Ronan Wills has finished his rolling commentary on The Name of the Wind, the first book in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Trilogy. I enjoyed his critique—we share many of the same issues with the book, especially in regards to the plotting, which proceeds at the rate of an exhausted snail trying to make its way through an especially thick spot of molasses.
Wills summed up his commentary with an explanation of exactly where he feels the book went wrong; he argues that overenthusiasm of the Internet sort is one of the reasons that The Name of the Wind was so poorly written, yet so well received. Rothfuss never had to up his game, because he’s dealing with a receptive audience who are willing to overlook a first-time author’s flaws and praise him to the skies.
Here’s where I depart from Wills. That’s just not true. I wish it was true, but it just isn’t so.
Wills’s argument does make sense for many, many sci-fi/fantasy/YA genre authors who are not Patrick Rothfuss. Many authors score publishing contracts once they’ve built up an online following, usually as fanfiction authors—the most famous being E.L. James, but off the top of my head I can think of Cassandra Claire and Naomi Novik, and doubtless there are many other genre authors who started out the same way. These authors gained a loyal pool of readers by writing derivative work of varying levels of shittiness and posting it online for readers to enjoy for free. Publishing houses take chances on these authors because they know that there is a built-in audience for their works, and the authors don’t have to improve their skills because they know that their audience “accepts them for who they are.” In fact, the audience might desert the author if her* style changes, even if it’s technically for the better. These are the sort of authors who are prisoners of their Internet popularity.
That’s not the case with Rothfuss. He went straight into traditional publishing, which means that he didn’t have an established audience who would pay for a book written in that special Rothfuss style. Somebody must have read the manuscript for The Name of the Wind—all the way through—and decided that it was worth an advance, plus the money for marketing, production, and all the other expenses that go into creating and selling a (rather large) book.** Whoever decided to bring this overgrown baby of a book into the world guessed that there would be an audience—and it turns out they were right.
So what does the fantasy reader want? If we use Rothfuss’s body of work, actual and projected, as an example, the fantasy reader wants a long story, spread out over multiple books (at least three). The fantasy reader wants a story with a child or teenage protagonist. The fantasy reader wants a story in which occurrences do not occur too often. These occurrences, despite taking place in an otherworldly setting, should closely mirror the experiences of a Western heterosexual male young adult. Acceptable experiences include thwarted attraction, a comparative lack of money, competing for school grades, and playing the fantasy-world equivalent of the guitar. These experiences should have great narrative import, as they are the most important experiences in the protagonist’s life. All other character experiences should be sourced from Star Wars.
The fantasy reader wants c’o'n’langs. Preferably multiple c’o'n’langs.
Here are some things that the fantasy reader does not want: developed female characters who aren’t attracted to the hero; developed male characters who aren’t the hero; a finished story.
The Name of the Wind was never meant as a stepping stone from community popularity to the “big time.” It was marketed as the best the genre could offer. Rothfuss is meant to be fantasy’s Venus, emerging be-bearded from a sea of similar three-volume doorstoppers.
And it worked. Rothfuss’s publisher, Tor, apparently knows its readers better than they know themselves.Then again, even the biggest marketing machine can fail. Something must have set Rothfuss’s work apart from its competitors—beyond the young adult outlook, similiarity to “real life” and lingwistik complexity—to make it so popular with critics and readers.
Conjectures why in the next post.
* It really is always a she, as far as I can tell.
** As far as I can tell, Rothfuss published exactly one work–online or in print–before receiving a contract for his trilogy. It was a reworking of part of the larger Story o’ Kvothe called “The Road to Levinshir” and it won the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future contest in 2002. Presumably the win gave him connections, but I’m still surprised that he would land a contract for three large books on the strength of one contest win alone.