Repetition… or Reaffirmation and Refreshment?

I receive a certain number of comments about my work.  Some readers cannot wait for the next book, and others, an apparently much smaller number, dismiss my books as repetitive. With that wide a gap, is one group wrong… or deluded… or not comprehending?  I’d have to say, “No.”

This kind of dichotomy has likely existed from the time of the first novels and lies in the basis of the human psyche.

Obviously, at least obviously to me, a novel or story must initially entertain or otherwise provide some form of satisfaction to the reader. However….a novel which merely recounts a series of adventures or events, without an underlying value structure that motivates or challenges the protagonist and the reader, no matter how threatened the protagonist may be or how great his or her achievements may be, is essentially a mindless adventure story, or, if there are no adventures, a totally meaningless mass of words, even if each sentence is perfectly polished.

This would suggest that readers who continue to read my novels, or those of any other writer, for the entertainment value alone, but find them “repetitious” aren’t getting the refreshment or reaffirmation of their deeply held values because the values depicted through the story don’t resonate with them.  After all, we all know that there’s nothing more tiresome than someone telling stories that reiterate old platitudes that we’ve rejected, found unsatisfying, or that don’t match our perceptions of how “the world” operates or how we’d like it to operate. That’s why one group of readers can find a book deeply satisfying and another group, equally intelligent and perceptive, can find the same book repetitious and “boring.”

While a large number of readers read primarily for entertainment and escape, a significant number read for more than that, for a greater understanding, often of who they are and what they believe, as well as to affirm – and sometimes to challenge – what they believe and hold dear..

Although I doubt there are any sociological studies that test this thesis, to me it makes perfect sense why Game of Thrones is so popular and resonates with so many viewers and readers.  The values, or lack of values except self-interest, and the comparative moral relativism embodied in Martin’s work reflects a widely held popular perception about the current power structure in the United States and other technological societies – that everyone is corrupt and venal to some degree and that everyone is, foremost, out for his or her own self-interest, regardless of the consequences to others.

That’s why, frankly, I have little interest in Game of Thrones, and found the one book I forced myself through to be a well-written but boring repetition of violence and human venality that held little appeal to me, while millions of others find it absolutely spell-binding.  And I suspect many of those millions would find, and have found, my work “repetitious.”

All this suggests that when someone reads the work of a long-published and successful author and labels it repetitious, it’s far more a reflection on the views of the reader than an objective assessment of the work in question.

17 thoughts on “Repetition… or Reaffirmation and Refreshment?”

  1. Toni says:

    SNAP! 🙂 (I understand…perfectly.

  2. Lourain says:

    Thank you, Mr. Modesitt, for so succinctly expressing why I so thoroughly dislike Game of Thrones.

  3. JakeB says:

    That’s a very interesting way of looking at these differences in taste. So an appreciative reader might observe that e.g. _Adiamante_, beyond the enjoyability of the story, discusses (or shows) the critical need for responsibility to match authority, while _Gravity Dreams_ discusses the need for honesty to match technological power, but these different subtexts would be invisible to a non-sympathetic reader because the overall tenor of the books is similar. Whereas the latter reader might observe multiple valuable insights in Mr. Martin’s work while the former reader would not.

  4. Rehcra says:

    1.Story structure and content is not opinion based.

    2.Your work is repetitive. Most if not all long lasting authors are to some degree.

    3.Repetition is needed to improve story structure. Can’t always reinvent the wheel.

    4.Suspension of disbelief makes the readers opinion immaterial, and places the onus on the Author. (Authors just have to suck it up and do the impossible sometimes)

    5.A story is the sum of all of its parts; and to focus on the new content and deeper subtext is to lessen the Story Structure and (Human Nature?) basic writing skills of the author.


  5. Sam says:

    I could write a whole essay in response to this blog post. I’ve never been very good at being succinct.

    Instead I’ll ask a question.

    How does your thesis apply to readers such as myself who read both your work and the work of those such as George RR Martin and enjoy/appreciate and find merit in both?

    1. I don’t know your value system, obviously, but it’s clear that Martin and I, in your view, share values that you appreciate. I’d guess, and it is a guess, that it has to do with the fact that both Martin and I believe in and write about complex worlds with complicated interrelations. Martin’s a bit more blatant about it than I am, and his violence is more apparent, but if one looks closely at my worlds, most people really wouldn’t want to live in them if they thought about it long and hard.

