The Appeal of Series Fiction – It All Begins in Childhood

I enjoy series fiction. Mostly crime series, it must be said. Whether it’s Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk trudging across the landscape in contemporary Australia, or Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy cruising the streets of Belfast during ‘The Troubles’, or C. J. Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake plying his legal trade on the equally dangerous streets of 16th century London, I’m there with them – book after book after book.

What is the appeal of series fiction? I have a hunch that, for me, it goes back to the series I devoured as a child. I grew up on a diet of Amelia Jane and the Bobbsey Twins before graduating to Pippi Longstocking and the Silver Brumby. (My persistent bristling at being told what to do can surely be laid at the feet of Astrid Lindgren and Elyne Mitchell.)

Series fiction, whether for children or older readers, is often dismissed as a lesser form of writing, just one peg above ‘pulp’ fiction (which also often runs in series, thereby being slammed with a double dose of snobbish disdain). Series fiction is reviewed less often and with less analytical rigour than standalone titles. A quick search of the Australian literature database, AustLit, reveals just 11 critical articles about series, and only a couple of dozen shorter newspaper columns on the same subject.

But even if the academy largely ignores series, publishers and readers don’t. Dipping into AustLit again, I find records for over 1,100 book series published in Australia since 2010. If publishers are accepting proposals for series in such large numbers, and taking them through the not inexpensive editing, publishing and distribution process, they must recognise a market for sales. Why are readers buying these books?

Why so popular?

Let’s go back again to children’s series. How many Australians, growing up in the middle decades of the 20th century, read Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong books or P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins titles? Perhaps they were fans of Enid Blyton’s Secret Seven and Famous Five or favoured the American Stratemeyer Syndicate’s Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. Maybe it was English translations of Asterix and Tintin that drew them in. Later in the century, along came the Baby-Sitters Club, Diary of Wimpy Kid and Goosebumps.

Cover images courtesy of Bloomsbury Australia

And just before the new millennium ticked over, Harry Potter turned up. His wizarding journey was published between 1997 and 2007. Has any other series generated the rapturous response afforded to the Hogwarts cohort?

UK academic and children’s literature specialist Victor Watson believes that reading series fiction ‘is not just an obsessive eccentricity’. It is, rather, central to our discovery of ‘the most important reading secret of all – that fiction can provide a complex variety of profoundly private pleasures, and that these pleasures are repeatable and entirely within the reader’s control’. We become friends, as Sydney-based teacher, editor and author Judith Ridge puts it, with characters who remain ‘reassuringly themselves from book to book’.

Transitioning from child reader to adult reader

And perhaps that is at the heart of why I still read series, both those written for adults and those intended for younger audiences. It is a private, repeatable pleasure in the reassuring company of familiar characters.

Cover image courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

For children and adults alike, a book series creates a sense of connection – between author and reader, and between reader and character. Alongside the heartening familiarity is the buzz of expectation. In C. J. Sansom’s series, Matthew Shardlake has, so far, doggedly survived the rule of Henry VIII, and outlived both Cromwell and Cranmer. Now he faces new challenges under Elizabeth I’s reign. A book series couples predictability with anticipation.

There is also an element of control in reading a series. Young children might be facing upheavals and anxieties at home and school, they could be glimpsing uncertainties in the world at large. Within the pages of a book series, they can return again and again to a place of security. There is comfort in ‘the assurance that any problems that arise will be resolved in a satisfactory way’ (Ward and Young, ‘Engaging Readers through Series Books’). Is it so different for adult readers? I think not. Sean Duffy survives the bombs of the IRA and the machinations of the FBI in Adrian McKinty’s series. And Aaron Falk, despite his troubled and somewhat dysfunctional personal life, manages to apply his policing skills with insight and efficiency in Jane Harper’s series.

