Monday, May 5, 2014

When your favorite author disappoints you...

Hi folks, Mark here with a few thoughts on disappointment.

One of the ways I keep myself sane during the busy months of the year is to assemble a pile of books in a to be read file and work through them one at a time. I would carve out moments during the school terms to get my mind away from papers and re-teaching similar lit units all the time by wandering in the realms of others.

This practice helped me discover a number of my favorite authors over the years.  These writers have become my go to group when I really need something special.  Every six months I would find a way into a bookstore and make my circuit of the shelves looking for the latest crop.  I rarely failed to find at least one among the throng with a new book out.  I think my best day came around a decade ago when I walked out broke but the proud possessor of no less than eight expansive, page-turner epics. Glorious. Distracting. Instructive. That haul kept me occupied through the bulk of the school year and on into the summer. AND, there wasn't a stinker in the lot.  As a result of similar success over the years, I feel I have become a loyal reader.  Such is the life of the reading geek, I guess.

Last week I ran into my first dud in quite awhile, and the experience has me wondering how best to respond when a favorite author disappoints me. By disappointment I mean real disgust in multiple areas: bad plotting, clunky delivery, muddled pov, flat language, cardboard, cardboard and more cardboard.

I'm not going to name the author of this current stinker because I have enjoyed their work for many years. The novel in question is an historical fiction set in dark ages, post-roman Britain. The premise held such promise, and this writer has made a career out of the period in a slew of great stories.

But this one. No. On so many levels. I'm barely halfway through, and I'm ready to capitulate. What galls me the most about this effort are the frequent shifts in point of view often in the same scene and, all too frequently, IN THE SAME PARAGRAPH. At times I find myself gawking at pages  rather than reading them. I get tossed out of the story altogether. I find I don't care much about the author's characters. There's no glammour. I've come to the conclusion ambivalence might be the worst thing a writer could engender in their audience. To paraphrase Melville: "Call me, Ambivalence."

I want to shake the author by the ears. I want to excoriate their editor for allowing such turgid stuff to go to print. Did the publishing house just figure the name alone would recoup printing costs? What about the cost to the art? What about the damage done to the author's reputation? I sense a conspiracy theory screenplay in the making here.

What I do not want to do is give up on the writer. I will forgive this one time, and I hope any of my readers would grant me the same grace. Heck, maybe they already have.

And yet there is instruction here. My current reaction reminds me that the art demands our utmost attention. Silly errors create not just disappointment but potential rebellion. This current fail by one of my favorite authors won't cost them my loyalty, but I expect to think twice before reaching for their next effort.

What do you do when a treasured writer disappoints you?

Mark Nelson

18 comments:

David Hunter said...

Generally I abandon the series in question and resolve not to start another extended series if the author embarks on one.

Cornwell (just as an example that sprang suddenly to mind . . .) did well with his Sharpe series until he did the Indian books and those that followed (when he began to contradict the established history of the characters and also was pretty clearly just churning out stuff for the money). I gave up on Sharpe after the second Indian book and merely hooted in derision at Sharpe's Trafalgar. But that didn't stop me from buying his excellent Warlord trilogy, which he wisely wrapped up in just the three books.

Iain M. Banks' Culture novels are another, much looser, series that hit the rocks and I gave up on after Look to Windward. Ian Rankin's Rebus novels were never as good after Let it Bleed (they became noticeably thicker for a start - not often a good sign).

Sometimes I think an author reaches a giddy height (be it a book like Excession or a moment like The Red Wedding) and nothing else after can live up to it for that particular setting. Or they grow tired of characters and so wisely end a series (eg Sharpe's Devil but then return for the easy bucks. Nothing can be done but to walk away.

But occasionally you just get a misstep in a series. O'Brian stumbled a bit when he wrote The Mauritius Command but I think realised his mistake in inserting a historical character into a very prominent roles in a series where the two main characters were entirely fictional. But I think that's very seldom to do with the quality of the characters or writing slipping, more to do with misplaced emphasis.

So I usually give it a book or two before abandoning forever.

Eric T Reynolds said...

This:
"What about the cost to the art? What about the damage done to the author's reputation?"

How funny you should write this. Down here in Virginia Beach, we ladies were discussing this very thing while standing in the surf yesterday. What happened to pride? To art? Why is this happening? Is it new? Or are we just noticing that the quality of books is far outweighed by quantity?