  6. Kristina says:

    Mr. Modesitt, thank-you for your observations. What you have written expresses very well why I enjoy reading your books. I look forward to each new book you write. I enjoy watching the characters grow as they confront and overcome challenges.

  7. Matt B. says:

    Having read all but 2 of your published books, and many of those multiple times, I find the statement being made about your books being repetitive as feeble minded. You use similar terms through your different conceived worlds, but “repetitive”? That’s like saying every Dean Koontz book has a great ending… I find it difficult to read much of what is being written by “main stream” writers. Their books seem “dumbed down”, written in the Twilight/Hunger Games simplistic manner for people who can’t/don’t normally read for fun or relaxation. Your writing strikes me as much more intelligent, refined and developed. Not to mention more literate and insightful. I also count myself lucky to have a favorite author that is as a prolific writer as you are. I look forward to each and every book that is published. Thank you for your efforts.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    I’d say both LEM and GRRM have similar themes presented in different ways:

    1. Hard work and perseverance pay off… but not always in the way you expect.
    2. Coming of age motifs everywhere… and not only for the pre-adult growing into adulthoood.
    3. In life, details matter. Not thinking something through generally causes serious problems.
    4. If you can roll with the punches, you’ll end up in better shape at the end.

    obviously, these are my interpretations….

    LEM’s presentations and endings tend to be more generally up-beat for the protagonist. GRRM’s are not. In fact, I refused to read anything past book three for a couple years because of the overall hopeless/dismal/grim ‘Winter comes’ tone. I went back to the series after I lost my job and had a couple other life altering developments: GRRM made more sense to me then.

  9. Ryan Jackson says:

    A few of the books are similar in their overall scope but the differences in the characters themselves change each one regardless.

    For example, Lerris, Dorrin and Rahl are all tales about young people unsatisfied with the rules of Recluce being tossed out with the underlying message be “Go see how bad everything else is, wise up and conform so you can come back.” All three are youths with untapped power and all three are justifiably angry at what they’re being forced into.

    And the similarity stops there. One forces his way back in and proves his people wrong, one finds that a different society is ultimately superior to the one he left and the other? Also finds a better life outside, but the other also ends up with the sub-plot of questioning if he was a weapon aimed at something as opposed to truly being a problem to be cast out.

    In general I could find similar veins in various Recluce, Imager and Corean books, but there’s so much variance and change just from the protagonists’ perspectives and personalities that it’s never the same book.

    As an aside, one thing I think I can say makes me enjoy your books and certain others is that no matter how bad things get you don’t tend to drop into full blown apocalypse scenarios that I tend to dislike. I end up being unhappy in stories where hope is so far gone that you almost question why even try. (Examples being Wheel of Time and the first Mistborn Trilogy. Enjoyed both works, but both end in a situation where the world is trashed, humanity is all but extinct and you’re almost wondering what the point of it all was). Your books, no matter how far things go the world itself is still there. The Balance holds on and will right itself even if the countries we’re following or the protagonists we like don’t make it.

  10. Chad says:

    I’m one of the minority who had expressed dissatisfaction at the authors repetitiveness. But… this post by the author is way off the mark for my disappointment.

    Mine is that its not worth the money (to me) to read the same ideas expressed in a new series. Imager comes to mind… Air shields? A Recluse idea. The series blend together. I enjoy them but not enough to spend $30 on hardback anymore. Even if I had to wait a year to read it on paperback it would be too much. Epub? The traditional big five still charge too much for this rehashment. I think Modesitt’s works would be perfect if he self published them. He has a fanbase and he writes fast… start a new series… retain all the rights… outsource the editing and other technical and release them every few months. The reader wins at a $3 price point and the author wins because he retains 70 percent or more. For $3 I can tolerate rehashed ideas.

    By the way… I hate Game of Thrones too.

