I am utterly excited to welcome JL Bryan, the author of Jenny Pox to my site today. As you well know, I absolutely enjoyed reading Jenny Pox (read my review here). However, he is here today not mainly to talk about Jenny Pox, but to discuss why the length of books might be significant to a person but not to the other. Leave your comment on this post to share with us your preference and gain an extra entry for Jenny Pox Giveaway! Without further hesitation on my part, Jeff:
What does length tell us about a story? Why do we often seem to want stories that go on and on without end?
Stephen King mentions (in On Writing, I think) that most fans say The Stand is their favorite book of King's. It's also his longest. He jokes about how it feels when most of your fans agree that your best work is decades behind you. I think people like The Stand because it's a grand epic, a world in which the reader can go deep and get lost among all the drama and world-shaping storylines.
Successful books often turn into long series. Readers and authors alike develop relationships with the characters and want to continue that connection. There's something in certain fictional worlds that keeps bringing us back for more.
That "something" may be different for each person. I once had an interesting religion class where the professor talked about stories and "sacred time." An example might be Christmas, and the whole Christmas season. Sacred time is marked by a return to long-established stories, stories that we've known since childhood. With Christmas, there's the story of the Nativity, and there's also the story of Santa Claus. There are the stories of Rudolph, Frosty, and Ralphie's quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. An entire fabric of stories is woven together into the complex cultural event called "Christmas."
"Sacred time" is not linear but circular. The same events happen again and again, the same stories are told, the same rituals carried out. It exists outside of regular time, in the mythical realm of gods and dreams. The repeating of stories is how we build structure in our lives and define who we are. We tell stories from our past as a way of explaining our identity. (Of course, sometimes people make up stories about themselves, or tell the same stories to the same audience too often and becomes bores!)
My religion professor believed movies were the new sacred stories in our pluralistic society. Movies could be a shared experience, and they could help you transcend time for a moment. Watching the old animated Rudolph doesn't just bring back the story of a couple of North Pole misfits. It brings back Christmas memories from my childhood, the excitement of the decorations and shopping, seeing relatives who lived far away, and of course rushing down to the tree at the first sign of light on Christmas morning.
It's all there, woven into the story of Rudolph, lost memories waiting to emerge again each holiday season. I think this has something to do with why we like long stories, whether it's an epic tome or an ongoing series. We step out of the stream of our own lives and into another dream world, one that's familiar and welcoming to us. We revisit with old characters like lost friends. And we share them with each other, whether it's watching a movie that we've all seen before, or discussing books we enjoy. Because stories aren't just about escaping. They're also about connecting with each other by way of the dream world.
A large book lets us share a deep, long dream with each other. An ongoing series helps us return again and again in the company of others, and even take part in affecting the course of the story, by giving out feedback that the author might read.
I've never written a sequel to any of my books, but people keep asking for a sequel to Jenny Pox. It means my readers and I have gone someplace special together, and they want me to take them there again. The idea of going back to that world and dealing with the aftermath of the first book seems daunting, but strangely appealing. I want to see how Jenny and the other characters deal with what lies ahead.
Miss Shy asked me to write about the length of books and series and what length might signify. I think it signifies a desire to stay in that other world, and to repeat the experience of that particular world at different times in our lives. The world of that big epic or that long book series we love becomes one of the threads composing our own inner world, while connecting us to the inner world of other people.