in defense of Timothy Zahn
Timothy Zahn is a man who in the context of Star Wars literature needs no introduction. He's written 16 Star Wars novels (10 for legends and 6 for the current canon), 15 short stories, cowrote a graphic novel with Michael Stackpole, and wrote a story for Star Wars Tales. His very first novel Heir to the Empire is often referend to as the book that saved Star Wars and is partially responsible for the revitalized interest in the franchise during the 90s that would lead to the Bantam era of novels and creation of the prequels. In fact he has actually written officially licensed Star wars content in four straight decades, a feat that I believe only Troy Denning and George Lucas himself can also claim.
At one time in fact not even 10 years ago, this impressive resume carried with it a high amount of prestige within the Star Wars community. Not only due to the quality people saw in his work, but also in the historical significance that first trilogy had in relation to the rest of the franchise. But recently that prestige has fallen, and the man who was once considered among the greatest of all Star Wars authors is now commonly considered as a good, but overrated author.
The topic of why and how this happened is what I'd like to discuss as I think it is quite fascinating. I'll go over the various reasons this has happened, including some reasons that were completely out of his control, and how, from the perspective of an EU fan, some of those reasons are unfairly clouding our perspective of Timothy Zahn. This isn't meant to argue that all recent criticism is unwarranted, just that the situation is a bit more nuanced than you may have thought.
Part 1: Old and New
The Star Was Expanded Universe, now branded Legends officially existed from 1976-2014, with a handful of releases in the years since. Zahn's first novel was released in 1991, and his final novel within the Legends continuity was released in early 2013.
As the EU was an interconnected universe, where each installment would build off the last, later books generally had more references to previous works, whereas earlier works had less to go off of and built their own lore so to speak. But there is another effect that the long time between the start and end has on the novels. That being the changes in writing quality over the years. Or more specifically what the people of the times consider important in writing. This isn't to say that all books older than a few decades are inferior in quality or will feel dated, as there are plenty of literary classics that hold up even today. But your average book of the 90s was written for your average audience of the 90s, and what the average reader for the 90s looks for in a book is somewhat different than what the average audience of today looks for.
How does this relate to Zahn? Well Zahn, having written since the 90s, has books written across four decades as discussed before. But what he's known for mainly is the Thrawn Trilogy, which was also his first trilogy for Star Wars. This was incredibly fruitful for Zahn as many consider it one of the best trilogies in all of Star Wars literature. But until fairly recently few looked into how his books did over time.
In a previous series EU by the Numbers, I looked into the over 1.5 million user ratings for EU books across Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Goodreads, Library Thing, and Anobii to get an idea of what the people who read these books thought of them. For more info on that you can read about it here, but for the purposes of this article I can look at each author individually, to see both their popularity, and what people thought of their books. I did not in that series go over each author individually to see how each one did over time, but as I still have the data I can now do that with Zahn. And what we find is pretty much what everyone knew intuitively, but at least we now have data to back it up.
Zahn's earlier books had both the most people leaving ratings (or reviews), and the highest ratings. With both the total ratings (or reviews) and star rating decreasing over time. In fact more people have left star ratings for Heir the Empire, than all his non Thrawn Trilogy EU books combined (80485 to 79469).
Now while the number of people leaving ratings isn't necessarily a one to one comparison to how many people actually read these books it does tell part of the story. And I think that at the very least a book with more people leaving reviews is a book that more people overall have read. So, if most people have only read his earlier stuff, and his earlier stuff is the highest rated, it makes sense that most people would have a high opinion of him. And that explains his previously high reputation within the fandom. So what changed?
Well, when the EU got decanonized and discontinued in April of 2014, that created a unique situation for EU fans. There were of course newer fans that jumped on and as the advice at the time was to start with the Thrawn Trilogy, read that and loved it. But prior to 2017 there weren't many newcomers. Most EU fans that decided to stick with the EU were in one of two camps, those that had pretty much read it all and those that hadn't. In the latter case, they started reading the later Zahn books as less people had read them. And noticed that with a few exceptions the quality wasn't quite on par with what they had remembered of the Thrawn Trilogy. The reasons for this are varied as we're talking about 7 books here (5 if people also read Hand of Thrawn), but generally the feeling is that Zahn lost his touch, grew more isolated from the rest of the universe, and himself and Del Rey relied more and more on his star power and the popularity of his well known characters to sell books, rather than the stories themselves. A phenomena that we'll expand upon a bit later.
