Series’ly appealing

I’m reading a lot of series fiction at the moment and it’s taken me a little by surprise. The thing of it is that I don’t expect it when I read what looks like a one-off, but then, when I reach the inevitable cliff-hanger of an ending, I know that some how I’ve stumbled onto yet another series. I think I can count on one hand the books I’ve read which are stand alone novels. This isn’t a new trend but I think it’s become more prevalent throughout the last few years. It’s become more obvious and common in my reading for sure.  Why?

Series fiction is a curious beast. Firstly, a definition. It is fiction which appears in a series of multiple novels, usually following some rule of having character / location / thematic parallels throughout. There is often a palpable sense of time passing throughout these novels. Books return to the characters throughout their lives, building on the experiences gained in one, and developing the central characters story some more. Examples that immediately come to mind are Grace Dent’s beautifully written Diary of a Chav series, E Nesbit’s books about the Bastable children (still remarkably readable and witty after all these years) and my personal favourite whom I am determined to shoehorn into every post I write, Elinor M Brent Dyer and the Chalet School series. This last one is particularly amazing as somehow we travel through over 60 books and see characters play in the most epic game of kiss chase ever that must ultimately span a good half decade (Oh Nancy and Kathie and your forbidden love!).

The appeal of series fiction is obvious. Once a reader engages with the conceit of the series (be that vampire slayers or ballet dancers), they are much more likely to return to that title when they see it on the shelf. There is no need to ‘re-engage’ the reader; they already who know who the lead characters are, the premise of the world, and the style of the story. They come to the second book with expectations that are distinctly different than the moment they engaged with the first book. This time they expect the second book to reinforce their impression of the first, to represent the characters they fell in love with the first time, and to progress their story to an effective conclusion. It’s a difficult balancing act and one I do admire. You’re telling a story to the new reader but also to those who have, in a way, read it before. Writers of series fiction have my admiration and respect. It looks simple. It’s really not.

If we look at series fiction in a very dispassionate manner, it’s also very business orientated in a way. Once the consumer enjoys the product, they will return to it again. Simple. This is obviously a key factor in economically aware times and one that publishers must love. If you’ve got a big hitter, such as Harry Potter, it’s enough to propel your business through some very lean times – and when the series finishes, profits inevitably suffer.

It’s intriguing as well that series fiction is quite dominant in the children’s market as opposed to the adult market. I recently had a look around my local library and tried to work out how many ‘adult’ series I could find. Nothing much but the Dan Brown and the Game of Thrones type sagas in the fantasy / sci-fi sections. Now this may be due to the fairly ferocious budget cuts currently hitting the library system but I still found this quite a notable discrepancy. And I think it’s partially to do with the ‘parent’ factor. Children have to buy / select their books with a parental / adult mediating influence present. Until they become proficient readers, the books they select are read together with an adult / other. Therefore the series fiction that is already accepted by the adult as an ‘appropriate’ item for their child to read, will be inevitably more popular than the undiscovered title.

Series fiction therefore will remain a concept that is distinctly appealing to all involved in the act of reading. I just wish that the books that are destined to form series were a little more obvious about it.

PS – My apologies for the hideous pun which titled this piece 😉

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3 thoughts on “Series’ly appealing

  1. I’m a total series fiction (for grown-ups) addict. I got hooked via detective novels. It started with Chandler. Then I went on to Hammett, who died too young, leaving me hanging after only a few novels and radio plays. Read the A through U series of alphabet titles by Sue Grafton (starting with “A is for Alibi.” That’s a really nice series with an ornery female detective. Tried to find more, but they weren’t as well-written and had to go back to the male detectives. Found Parker and read all the Spencer novels. And now I’m on Elmore Leonard, who is not a detective writer, but very suspenseful and gratifying, because even though they’re not series novels per se, almost every novel reincorporates one or more characters from other novels. So you have a guy from one novel reappearing in another one, but this time the POV is from another character, for example. You’re always happy when a character pops in from another novel, with Leonard, because usually they were a character you really liked. Here comes the old friend.

    • Ah yeah, I loved the alphabet series, they’re fab. Have you tried the Amelia Peabody detective series? They’re set in ancient Egypt. There’s a glorious moment when she’s facing down a bad guy and she’s thinking something along the lines of “You’re an idiot” and then she says, blunt as hell, “You’re an idiot.” Cracked me up.

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