The Worth of Franchise Fiction

Whether I like it or not, my education has made me more of a literary snob than I once was or really want to be. It’s not intentional, but I seem to be unable to read anything without putting a critical slant on it or dissecting it in some way. I have been trained, whether I like it or not, to understand the way literature works and what qualifies a work as having literary worth. This comes as a sort of problem to me because, despite that I am a voracious reader, I tend to read mostly fluff and things that most trained scholars look down on. One of my guilty pleasures has always been franchise fiction.

My working definition of franchise fiction is any series of novels written around a single intellectual property (Star Wars, for instance) by many different authors who played no part in the creation of the property they write about.

When I was younger, the franchises that took most of my time were Dragonlance and Star Wars. I occasionally read a Magic: The Gathering novel, and I would sometimes read Batman, Superman, or Spider-man novelization of graphic novel story arcs. I would read any of these before I would read any ordinary fiction, even if it were an established series. I never looked at the author, nor did I ever care about style and talent on their part. All I cared about was that I was reading a novel set in a universe I loved with characters I enjoyed.

And then came college.

I remember the first time I balked at a franchise book clearly. I had been simply rushing through the Star Wars: New Jedi Order; I just had to know what happened next. When I came halfway into series, I read Star by Star by Troy Denning. I was floored. The writing was just terrible: the pacing was slow and the characters I had grown up with did not seem to act like themselves.

The worst thing was that if I had read that book when I was in high school, I would have loved it. My academic training gave me the insight to notice plot flaws and inconsistencies that I would have never even known existed before college. I moved on with the New Jedi Order series despite Star by Star being lackluster, and I just found the entire series to be going downhill from the beginning.

On top of that, I could tell which authors in the series were more talented than others, which destroyed my love of the Star Wars Expanded Universe for a while.

I decided to give my beloved Star Wars franchise fiction a rest, and I picked up some Warcraft novels because I was incredibly addicted to World of Warcraft at the time. It only took about two pages of Richard A. Knaack’s The Well of Eternity before I had to stop. In the words my roommate said about a story I wrote years and years ago, Knaack truly is the adjective valedictorian.

Instead of moving into a different Warcraft book by a different author and giving it a shot, I simply gave up on the series entirely.

It was not long after that when I gave up on franchise books after trying to read some random Forgotten Realms novel. I began reading mostly Stephen King and other genre writers like Jim Butcher. The difference is that I was no longer tied to a universe that could be bastardized by anyone who was hired by those with intellectual property rights; I picked and chose the authors who were telling the stories I wanted to hear. For years now, I’ve not gone back to franchise fiction because I was so disillusioned by having the façade shattered by my increasing education.

Add to that graduate school and the reading lists involved in preparation for comprehensive exams, and my personal reading time was so limited, I decided that my time was worth more than franchise fiction could offer.

I don’t anymore, however.

I recently picked up Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars: Outbound Flight because I wanted to read something I knew would not come close to being literary; I was sick of being inundated with the literary canon for so long, especially after finishing my Master’s degree. My English professor snobbery against franchise books was blown out of the water by the end of the first chapter of Zahn’s novel. Even after so many years of college and grad school, I felt like the kid I was when I first discovered the Star Wars universe.

And that got me to thinking about why.

I came to the conclusion it’s because Timothy Zahn is an established sci-fi writer in his own right; he has written double the amount of non-Star Wars novels as he has within the franchise. Even though he is mainly known for his Star Wars novels, he has the professional chops to publish his own original intellectual properties. That makes him different from authors whose publishing credits mainly exist within other people’s franchises.

While authors like Richard A. Knaack, Troy Denning, and Christie Golden have published novels of their own creation, I understand that they make their living writing for others’ properties.

I don’t blame them. I would do the exact same thing if I could. I actually would love nothing more than to write Star Wars novels for a living.  Unfortunately, the formulaic nature of most franchise fiction limits these writers from experimenting with the prose because experimentation means lower sales, and franchise fiction is all about marketing.