Whether or not I forgive a lapse depends largely on the story. If the story itself is interesting enough, I will forgive it once--maybe twice, maybe even for the whole series. I remembery some really eye-roll-worthy moments in Harry Potter, the handwavery and stilted writing, but I let it slide every time. Other books? I've chucked the thing across the room the second time my eyes rolled. Most times, I'll forgive a an author one book. If I find it in the next--yeah, I'm not so quick to buy the next.

Eric T Reynolds said...

This:
"What about the cost to the art? What about the damage done to the author's reputation?"

How funny you should write this. Down here in Virginia Beach, we ladies were discussing this very thing while standing in the surf yesterday. What happened to pride? To art? Why is this happening? Is it new? Or are we just noticing that the quality of books is far outweighed by quantity?

Whether or not I forgive a lapse depends largely on the story. If the story itself is interesting enough, I will forgive it once--maybe twice, maybe even for the whole series. I remembery some really eye-roll-worthy moments in Harry Potter, the handwavery and stilted writing, but I let it slide every time. Other books? I've chucked the thing across the room the second time my eyes rolled. Most times, I'll forgive a an author one book. If I find it in the next--yeah, I'm not so quick to buy the next.

Eric T Reynolds said...

This:
"What about the cost to the art? What about the damage done to the author's reputation?"

How funny you should write this. Down here in Virginia Beach, we ladies were discussing this very thing while standing in the surf yesterday. What happened to pride? To art? Why is this happening? Is it new? Or are we just noticing that the quality of books is far outweighed by quantity?

Whether or not I forgive a lapse depends largely on the story. If the story itself is interesting enough, I will forgive it once--maybe twice, maybe even for the whole series. I remembery some really eye-roll-worthy moments in Harry Potter, the handwavery and stilted writing, but I let it slide every time. Other books? I've chucked the thing across the room the second time my eyes rolled. Most times, I'll forgive a an author one book. If I find it in the next--yeah, I'm not so quick to buy the next.

Terri-Lynne said...

Aaaaand, that was me--Terri. Dammit! I have to remember to sign out of Eric's accounts before I come in here!

Clint Harris said...

I have a hard time finishing some series, because I anticipate the disappointment early on. It's better to quit while I'm ahead, I guess. I think publishers should concentrate on writing stand-alone novels, rather than series, since those wells can go dry pretty quickly. I don't know, I might just be in a foul mood, but even with an epic author, writing about a world that draws you in and refuses to let you go, sometimes, when you read for escapism, you get tired of the place you are escaping to. And thereby, you need to escape to other realms.

Sorta reminds me of Puff the Magic dragon, or Winnie the Pooh, or Neverland. It's not so much growing up, but growing tired of a place and needing something different. It's a reason people should never work at Renaissance Festivals or Theme Parks. When diversion becomes your job, you begin to resent it as much as the status quo. Vegas is a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here: David: I get the Cornwell ref. The early books seem much superior to the latter. I'm not sure he's doing it for the money. He has the gravitas where he can dabble in his own creation if he wants.

Jordan lost me after book 9. And yet I think my concerns lay less with the series presentation than it does with stand alones that clunk.

Once we fall prey to pattern, I say we risk losing touch with what motivated us to write in the first place: discovery.

Louise Turner said...

I'm inclined to blame the state of the market, rather than rail overmuch at the hapless writer! At the historical fiction conference I attended on Saturday, I heard an author say that the subject for his book was suggested by his publisher's 'focus group'... I asked him, "Does your heart not sink when you hear these words?" and he nodded. If you decide to publish in advance What Will Sell and curb the instincts of writers to produce what they're inspired to write, then I suspect this is what happens. A well known author ends up hamstrung by their own success, and readers end up disappointed. Shame, really. But I fear it's going to happen more and more often these days.

David Hunter said...

I think the 'build on success' thing always happened and quite often with dire consequences as formula is resorted to.

Leslie Charteris, Alistair MacLean, Robert Ludlum, Jack Higgins all resorted more and more to recycling characters and formulaic plots as time went on. One can argue the merits of their work but not really the deterioration that set in as time went on.

Same's true I think for a lot of fantasy, exacerbated often by the setting and central characters not changing even superficially. Historical fiction seems to do a little better but Cornwell shows how the rot can set in and even MacDonald Fraser went well off the boil in the end when he grew too maudlin' to write Flashman well.

Most of these well predating 'focus groups' or by authors who I think are/were big enough to do their own thing given their bestseller status was guaranteed.

The focus group is a modern curse that extends well beyond publishing (and is in itself not a bad idea except the imbeciles who interpret the findings always play safe, never considering that the safe play is not the same as - or even often - the smart play) but neither it nor big publishers can i think be blamed for what is often authors taking the easy way out.

hmgoodchild said...

