Hey, it's the new Connie Willis novel -- get the forklift!
August 21, 2011 4:46 PM   Subscribe

Despite being a great fan of Connie Willis, I had to give up on Blackout/All Clear when I was barely a hundred pages into All Clear because it had been such a meandering, repetitive read. (Others have been able to finish it, but share my frustration). Two brief, related questions: 1) Can someone please summarize what happened in the rest of the book? (Yes, SPOILERS!) and 2) What the hell is happening to Willis' editors, given that her novels have been getting more lengthy and repetitive? The Doomsday Book (1993) was perfectly sized for its story. Bellwether (1997) was a little repetitive, but it was relatively short and funny, and I enjoyed it overall. Her 2002 novel Passage, although a satisfying book in the end, was a maze of twisty little passages, all alike, for the first chunk as well. And then she delivered bouncing baby Buicks in the form of Blackout/All Clear this past year. Why?

I'm not looking for commiseration and chatfilter on the second question. I know that she's won a Hugo and a Nebula for the work I couldn't finish, and many people seem to have really liked it, but many other people share my frustration. We can discuss this elsewhere.

But I really want to know if a successful but not blockbuster author has enough clout with her publishers to release two huge books that I would think could have been edited down to one. (IANAP: they may well see two volumes as more profitable than one.) Is this pattern of sprawl across seen in other writers' careers, or does Willis, an absolutely lovely woman by all accounts, have some unspeakable hold over her most recent batch of editors? Or are her longer and longer books simply selling more than her earlier works?
posted by maudlin to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I call is BAD - Big Author Disease. See George R. R. Martin and pretty much every other successful genre author.
posted by bq at 5:00 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

As successful as Willis is, she almost certainly sells a book to the publisher before she writes it, either on a proposal or a "we'll buy whatever novel you write next" basis. As successful as Willis is, I'm sure she's got an agent who can negotiate pretty favorable contracts for her.

So, say that a pretty successful author (I don't want to keep picking on Willis personally, I certainly don't know her or know the book's publication history. This is just a hypothetical.) turns in an 1100-page book. Her editor might quibble, her editor might suggest places where it can be trimmed down, but at the same time -- it might already have a scheduled publication date and bookstores who have placed orders, and it's expensive to delay it. And if Willis digs in her heels and doesn't want to cut it down, the publisher doesn't have a ton of options. If they cancel the book, they won't get back the sum of money they've already advanced to the author. Plus, they've severed their relationship with a commercial and well-loved author. If they publish it... it'll probably sell well enough anyway.

There's a lot of speculation about authors who have gotten too egotistical to let themselves be edited -- Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Laurell K. Hamilton are probably the names I hear the most -- but it's hard to know whether this is based in any actual fact or just "They used to write books I like, and now they don't anymore."
posted by Jeanne at 5:04 PM on August 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is this pattern of sprawl across seen in other writers' careers...?

Sadly, yes, it sure seems to be. George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, Neal Stephenson... there are plenty more.
posted by Eshkol at 5:06 PM on August 21, 2011

Wikipedia has a good write-up of the plot here.
posted by rmd1023 at 5:15 PM on August 21, 2011

Thanks for the great answers so far.

The Wikipedia summary: Thanks, I'd forgotten that Wiki is good for that sort of thing. I had to snicker when I saw the one paragraph summary for Blackout and the editor's note: "This section requires expansion", because, really, that's all that happens in the first book. It was the original wordage that needed contracting. But I got as far as paragraph three in the summary for All Clear because things actually do start happening there, and after a couple of spoilers, I want to go back and give the book another chance.

SO NO MORE SPOILERS IN THREAD, PLEASE! I have as much summary as I need right now.

Jeanne, thanks for explaining how publishers can get boxed in by authors in love with their own work in progress. Connie Willis seems to be working out a few themes in many of her books, including being surrounded by dying people, the prospect of your own imminent death, precocious and irritating children, the chance to start again and repair what went wrong, and, of course, a whole heap of screwball comedy tropes. Many of these are part of her latest work, and it's a shame (IMO), that she couldn't step away and edit, or let someone else edit, the book down to its emotional core.