    1. Chad… you really don’t get it. There are NO new ideas in mainstream fiction, and very few in F&SF. Pretty much all ideas are “rehashed,” if one looks closely. The question of enjoyment/appreciation lies in how the author uses ideas. You clearly want something completely new and different with each book,i.e., total and, frankly, largely unbelievable fantasy, or at the very least something unlike anything you’ve read previously. I don’t write “continuous novelty.” I’ll admit it. I write about workable human societies. Human societies develop tools for specific uses. Screwdrivers haven’t changed essentially in well over a century, although they’ve been refined and powered differently. Nails have been around for thousands of years. Shields and armor, of various sorts, are still with us, as are projectile weapons, but technology has improved the composition, structure, power-delivery systems,and usage. Of course, imagers would develop shields, and they’d use what is at hand, and air shields are the lightest and least energy-draining. That makes sense. “Inventing” something that takes more effort and is flashy and cool doesn’t. What you want and, only feel is worth the price of a hardcover, is a series of new thrills with every book, regardless of logic or human nature. You’ve made that very clear, but it’s not the kind of book either George R.R. Martin or I or almost all established writers create. There is one writer I will not name who comes up with incredible stuff and different angles, incredibly well-described, with exotic plots… and he has a great following. Of course, if a reader ever slows down and looks with any depth… none of it makes much sense. It’s brilliantly well-written, illogical but intellectual escapism, and it bores me stiff.

      This isn’t to say that there isn’t a market for what you want, or that your tastes are “bad,” but what I write has been selling consistently for over thirty years, and I still have readers of all ages and from all sorts of backgrounds, and they clearly find it worth their investment. For me, at least so far, the way Tor has published me has worked well for both me and enough readers to at least occasionally get me on the best-seller lists, if near the bottom, and that’s a great deal more than what most writers can expect from self-publishing.

  11. Chad says:

    and you sir do not get what I am saying either which is probably due to my lack of expressing myself correctly. “you clearly want something completely new and different with each book” as you say is NOT what I want. It occurs to me that your writing is much you like appearance… rigid and inflexible. You write the same plot over and over again… the same mechanics over and over… the same persona with a new hard to say name over and over. For a dozen or more books I ate this up and enjoyed the comfort. Now, it’s grown stale… to me at least. I hate that it has as there are few things better then having a prodigious author you enjoy.

    I will give you credit that your worlds are grounded and realistic. Good job on that.

    I’m going to bow out of your forum again. I’ve said my piece about why I no longer buy your works and to argue over reasons will not satisfy either of us. I’ll continue to believe that your works have too little bang for the buck and you can continue to believe that I simply don’t get it.

  12. Chad says:

    that should be “much like you appear here”.. sorry for the lack of proof reading.

  13. Larry says:

    I don’t get the whole repetitive thing. Life is repetitive. Perception changes (if you’re lucky) but making it through the day stays pretty much the same. Not that that’s a bad thing. But I wonder how many of those people that say your work is repetitive make it a point of doing new things every day in their own lives?

    Anyway, I find the basic premise of what you wrote applicable to myself. But for me, it’s that I enjoy how your work finds the extraordinary in the ordinary. And how different people are shaped by the ordinary events that others around them may miss. I guess there is an element of hope in that.

  14. David says:

    Being a student of writers and writing styles, I confess that I felt that your latest book in the Recluce universe felt familiar to me. There is an underlying current of similar experiences in the hero of the story that are like the experiences of characters in the previous books in the series. Am I offended by that? NO! After all, they all live in the same universe. The rules should not change (unless that is a characteristic of that particular universe.) I find this story line entertaining. It beats in harmony with my own human experiences, and that is probably why I wait for endless months to read the next installation. The ideas also resonate with my very human desire to make a difference in a world that seems to be cruel and unfair. Thanks for keeping up the stories from the universe of Chaos and Order.

  15. Rob Grier says:

    I love 99% of your works. However I do understand those who notice repitition. After the first 2-3 books, I noticed a reoccuring story structure much like the proverbial “hero’s journey”. Most of LEM’s stories follow this pattern: coming of age/into power, forced by circumstances to leave home and learn to use that power, a pause in a relatively safe place to reflect while practicing some craft or other, more circumstances move the character to leave their new safe zone and excersize their increased powers, finally a confrontation where the protagonist defeats or stalemates the Big Bad (TM), and lots of well described meals and crafting along the way.

    All that said, there is nothing wrong with having a familiar story structure. A good author, like LEM, can tell a new story in a compelling way even when organized in a known way. My *only* dissapointment was that I spotted the structure so easily; I expected it would be obfuscated better by such a good author. After 15-20 such stories, the structure becomes expected, so I just relax and pay attention to the characters rather than how the plot moves.

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