Where Timothy Zahn and a few other writers such as Kevin J. Anderson, Margaret Weis, and Tracey Hickman break the mold is that even though they operate within the intellectual properties for which they are hired, their actual writing is of such a high quality that the formula the novel must follow is almost unrecognizable because of the well-crafted narrative and structured prose.

The art behind writing franchise fiction is to hide what makes it sell in the first place so well that the book sells better. Some franchise authors understand that, but most don’t.

Outbound Flight jogged my memory of what a good franchise novel can be. After hearing glowing reviews from my friends, I intend to read the Legacy of the Force series next and skip the final three New Jedi Order books since the series was such a disappointment to me years ago. I might even give the World of Warcraft novels a shot again with Arthas by Christie Golden, even though the excerpts I have read so far were not very promising. To be fair, though, World of Warcraft lore has never really interested me, save a few minor points involving the Old Gods, and only then because of the H.P. Lovecraft tie-ins.

I doubt even a Zahn-quality novel would truly engross me in that world; even the MMO itself could not. I would, however, be able to appreciate the quality of the writing and narrative.

Even though my education sometimes makes it hard for me to simply read a novel and not dissect it, my years of schooling have also given me the discipline to trudge through books with glaring faults and glean something at least partially worthwhile from the experience. So while my education initially turned me off of the series and properties I loved so much, in the end, it helps me fully embrace what made me love franchise fiction in the first place.

Comments

  1. gordon

    Excellent article. It struck a cord with me. I used to read a ton of 'franchise fiction' as you call it but have now moved on to other things and haven't gone back in years. IMO I think franchise fiction attracts a lot of lazy authors and lazy readers. Sure, there are some great writers like Timothy Zahn, but there doesn't seem to be many regulations about who can write what.

    Here's a book I'd recommend for you: Generation Kill. It's non-fiction but very well written and very interesting. I even blogged about it here http://blog.weflyspitfires.com/2009/02/03/generation-kill/

  2. Beej

    I'll have to check that out, especially since I have a very close friend who did a two year tour in Iraq and is being deployed again in December.

    I feel the same way, or felt rather, about lazy authors and lazy readers. I think if one is particular in who the author is that the lazy factor is circumvented. I've pretty much decided there are a list of authors who write for outside intellectual properties that I enjoy, and after Legacy of the Force, we'll see if I add anymore or give up completely on these franchise novels.

  3. Xash

    I guess I'm somewhat like you used to be. I love reading and I own a lot of books, but by and large they are all "Franchise Fiction" but I also know why this is.

    The first reason is that I don't know or associate with anyone who reads a lot of books, regardless I enjoy them a great deal. However as anyone can tell you not every author is equal sometimes you'll read something and its just horrible.

    This is where Franchise fiction comes in, You can go pick up a Star Wars Novel, and sometimes it'll be something great like the Grand Admiral Thrawn books but often its not so great, but even if the writing is poor at least you're getting a tiny piece of a story however poorly told that you can add to an overarching collective story in your head.

    Now, if I just walk into a bookstore, and I said.. you know what, I'm not going to buy a book based on some series. Also I'm not going to buy a book by an author I know like Stephen King or Neil Gaiman or whoever. Where would I even begin, you've got a store holding probably upwards of ten thousand books in it. How to know whats quality and whats not? Because if you buy a bad book, and its doesn't at least revolve around an established universe you enjoy, then really it has no redeeming quality.

    This is a problem I face constantly, to the point of I don't even go to the book store anymore. I don't buy a book untill I've researched it online, found out whats its about, if its part of a series, who wrote it, what else they've written what people think of it and so on. Then I just buy it online because I've gotten tired of Specifically wanting Book A, going to the bookstore and them not having it. They assure me they can order it, and I assure them I can order it myself, and it'll arrive right at my house.

  4. gordon

    I'd also recommend the King Arthur triology by Bernard Cornwell. Very well writen and incredibly visceral. Puts a new twist on an old legend.