Sunday, February 04, 2007

Harry Potter and the Sophomore slump

There is a well-known phenomenon in software called the second-system effect where the sequel to an elegant, small and effective software is often an over-featured, under-performing bloat. I think the effect applies to literature as well.

When the release date of the last Harry Potter novel was announced, I thought "finally, it is going to end". Make no mistake, I enjoy reading Harry Potter. It is one of the few books that has managed to portray amazing consistency between two interacting alternate worlds (wizard and muggle). But somehow somewhere JK Rowling has lost her way. It isn't hard to make out - it is called the Sophomore Slump.

I loved the first HP novel - it was small, witty, had a great sense of humour, reading it was a pleasure not just because of the story, but also because of her play with the words. In the aura of the 1st, the quality of the subsequent novels came to be overlooked. But not for long. As the length of the novels started increasing, the plots started darkening, somewhere the humour was lost. The progressive decay became noticeable. The details of the plot became more important than the pleasure in reading it. Maybe the pressure on JK Rowling to make the facts of each book consistent with its predecessors is so much that she has forgotten the real need of the reader.

She wouldn't be alone.

I thought David Eddings' Belgariad was quite good. It had a crappy plot, but fantastic dry humour, which delighted the reader. But, with its sequel, the Malloreon, having a similar but even crappier plot, it was a yawn.
Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth series started off pretty well, but then became such a bore. I stopped reading simply waiting for the story to end. The repetitive sub-plots in the book overwhelmed my desire to read it. But my hope hasn't been realized - the 10th book is out. If you can't complete a story even after writing 10 books in the series, what sort of an author are you ?
Another favourite of mine is David Weber's Honor Harrington series. The first two books are simply brilliant. But, as the series progressed, the theme subtly changed, away from a more human character to a more technological and artificial one. The 11th book in the main plot is simply too long, too mechanical. But it has set the direction where the agony will hopefully end soon. I understood how bad it has become after reading Jack Campbell's Dauntless - a fantastic novel.
The list is long - R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms saga, that started with a pretty impressive Dark Elf series; the Star Wars prequels ... I could go on and on.

A few books buck the trend. Isaac Asimov's Foundation series being the prime example. Lord of the Rings is the other. But very few.

The exceptions can baffle the analysis. Just like a painting offers insight into the artist, maybe a novel could give insight into the mind of the author. If that is true, then probably the sophomore slump would show that the authors become victims of their success. They feel constrained to meet the perceived expectations of their fans.

The authors resort to the same formula but unable to replicate the success, and resorting the previously successful formula result in gradual increase of brain-damage of the plots. And, due to this, maybe they themselves change. They become too greedy and sign contracts to deliver books, and feel constrained by it. They cease to remain artists and become assembly-line workers. The flow of original thought, the sense of humour - the very things that make a book lively are lost. The reader is no longer what the author is looking to satisfy. Maybe he/she is now thinking of the history books or wikipedia entries ?
Perhaps there is a "literary entropy" that progressively increases in the novels of a series ... Food for thought.

Oh ... I'm now waiting for July 21st ...

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