The former category, who had already noticed this, had generally given him a pass as they remember the Bantam stuff as being so good. With nothing new to read, they went back to those old classics they remembered and it just didn't hold up. The books were lacking in the deep references to previously established material they had grown accustomed to in the later books, and the writing itself felt dated due to the nature of when it was written and for what audience. The Thrawn Trilogy was written and is meant for someone who only knows the OT, and serves as a jumping off point into a much larger world. That is why so many fell in love with it when they read it for the first time, and why it still works as an entry point into the Star wars EU. But for someone who is already invested into the EU it doesn't really have anything for them aside from nostalgia.
So internally within the EU community, those that stayed with the EU and hadn't transitioned to the new canon began to notice the cracks. But there is another group of fans that also added fuel to the fire, as well as actions from Zahn himself that helped to create an environment that people became more comfortable with criticizing him.
Part 2: A Trilogy of Trilogies
In July of 2016 at Star Wars Celebration Europe, it was announced that Timothy Zahn would be coming back to write Star Wars for the Disney Canon, bringing into it the character of Thrawn in a book titled Thrawn. This would be the first of two Trilogies he'd write about Thrawn for the new canon, and second of 3 trilogies about Thrawn counting the original Thrawn Trilogy. Now I have read none of these 6 books and have no interest in them myself. I have only heard things second hand and most of it isn't great. But outside of people I personally know that have read it, the reaction seems mixed overall on how these books are quality wise. I haven't done extensive analysis on these numbers as I did on the EU books as I have no interest in doing so and this article is not about comparing Canon Thrawn to Legends. But what is relevant to this discussion is the effect it has had within the EU community. As there are several people who like both canons and thus have read both. It is from these people that i hear most of the criticisms about the two new Thrawn trilogies and I know I am not alone in this. 2017 was when the first book came out, and it is also around that same time that I started to notice the increase in criticism in Zahn's writing. Now it could be possible that it simply took 3 years for the people who were ignoring the Disney canon who were either rereading the classics or catching up started noticing the cracks. However, I also think that those that were reading both also contributed to the criticism of Zahn. I think some of those criticisms about new canon Zahn crept into the perceptions of EU fans from those reading both.
From the standpoint of an EU fan, these criticisms should hold no weight, as what he is writing for canon has no bearing on what he wrote for the EU. So it is unfair to include them in your own analysis of Zahn's work within Legends. Though I don't know to what extent this effect has had, nor do I know how we could isolate for this variable to give him a bit more fair of a shot. Aside from just making people aware of the fact that if you are going to judge Zahn by his work within the EU, all other work is irrelevant to that conversation.
Part 3: Betrayal
There is however, something far bigger that is leading to this rather unfair bias many EU fans have of Zahn. That being his comments towards the EU since 2016. This mainly stems from the infamous Inverse article where was stated to have told EU fans to get over it. Or rather that's what the headline said. his actual quotes from the article were.
“I can understand the feeling of camaraderie, the feeling of, ‘This is our people, this is our organization, these are our books.’ But at some point, you just have to take a deep breath and [say], ‘OK, that is over. We accept it. We go on. We’ve got the books.’
“Think of the Expanded Universe [as if] it’s been frozen in carbonite for the moment, he said, and later, “I appreciate the fan loyalty, but, as you say, they’re not going to influence what Disney does or [what] Lucasfilm does.”
“We just don’t have it as official [canon]—except it never really was official, in the sense that it was [set] in stone,” he said. “It was always something [George] Lucas could override at any time. And in fact, everybody who had written stuff about Boba Fett watched that backstory get demolished in the prequel trilogy.”
“It’s not the end. Some of your favorite characters, some of your favorite scenes, could come back at any time. We don’t know. Calm down, relax,” he said. “ appreciate your loyalty and your passion. But really, relax. It’s OK. It’ll be OK.”
There were also several interviews you can find on youtube saying similar stuff. To EU fans these responses came off as tone deaf and contradictory of what he stated previously at Star Wars Fan Days IV
“A reboot would be really, really messy. There are currently 140 odd adult novels alone not counting childrens, young adults, art books, schematics all that 140 adult novels. To just say ok we are going to wipe those out, especially since many of them are still on the books shelves or book store shelves. What are you going to do, are you going to say all of these, we are just going to stop selling them? Del Rey would not like that, Bantam would not like that. The publishing industry has taken enough of a hit these days as it is. A reboot would be immensely hard to do.”
