There are plenty of series in genre fiction: short series, long series, series with hundreds of books, somehow. However, I’ve never really thought of literary fiction as having series as well. I encountered the genre only in school, reading a single book at a time. There are probably plenty of examples that I haven’t encountered – or have but just can’t remember – but my recent reading hunt for books has brought the writing of Michelle Cliff to my attention. I read the book Abeng for a class and was somewhat aware that it had a second part, one that it took me almost half a year to finally read. No Telephone to Heaven continues the stories of Abeng’s characters to their conclusion, and further shows the development of the island of Jamaica. The evaluation of a single series, that might not even be a series, is not necessary going to be the perfect place for collecting information, but can hopefully still lead to interesting insights.
Abeng follows Clare Savage through her childhood, describing her family, her country, part of her education. No Telephone to Heaven goes beyond, showing the family moving to America, Clare’s wanderings in Europe, and finally her return to Jamaica to help her home. Both books could probably stand on their own, though they compliment each other when read together. My experience with genre fiction is that sequels pick up where the previous book leaves off, carrying on its characters and themes. Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven do this, focusing on issues of race, gender, education and growing up.
Could Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven have been the same book? Maybe. But having a clear line between the parts of Clare’s story allows for a dramatic shift in tone (No Telephone to Heaven is, in my opinion, the darker of the two), as well as the opening of a new chapter of Clare’s life. I suppose this also could have been done by placing a page stating “part 2!” between the two sections, but switching books creates a more definite break. I suppose the difference between chapters, parts, and books is part of the language of books, something I haven’t thought much of until now. The breaks are parts to be analyzed, art, so why shouldn’t works of literary fiction include them? For every book, we should be aware that it’s ending, whether apparently final or suspenseful, is deliberately chosen to produce an effect, that it’s not just a part of a book to be checked off, but an entire canvas to continue the book’s art. Now that I write this, I realize I’m stating the obvious, but it isn’t something I’ve thought to appreciate in the past.
It must take an incredible amount of planning to create that “next book please come faster” feeling without making the cliff hanger, mystery, etc. feel forced. Authors not only have to create what’s in their books, they have to fashion a vague idea of what will happen outside their books, to mold the ideas and actions of their readers. For Abeng, this seems to be accomplished through a small cliff hanger as Clare starts her next phase in life, but I was drawn to its insightfulness as well, its meditation on issues like race, gender, and colonialism. Cliff hangers seem to be the most common bridge between books, but what could other options be? There are probably countless ways to convince your readers to continue your book. Here are a few perhaps less conventional suggestions:
– Attach trading cards to your book like the 39 Clues series.
– Your books serve as a map to a treasure.
– Your books have extremely lovely covers that people like to collect.
– Your books each contain fascinating recipes that your readers are itching to get their hands on.
Perhaps Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven don’t even qualify as a series. Its books connect, but both are labelled novels. So are series only series when the author says so, even if they share similarities? The Hobbit isn’t (I believe) considered part of the Lord of the Rings series, even though they share some characters. Their plots clearly diverge, as do the plots in Abeng and No Telephone to Heaven. They are about different times, different events, so why should they be connected? I guess the power of the series is a matter of the authors decisions, something with some conventions that can be easily bypassed. There are probably series out there with books that have little to do with each other, a single book that could have been a series? Series feels like a simple label for something complex, something for writers to explore. NY Book Editors suggests that literary fiction is experimental, so perhaps it is the place to look for answers and new ideas.