GENRE FICTION: Series vs. Standalone

Genre fiction (crime, fantasy, supernatural, paranormal, horror, romance etc) is one of the most popular areas of fiction. The mega-bestsellers are always what you would consider genre fiction and it is also this area of fiction that is driving eBook sales at the moment. I wouldn’t necessarily classify myself as a genre reader but I do read a lot of crime fiction and dabble in other genre specific fiction. But basically I just like a good read.

One of the appealing aspects of genre fiction, both to readers and I’m sure publishers, is that most of it is series fiction. Very rarely in so-called ‘literary’ fiction do you find characters that recur in other novels.  When it does happen it is usually a sequel written years if not decades after the first book. Reading can be a very addictive pass time and being able to revisit a favourite character again but within a new story is great fuel for a book addict. It is also a comfort when you want to be absolutely sure that your next read is going to hit the spot. Picking up a book with a familiar character is like comfort food or catching up with an old friend.

However there can be great pitfalls to series fiction. I know myself that I will resist reading an author who has a big, existing series of titles because I feel like I might be making a big commitment when goodness knows I already have enough to read. I also have to read a series from the start. There is no coming in at book five, that would be sacrilegious.

The other big pitfall is a series going for too long. This can be especially true in crime fiction. Reality starts to wane when a character is put in danger again and again or stumbles on to a major mystery time after time. The formula can also become far too apparent and in the end no matter how much you may love a character, boring is boring. But choosing when to end a series is hard. I would advocate shorter series but at the same time beg for one more title. Ending a series will never please everybody. Many readers are more than happy to keep reading about their favourite character indefinitely, reality be damned.

Personally when I am reading series fiction, I like it to be 3-5 books and each book self-contained to some degree. I have read some really great trilogies where book two is always a downer because it doesn’t quite meet the heights of book one and it tries too hard to set up book three.  But my favourite types of series are those that aren’t quite as direct in sequence. My all-time favourite would be George Pelecanos’s DC Quartet which was set in four different decades where the constant was the city of Washington DC not a main protagonist.

However a standalone novel from a series writer can still be just as good if not better. You nearly always notice a change in writing style that is refreshed, renewed and unconstrained. There is no formula. In essence all bets are off. Plus you meet new characters and the chances are if you liked a previous character you are going to like a new character.

But a standalone novel doesn’t have to be separate from a series. George Pelecanos is again a master of this. Throughout his many series and standalone novels there is always an acknowledgment of previous characters. Sometimes they have obvious roles in other books and sometimes they are merely an unnamed pedestrian walking down the street. It’s a nod and a wink to the reader that “hey this is a different book but it is still the same world”. Laura Lippman and John Harvey also do this well. The best instance ever of this was when two of Laura Lippman’s characters turned up in a small scene in The Wire, I nearly fell of my chair!

Series fiction, standalone novels or a subtle mix of both. What do you enjoy?

2 thoughts on “GENRE FICTION: Series vs. Standalone

  1. Fantasy freak here. I love my big fat epic series! Although I do find some trilogies have a 2nd book that feels a bit empty, not moving along the overarching plot at all. I do read stand-alones, but trilogies are the bread and butter of fantasy, and I like getting to know the characters more.

  2. I love a good blend of both. I recently got stuck into Kerry Greenwood’s Phryne Fisher series which I am loving, and am currently reading THe Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde which I believe is also a series. THere is nothing better than a good series you can really get stuck into.

    My one ‘problem series’ is the Earth Children’s series by Jean M Auel. She has been writing that series since the 70’s (I am pretty sure), and with only book 5 out, there are still more to come. I loved this series when I first discovered it, and even though they get progressively worse as it progresses, I stuck with it to the latest book. But now I am just so irritated with the author I don’t know if I will be able to finish the series.

    Does anyone know which series I am talking about and have the same problem?

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