By James Wallace Harris, Sunday, August 9, 2015
One of the most impressive books I’ve ever read is The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson—she interviewed 1,200 people and spent ten years writing a history of African-Americans migrating out of the south from WWI to the 1970s. One of the most impressive novels I’ve ever read, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert took her five years traveling the globe to research and write. Harper Lee spent three years working with an editor after she submitted Go Set a Watchman and before it become To Kill A Mockingbird.
Should we trust authors that write and publish several books a year? I know writers write to make a living, but when I reread my favorite novels that were hastily written back in the 1960s I often wish today they had gotten a few more drafts. They aren’t holding up because not enough time and thought was spent on them.
I just read Phoenix Rising by William W. Johnstone (with J. A. Johnstone) which came out in 2011. The trouble is William W. Johnstone died in 2004. J. A. is William W.’s nephew and carefully groomed writing assistant. Phoenix Rising is a breezy, easy read, but on the thin side. It was obviously quickly written, first of a trilogy so far, meant to hook readers to sell future installments. Since I’ve found several books published in 2011 with J. A. Johnstone name on the title page, I assume Johnstone is a novel writing factory. (I even have to wonder if he sub-contracts with ghost writers.) Both Johnstones were incredibly prolific, keeping a number of series going concurrently. Firebase Freedom (2012) and Day of Judgment (2013) are sequels to Phoenix Rising.
Now I’m not against Mr. Johnstone making a living as a prolific writer, but as a hardcore book lover I’ve got to protest. I don’t like the practice of using a dead writer’s name as a logo to sell books. Nor do I like the idea of reading books by ghostwriters who crank them out for hire. And I really hate, and this is the most important point of all, of buying a book that sets me up to buy another. This modern trend of producing trilogies and endless series is bad for the art of the novel.
Now I admit I have many bookworm friends who love continuing stories and buying books by commodity authors. If you’re reading to kill time does quality matter if you keep turning the pages? But, if you read books to experience the human heart in conflict with itself, then you should worry about how much time it took to write a book. I read Phoenix Rising because the sub-sub-genre of survival fiction, which is part of the sub-genre of apocalyptic novels, which falls under science fiction, a topic I’m addictive to reading.
I’m not sure I would have realized just how thin Phoenix Rising is if I hadn’t also been listening to Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. In one standalone volume, Niven/Pournelle gives readers far greater depth than a shelf of quickie prepper paperbacks.
Since I’ve been studying survival novels I know they have key aspects that define their appeal. First, is the cause of the catastrophe. Johnstone comes up with a horrendously unbelievable reason for civilization collapsing. One only Fox News fanatics could believe. Second, and more importantly, is how do the survivors survive. The more practical details the better. Johnstone’s not too believable here either; everything happens too easily without much drama. Finally, readers want hope. No matter how bleak the collapse, they want believable theories how humans could rebuild. What holds a survival story together is its characters. Readers want sympathetic characters to vicariously experience “how would I do it myself” situations. I think Johnstone has fans that find his type of characters appealing. They are likable good people, but the dramatic experiences their creator provide for them is flimsy, rushed and unsatisfying. Johnstone does offers hope for the future but I’d have to buy two more novels to find it, and I won’t.
I consider Earth Abides by George R. Stewart the gold standard of a survivor story. Isherwood Williams is a character that I can identify with as he experiences a series of enlightening conflicts that force readers into thinking about the mortality of our species. Earth Abides inspired Stephen King’s The Stand and many other end-of-civilization novels. We’re currently experiencing a flood of cozy catastrophes where a handful of people must survive the immediate months after the collapse of civilization.
Surviving the apocalypse is an extremely complex event. It’s all too easy to turn it into a cartoonish cliché. And I think any book written in a couple of months can’t do the subject justice.
For people who haven’t read the classics of this sub-sub-genre, Johnstone’s story is probably intriguing enough. Especially for people who think surviving is a matter of having a gun and a will to use it. Maybe Johnstone’s characters get deeper in the second and third book, but I won’t be reading them to find out. To many better books give me everything I need in one volume.
Johnstone covers all the basics, but with no finesse and style, and no insight other than conservative philosophy that’s failing to help civilization now. Because Johnstone’s premise for the collapse of the United States is so thoroughly anti-liberal using absurd extremist logic it’s hard to take the rest of his insights seriously. His story could have been far more powerful if he had put his novel through several drafts and made his premise chillingly realistic. His attack on Obama is juvenile. If liberal ideas can destroy the country like conservatives believe, then the extrapolation of how that works needs believability that would convince liberals and moderates too. Obviously Johnstone is selling to a ready-made audience of true believers. Phoenix Rising might make some bucks off of naïve readers, but it fails at creating a memorable storytelling experience.
Here’s a way to compare a great novel to hack series. A great novel has the philosophical impact of a single A-Bomb that we never forget, while hack writing gives us faked movie explosions with each volume that are momentarily thrilling, but easily forgotten. Series novels are a marketing decision, not an artistic endeavor. If you bought this novel to read on the plane it’s probably entertaining enough.
I’m not saying some stories don’t deserve the trilogy treatment, although even the best trilogies I can think of would have been artistically superior as a single large novel. Writers must love trilogies because they can sell one story three times. It also means they don’t have to edit and distill their meandering narrative into a coherent whole. And how often have you been wowed by the first book of the trilogy only to be disappointed in the next two volumes? Hack writers find it much easier to write three or more so-so novels than one great story.
And when we think about great literary novels of history, how many of them are series? Would Trollope and Proust be more read today if they had written stand-alone novels like Austen and Dickens?
Many bookworms are like addicts. They consume books. The William W. Johnstone brand appeals to their hunger, and his books are a quick fiction fix. But his books will not be remembered. They might be a commercial success now, which is fine for the writers and publishers. But they get so little enthusiasm from fans that they don’t have entries in Wikipedia. That’s quite telling.
Millions of people want to be writers, and many of those would-be writers see developing continuing character stories as key to making a living. I can’t blame them for that. But what they crank out is fast food. If you’re a bookworm that craves novels that expand your map of reality then I’d avoid books with sequels.
My protest of the Phoenix Rising series is not because it’s bad, but thin, hastily written, with stretched out stories without the fully developed elements of a satisfying novel. If readers want a powerful trilogy on the survivor theme they should read:
- Earth Abides (1949) by George R. Stewart
- Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank
- Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
I know I’m going to come across as a nut here because trilogies and continuing character series are almost the norm now.