My long march through George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire cycle got more than a little bogged down in A Clash of Kings, the second volume. After eagerly gulping down the first book, A Game of Thrones, I found the second book leaden and slow, with hundreds of pages of wheel-spinning as the various kinglings and their factions jockeyed for position. But the last third or so rallied: the depiction of the attack on King’s Landing in all its bloody confusion was superb, and the final surprise twist involving the fate of some important fugitives was heartening — I’d wanted to spend more time with those characters. Meanwhile, the third novel, A Storm of Swords, is every bit the bacon-and-cheddar awesomeburger fans of the series promised it would be.
Reading these books, as well as some other recent bestsellers, once again shows how often the most successful fiction flies in the face of those storytelling rules so beloved of editors and publishers. Show, don’t tell. Avoid long passages of exposition. Keep the writing tight. Don”t confuse the reader with lots of characters. Dan Brown’s novels and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium threesome (which have a lot more in common than Brown’s fans probably realize, or that Larsson’s fans would care to admit) groan under the weight of big slabs of exposition, and they have enough characters to fill Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Ditto Martin’s novels, which are far more gracefully written but still defy many of those ironclad rules laid down by editors. (The chapters of A Clash of Kings shift among nine separate viewpoint characters, plus a third-person omniscient prologue, which is enough to send most editors staggering to the fainting couch.) And while the Harry Potter novels were officially written for children, they offered enough characters and exposition to tax the memory of the average adult.
None of this is an argument in favor of baggy prose or out-of-control casting, but it should remind us that many readers go to a novel for an immersive experience, and that means complexity and depth. What’s most interesting is that the authors who broke the rules most successfully have all been genre hands, working outside or on the fringes of literary respectability. Which leaves us to wonder if genre editors are more open-minded in their approach to novels, or if genre writers, whose work is considered infra dig by many reviewers, benefit from the freedom that comes with going downmarket.