherance of the pragmatic vision than the romantic.
And here’s where we get back to those evil Lemurians and Gnomes. Pragmatic folks have no real reason to care about DRM. So long as the Lincoln Rhyme thriller they bought on Sunday lasts on their reading device to last until they finish it on Thursday, then their entire library of old ebooks of suspense yarns and spaceship adventures can vanish in an epic corporate dustup and they simply have no reason to care. Why? Because the pragmatic readers have gotten everything out of each book they want to get at the moment they turn that last page.
In fact, the whole of the romantic crusade against DRM is based upon the (likely mistaken) assumption that most of us want to do things with our books after we’ve finished reading them. We want to lend them to friends or we want to share them with our children. No matter what, say the romantics, we most assuredly do not want to lose them.
But the romantics are wrong, and the reason they’re wrong is that they’re still thinking of books as moderately expensive physical objects instead of the fleeting packets of entertainment most of them are. To see how strange this view is, think for a moment not about books but DVDs. You don’t see campaigns on the Internet calling the Netflix empire evil because its customers don’t get to keep the third disc of the first season of The Office they watched over the weekend. We don’t think of TV shows or movies that way because services like Netflix have brought the marginal cost of consuming them happily close to zero. We don’t complain that we can’t give that DVD away to a friend, because we give away recommendation instead—and let our friend check out The Office themselves, on their own Netflix account. With ebooks driving the cost of books down, giving away a recommendation begins to look every much like giving away a book.
The romantics don’t see it this way. With books, they overvalue ownership because books are special. Books are creamy paper between beautiful covers, with a magical smell and that exquisite texture of print under the pad of the thumb. So not owning them sounds abhorrent, even downright uncivilized.
And I agree with them. For some books. I love my set of first editions of James Ellroy. I cherish my hundred year old, leather bound complete works of Edgar Allan Poe. I’ll read both to my daughter at bedtime, when she’s old enough and if my wife lets me. But most books, to me, aren’t James Ellroy and they aren’t Edgar Allan Poe. Most books I consume are just that: consumed, enjoyed, and set aside or thrown out or sold. For those books, I needn’t worry about the plug being pulled by the DRM provider and I needn’t worry about being locked into a particular device. I can read each in the moment and then move onto the next.
Digital rights managed ebooks will eventually fade away, just as digital rights managed music has. But the fact that we must deal with DRM today shouldn’t be the enormous, hyperbolic, tinfoil hat concern it has become. Rather, we should see DRM as the sugar making the move to ebooks more palatable for publishers and authors, and the move to ebooks as a phenomenal, revolutionary development that will lower the costs of reading, bring more authors to more readers, and grow the field of books like nothing since the printing press. DRM, simply put, just isn’t that big of a deal.