Now I generally agree with the criticisms leveled at Zahn for these and other comments but I think that there is still context that is left out. First, in almost every instance of Zahn saying something like this he is prompted into saying these things. The questions are presented by people who have an axe to grind against EU fans (some who had previously written hit pieces against directly naming some people within the community) and who are asking leading questions to get a negative response towards Legends. They'll often mention either the billboards, or social media raids conducted in the EU movement's infancy in a way to discredit us. And finally these interviews were done in a pre TLJ world, where the court of public opinion was still on the side of the powers that be. At that time we were the only major group dissenting from what was going on and thus we were the focus of discrediting. Those who have been around from the beginning will remember when anti EU articles were the norm, many times calling out with screenshots and quotes people in the community with their actual names. You can argue how much Zahn was at fault for these statements, but I would hesitate to say that 100% of the blame is on him, and regardless his comments shouldn't factor into how well written his books are. Though that is at least my opinion and yours will most likely depend on if you can separate the art from the artist. Regardless, fair or not these comments are factoring into the perception of Zahn within the Legends community. So it is another of those reasons for his fall in the perception fans have in his writing.
Part 4: Fatigue
The Thrawn Trilogy being the most read and popular trilogy in Star Wars is a bit of a double edged sword. On the one hand everyone saying it is great increases its reputation, as new fans will come into it thinking it is great and even veteran fans will be slow to voice any concerns they have. But at the same time that popularity can make it a bit of a tiring subject, and one that is easily exploitable. As I discussed in my article going over what I think is the rarest of the variant covers of the Thrawn Trilogy, there to my knowledge five different variations of the covers for this trilogy in the English editions. And recently there has been announced a three in one box set of the newest edition that will likely also have it's own cover art, but nothing has been released at this point about it so that is just speculation. Add in the foreign variant covers and the Thrawn Trilogy might be the most reprinted Trilogy in Star Wars literature aside from the OT.
But what is important to mention is that while there are so many variants, they aren't evenly distributed over time. The 20th anniversary release was 10 years ago, Legends banner and Portuguese editions seven and six years ago respectively. The new English covers five years ago, and the new Essential Legends Collections this past year, with the new three in one box set coming out next year. All these re-releases have been within the last 10 years, and all aside from one have been within the last seven. It is exhausting as an EU fan, having to keep up with these releases. As well as seven years on from discontinuation, having re-releases of the Thrawn Trilogy being used almost as a substitute for new Legends material. As an EU fan it's hard to try and get hyped for a new release of the same trilogy every couple of years.
Combined this with the issues we all know are happening within the publishing industry, and the aforementioned hiring of Zahn to come back to Star Wars to write his most popular character for the new Canon, and this all looks like an attempt at a cash grab. Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but having the same story used in this way time and time again over such a short span of time is in my opinion having an effect on how people are viewing that story.
It's all so tiresome, people are getting tired of not only talking about this trilogy, but seeing a brand new edition of it being promoted every few years. You combine this with all the other things I've discussed in previous sections and people are not only finally comfortable about talking about the flaws of the story, but are almost actively looking for those flaws. Which is how in my opinion we have arrived where we have today on this issue.
Part 5: The Cycle
I believe I've spoken before about how I think that public opinion of a topic like this will rise, fall and rise again over time as things fade in and out of popularity.
People praises something
It becomes popular to praise it
People get tired of everyone praising it
They start to criticize it
It becomes popular to criticize it
People get tired of everyone criticizing it
go back to step one.
I think that some of the stories we now see as the all time greats will also eventually be seen as not as great as we once thought. Look at the recent discussion about LOTF (that admittedly I have partially contributed to) as proof, or even The Crystal Star which has gone in the opposite direction.
However this is just something personally I believe and unlike the rest I don't really have quotes, data, dates, or any real numbers to back this up. Just some anecdotal stuff I've noticed.
Now I'm not here to change your opinion on Zahn or the Thrawn Trilogy one way or another, though I'd be lying if I said I wrote this article without including any of my own biases. I just thought this was a fairly interesting topic to explore as a case study in how someone who was once viewed in such high esteem can fall in such a short of a time. A lot of this is stuff that's already been said but there were some thing I noticed that people weren't considering so I thought I'd make as comprehensive of a list as I could.
But if there are any factors that you think I missed, or you have any opinions of Zahn and his work that I haven't mentioned please let us know. I'm always fascinated in what people think about these things.
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