Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Reader Loyalty

I got to thinking about reader loyalty at the weekend and just how much a loyal reader will put up with if the author’s work takes a dip in quality.

Over thirty years ago – I were just a lad, bless - I came across The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson and I was head over heels captivated. I read those books through the night, while walking to school – yeah, I was that nerdy - and I counted out the minutes, days and months until the next book in the series became available.

To say I loved the books is like saying David Cameron enjoys the view in his mirror.

Fast forward a few decades, Donaldson revisits his past and I am the middle-aged man all but skipping with delight in the middle of the bookshop.

The third book in the series The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant is now taking up space on my creaking bookshelf and heaven help me, but I am SO disappointed. I’m not sure if I can even finish it.

It’s called Against All Things Ending and comes in at a door-stopping 743 pages. Which is fine. I like a BIG book. However a BIG book that should have been cut in half...if this had been written by anyone other than Donaldson I wouldn’t have got past page 2. But there’s that pesky reader loyalty dragging me on well past the middle of the book. I skipped a feck of a lot of pages.

Donaldson (perhaps alongside Terry Brooks) is in my humble opinion the daddy of modern epic fantasy. He created a fascinating world and a cast of characters to hang your heart on.  He scripted adventures that held me in their thrall for years of my life. So what’s gone wrong?

I remember reading an article a few years back that said JK Rowling had filled notebook upon notebook upon notebook with details of her characters and their world and their backstory  before starting to write the Harry Potter series. Then – importantly - are you paying attention people? - she used only a fraction of it in the books. So immersed was she in the culture she had created, the books had an incredible feeling of reality.

Perhaps our Stevie D also filled notebook upon notebook before putting finger to keypad and in the earlier series he only used enough to flavour the story and convince us of the land’s reality – but now my impression is that he has decided as he is coming to the end of the series he needs to throw everything at it... and bugger me if it doesn’t slow down the story to the drip of an over-turned jar of treacle.

It takes about 130 pages for something to happen. During that period the characters are all hanging around arguing and debating the implications of the end of the previous book. Something does happen and then the remaining characters spend the next 50 pages debating what just happened...something else happens and then we have another 50 pages of debate.  Getting the drift? If the book wasn’t so heavy, and therefore likely to cause an injury to my delicate frame, I’d have chucked it against the wall.

Then there’s the dialogue. The characters from The Land speak in faux-Shakespearean. Here’s a line for ya... “This power defies both augury and foresight. Assuredly it surpasses the cunning of a-Jeroth, who knows no fealty which is not derived from possession of other mastery.’


Donaldson has a prose style that demands he uses six syllables where one might do and his characters, who, let me tell you possess AMAZING powers, are so inept with them that I want to bitch slap them till their ears bleed. Sure, when power of this scale is available to a character the writer needs to make life difficult for them, but here they make incredibly poor errors in judgement. As if in that moment of decision they are taken over by George W. Then there’s the self-pity. And the self-hate. SO wearing. A change of emotional pace now and again would work wonders.

In past books I could overlook the purple prose and the heavy dialogue because the stories were so freakin’ exciting and the characters so engaging. This time, I’m not feeling it, dude.

Normally if I don’t like a book I stay schtum. Anyone who actually creates a novel deserves respect in my view and if it’s not to my taste then someone else will like it – and who am I to trash someone else’s hard work? But Stephen...buddy... you who formally walked on water...WTF?


So what’s changed? Undoubtedly my reading tastes have grown over the years, but was I that easily pleased as a yoof? No, it can’t be that.

I’m thinking the editors working for SD’s publisher are scared of him? A wee hug, an arm over his shoulder and a few words in his shell-like could have saved 300 pages and turned this book into the work I was so looking forward to.

Now –those of you who haven’t read any Stephen Donaldson, I demand you forget everything you’ve just read and buy the earlier books. They are wonderful. The stuff of literary legend.

The latest book? Not so much.


  1. I applaud you for reading so many pages because of your reader loyalty. You're a better man than I am, Michael...I'm not that loyal a reader.

    Your SD sounds like he has an even more impressive vocabulary than our friend Bill but, as you say, he needs to capture his readers' interests.

    Question: Will you buy his next book?

  2. That's disappointing as heck. I've never been a total Donaldson groupie, but I've liked his stuff well enough. Bummer he fell in love with his own world and his own words. And out of love with his delete key.

  3. Linda, unless I hear through the grapevine that he's back in form, my collection is going to be minus the final book. Which is kinda sad. I might just buy it for the sake of completion.

    Nevets, the delete key should have been worm out on that book.

  4. oh and Nevets, I should have been wearing my glasses and therefore "worm" should read "worn". Which is kind of a clever slip because the problem is that a worm will be present in the final book.

  5. it's like when you find out your hero is just a cheap suit. sometimes coffee isn't enough to sway one from a crime of passion. but i read somewhere else that you are in a majority in opinion on this book.

  6. Hi Thea, I hope he gets to hear all of this criticism and then uses it to good effect for the final book in the series. It would be such a shame to end on a sour note.