But she still wins awards and pleases many people, so I don't know what else can be done for frustrated readers like me. It would be nice to see some daring rogue editors appropriate and edit over-long books like these and release them into the wild, but I doubt that's going to happen.
posted by maudlin at 5:35 PM on August 21, 2011

But she still wins awards and pleases many people

Yup, she won the Hugo yesterday.
posted by Runes at 5:40 PM on August 21, 2011

And the Nebula, as I mentioned (perhaps not too clearly) in the second sentence of my "more inside":-)
posted by maudlin at 5:47 PM on August 21, 2011

Anne Rice is another author whose books became so bloated as to become unreadable.
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 5:52 PM on August 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

One more thing about book editing: the ultimate final decisions in editing are up to the author. (It's different for work-for-hire, and magazines, and some other situations). The editor doesn't say, "Hey, I lopped off 25% of your novel for you!" but rather, "You need to lop off 25% of your novel." About 90% of the edits I did on my own last book were in the form "I'm confused about the motivation here," or "Doesn't this contradict that bit back there?" or "I don't understand this" -- my editor didn't take it upon herself to fix anything unless it was a very obvious and unambiguous typo, and even then I had to approve the change.

In the end, the author gets to say, "This is the way the novel is going to be." And the editor gets to say, "Fine, then, we won't publish it." But they don't get to make their own edits on the book anyway in spite of anything the author says. It's just that Young Stephen King who needs penicillin for his kid's ear infection is under a great deal more pressure to please his editor than Mature Stephen King who could probably buy a hospital wing.

Excellent editing still gets done on books. It's worth it to seek out newer writers and less popular writers whose editors can still exert positive influence.
posted by Jeanne at 6:01 PM on August 21, 2011

I struggled through both of those books and while I ultimately found them worthwhile, I shared your frustration [and also there were some ending problems, where I was like "you had thousands of words and you couldn't be more clear abotu THAT issue?" such that I still wasn't sure about a few things at the end]. My take on it was that the book is a mishmash of a few separate things

- WWII in the UK history novel
- a time travel story
- a bit of a romance, or a set of romances

I think a lot of people were maybe into two of those topics, max, but you had to sort of be into all three because there are lengthy expositions into all three of them.

So, no spoilers, but I think her theme of "missed messages" that you got from her if you read Passage is really writ larger in this book except it happens over decades and centuries and in every available way. Willis is a history geek, clerly and so she lavished attention on the historical details that had nothing to do with the central time travel plot, and built up way more characters than she'd need to for a period romance with a time travel twist. I too felt that she really could have pared it down somewhat, but I bet for people who are just nuts into all three of those topics [sort of how I felt about Daemon/Freedom TM] it would probably just be amazing for you.

And, along those lines, I think the epic novels are becoming more of a thing, Not like "Oh hey here's a trilogy spread out over ten years..." but "here is a series of thousand page novels that come out bang bang bang every 12 months or so" JK Rowling did it, but we're seeing others like the ones I mentioned above and also The Passage [not to be confused with Willis' Passage] which is a similar epic novel that only starts the story that you can't wait to finish. And if you're the author, how cool is it for you to just get to write and write and write and have a bunch of fans oodling all over you and not worrying about whether the book isn't going to be loved [see also: Infinite Jest]. I know some excellent editors, but agree with Jeanne, you can see their effects more on midlist authors.
posted by jessamyn at 6:28 PM on August 21, 2011

I liked several of Willis's previous books, but I struggled though Blackout and actually gave up on All Clear.

Complete lack of editing, drenched in useless detail, and lacking realistic character behaviors.

Hard to believe it won the Hugo and Nebula, I don't know what they were reading.

My guess is that with her previous success and reputation, no one actually edited these novels at all and it's a case of the emperor's new clothes.
posted by Argyle at 8:45 PM on August 21, 2011

The way that I've heard things like this explained to me is that it is much easier to sell a 600 page hardback for $30 bucks than a 250 page hardback. I heard that publishers are pushing for larger books to make larger profits. I asked several self-published authors at Worldcon who had very nicely bound and jacketed (nice artwork) books (no idea about the content of course) what it cost them for a run of a couple thousand books. They told me that it was about 6 bucks a book with the jacket. The books were about 300-350 pages. Obviously a big publisher prints a book much more cheaply than that (yes yes I know about editing, publicity , tours, etc.... just talking about raw book cost here) . So books themselves are pretty cheap whether you print 350 pages or 900 pages. Make it look bigger and people think it's worth more. Same principle as food coming in overly large boxes.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 9:32 PM on August 21, 2011

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