Cover image courtesy of Pan Macmillan Australia

The distance between Pippi Longstocking and Sean Duffy is really not so far. I still enjoy the warm blanket of series fiction in a sometimes chilling world. And in case you’re wondering whether I’m excited that the seventh book in C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series and the third in Jane Harper’s Aaron Falk series are being published in October 2018 – you bet I am!

Share a Favourite

If you have memories of a favourite series that fostered your reading life, or if you’d like to recommend a series, please add your thoughts in a comment.

Links to series

Here are some of my favourite series from recent years. The list is alphabetical by author. Some of the series are suitable for children (*), some are for adult readers – all are cracking good yarns.

Image courtesy of Hachette Australia

Image courtesy of Goodreads

Other sources

  • AustLit: ‘an authoritative database about Australian literature and storytelling, with biographical and bibliographical information, full text, exhibitions and rich online content’.
  • For more about the Stratemeyer Syndicate and its many series (including the Bobbsey Twins, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew) visit the site ‘dedicated to the legacy of Edward Stratemeyer’.
  • Watson, Victor. Reading Series Fiction: From Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp. London: Routledge Falmer, 2000.
  • Ridge, Judith, et al. ‘Series Fiction.’ Magpies: Talking about Books for Children 18.5 (2003): 10-12.
  • Ward, Barbara A., and A. Terrell Young. ‘What’s New in Children’s Literature?: Engaging Readers through Series Books.’ Reading Horizons. 48.1 (2007): 71-80.

 

2017 Reading

Historical fiction and crime fiction, books marketed for children’s and young adult audiences, novels set in holiday destinations, even a sliver of non-fiction – here is an overview of my reading for 2017.

Books for Travel

Mid-year, I travelled in the UK, and I wanted to read, in situ, books that would lodge me in that landscape. One of the novels I chose for my Northumberland sojourn was Paula Hawkins’ Into the Water. There’s a shiver of recognition when I find myself in a place I’m reading about. When Into the Water’s Lauren wants to take her son for an outing on her 32nd birthday, she chooses Craster as her destination:

It’s my favourite place in all the world … after we’ve been to the beach and the castle, we’ll go to the smokehouse and eat kippers on brown bread. Heaven.

Lauren’s right, the ‘kippers on brown bread’ are heavenly.

Smokehouse, Craster, Northumberland. 2017.

My travels also took me to Devon’s Jurassic Coast. On my day trip to Lyme Regis, I imagined Mary Anning trudging across the sand, her keen eyes searching out traces of life from eons past – traces that would up-end 19th-century scientific theories and theological frameworks. Tracy Chevalier brings Anning’s undervalued contribution to palaeontology magnificently to life in Remarkable Creatures.

Children’s and Young Adult Books

2017 marked an end to my focused engagement with children’s and young adult (YA) literature. I wrote my last reviews for the Children’s Book Council of Australia’s Reading Time journal in April. I was delighted that my final review bundle included Mac Barnett and Jon Klassen’s Triangle – a beguiling fusion of word and image.

Relinquishing my connection with Reading Time and with my @OzKidsYALit Twitter account doesn’t mean I’ll stop reading books published for the children’s and YA market. A chance encounter with the name ‘G. A. Henty’ (a 19th-century English author) sent me trawling through the National Library of Australia’s excellent collection of Henty’s ‘boys’ own adventure’ stories. I was particularly interested in his 1887 novel (one of nearly 100 books from Henty’s pen) titled A Final Reckoning: A Tale of Bush Life in Australia. Henty never visited Australia so how did he garner his information about life in the colonies? I went some way towards answering that question in the final instalment of my three-part blog post on Henty, ‘G. A. Henty and Australia: A Final Reckoning‘.

Later in 2017, I read Jessica Townsend’s debut novel, Nevermoor. It’s the first book in a series about 11-year-old Morrigan Crow who, facing imminent death due to an unlucky birth date, is granted a reprieve provided she accepts an uncertain future with a previously unknown patron. My reading of Nevermoor set me thinking about the moral universes created by authors of fantasy fiction. Once again, my reading spawned a blog post, ‘Nevermoor: Morality and Values in an Imagined World‘.

I ended my children’s/YA adventures for the year by joining a Twitter book discussion hosted by Robert Macfarlane and Jackie Morris. These two Brits proposed a reading of Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising. (You can follow the discussion thread here.) For those in the northern hemisphere, the discussion coincided with the winter solstice, icy winds and flurries of snow – all mirroring the seasonal setting of the book. My reading took place during a pre-Christmas heatwave in south-eastern Australia. As I read Cooper’s novel, I took notes, and jotted down comparisons with other fantasy worlds (particularly J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series). One sentence, duly copied into my notebook, remains with me still. It concerns unintended consequences when rulers quarantine the land for their own private use:

But forests are not biddable places.

Crime Fiction

Crime fiction is my unabashed escapist reading. I love assembling puzzle pieces, detecting motives, spotting subtle revelations. This year, I started Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series – two down, four to go! And Jane Harper’s Force of Nature (her second book featuring Australian Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk) took me, willingly, into the dark forests of Gippsland and the even darker jungles of corporate Melbourne.

Crime novels are often ‘easy reads’. I skate through them, carried by the pace of the narrative. But Emily Maguire’s An Isolated Incident did not let me off easily. The intensity (for me) in Maguire’s novel is not about solving the crime, it’s about the bedrock of culture and sex and relationships in 21st-century Australia. This book wouldn’t let me go, even though I wasn’t ‘enjoying’ it. Finally, I reached the climax; a single, convulsing stream of words. Words about men. About men who butcher girls, and men who don’t cause quite so much damage, and men to whom women go for protection, and about men who are pure and good.

But we have no way of telling those from the others until it’s too late and that, perhaps, is the most unbearable thing of all.

Historical Fiction

When I’m not reading crime fiction, I’m often buried in a historical novel. The ‘Collections’ on my six-year-old Kindle reveal 30 titles listed under ‘Crime Fiction’ and 54 under ‘Historical Fiction’. (There are also two books in the ‘Too Awful to Continue Reading’ collection, but they shall remain secret.)

I’ve already mentioned Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures, set in 19th-century England. Another book with an English setting is Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns, a richly evoked novel of the Pre-Raphaelite era. I was captured by the contrasting lives of the male painters and the women who succoured them. I went in search of Georgie Macdonald and Lizzie Siddal and Jane Burden. I wondered whether their painterly princes simply wanted to possess their beauty and fix it onto canvas, while the women themselves wanted to cease being objects in a man’s life and become the subjects of their own. Again, my reflections gave rise to a blog post, ‘Women, Beauty and Art in Kate Forsyth’s Beauty in Thorns’.

Non-Fiction

A glance at my ‘2017 Books’ Pinterest board exposes a reading diet comprising mostly fiction. But the odd work of non-fiction sneaks in. I’m going to cheat a bit here because I’m including a journal among my ‘books read’.

2017 marks the end of publication, after five years and 17 issues, for EarthLines magazine. The journal, edited by Sharon Blackie and David Knowles, sprang from ‘a way of life … rooted in the natural world and in the wild’. I was fortunate to have an essay included in the first issue of EarthLines and I subscribed to the magazine throughout its life. It provided many hours of reading and pondering, and it included fine photography and original artwork. Thank you, Sharon and David, for your care, commitment and curation.

Lastly, an essay. Robert Macfarlane’s The Gifts of Reading is published in a small, A6-sized booklet running to just 36 pages. It speaks of friendship and community and gifts and sharing. Macfarlane reflects, in part, on Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, particularly Hyde’s proposition (in Macfarlane’s words) that ‘in the gift economy, value accrues between individuals by means of giving and receiving … Although the outcome of a gift is uncertain at the time of giving … the fact that it has been given charges it with great potential to act upon the recipient for the good.’

And so, my thanks to all the authors who have gifted me with their books this year. You have acted upon me ‘for the good’. Keep writing; I’ll keep reading.