I'm in two minds about this one. Sure, I've bought books by favourite authors which have disappointed and long-running series do tend to go off the boil, perhaps because there's only so much you can do with a set of characters, perhaps because the author has tired of them long before the reader (and the publisher...). On the other hand, I've also bought books which have disappointed (me) because the author wished to try something different, to take their world and characters into a new direction, one I was not expecting and did not like. Now, nothing will make me like such a book (and I've got one particular book in mind as I write this, but, like Mark, I'll name no names) and yet it can take the author into new and very interesting directions. This book did exactly that, though each time I reread it I still think it disappointing and unnecessary in its own right. Authors develop over time. It concerns me a bit that people get pigeonholed because we (generic we) want them to go on and on, churning out the same stuff, in fact writing the books we want rather than the books they want/need to write. I'd like to see more variation and experimentation, even though it would increase the risk, risk of disappointment and low sales.

Karin Rita Gastreich said...

Mark, this is another great post, but I'm adding my voice of dissent to Harriet's.

Not that commercial interests don't corrupt the art, but that's not the only reason an author might disappoint a reader.

Readers and authors have separate journeys; sometimes they coincide, sometimes they don't.

I rarely get attached to a series, because I'm fickle that way. I love to explore new worlds and new authors on a constant basis. It's also very rare that I'll pull a book from the shelf just because it has a particular author's name on it. Usually I look at the title and story line first, and if I also happen to recognize the author, I'll say "Cool! Let's give it a try."

Once I got attached to a series, A Song of Ice and Fire. Book four disappointed me, but I gotta be honest: By then Martin had written three masterpieces (six by normal page count measures...). Who am I to complain?

I've always thought the writing of one excellent novel is the achievement of a life time. Most people don't even get that far. If an author offers me more than one great novel, I'm delighted. If not, I'm no less appreciative of what he or she has already given to my list of treasured reads.

Clint Harris said...

Re: the GRRM. A lot of people didn't like A Feast for Crows, but as a music snob, I see it as a collection of b-sides. If you really like a band, you'll also buy their b-sides, it gives them more depth and a better understanding of the artist. I didn't mind AFFC, just because I liked spending time in Westeros. ADWD disappointed me, however.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Mark here: Karin: No dissent needed! I wonder if the series-extended hasn't reached its nadir. Jordan's story was "over" for me after book four, but I persisted through five more tomes, each one increasingly longer and less interesting. My tastes have changed over the years. I'm less interested in Pern than I was as a teen. Herbert's son doesn't hold me like his father did. GRRM has become the most recent point of contention, and we have pummeled him here quite a bit. He is losing control of his tale, in my opinion, but I am not willing give up on him yet. He kept a full room captivated at Conquest last May reading essay-like material about Westeros. I think he still has something to offer there, but he cannot afford another clunker. I think there have been two in that series.

hmgoodchild said...

Well, if we're talking GRRM, I thought the writing, at the level of the prose, in ADWD was the best of the series, though the book itself was frustrating on several levels. I wasn't particularly disappointed though, but then my expectations weren't terribly high as I went in because, though I admire his breadth and scale, I find his writing style somewhat workaday. It doesn't matter much - I read those books with brain largely in neutral just to see how the story goes on. It's easy reading and sometimes that's exactly what is needed.

It is alarming though how much vitriol he has received from 'fans' demanding he write faster; likewise I believe Charlaine Harris had to cancel public appearances because her safely couldn't be guaranteed after she ended the Sookie Stackhouse series in the way she wanted rather that wished for by a subset of her readers. It's one thing to moan quietly to oneself and friends about a book one considers disappointing - who has not done that? - but beyond that? As I said earlier, risk taking and changes of direction need to be acceptable, and readers must realise that, if they don't like the way things are going with a book or series, there's lots else to read out there. No author should be threatened because of their books(and I can't believe that I feel it's necessary to make this point, even though I know no one here is that unhinged).

(A different, unrelated point: Possibly because of Martin's success and influence on genre writers, it seems that one can have either multiple third person or single first person narratives these days; I'm starting to long for books written with a single third person narrative. But that's a rant for another time!)

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Harriet: Mark here. POV is the reason why I had the strong reaction to the current novel I'm still trying to slug through. I'm almost convinced it isn't even the real author's writing at this point! It can't be a good sign when the only reason a reader continues is to see how bad something can get. Ufftha.

hmgoodchild said...

Hi Mark, I'd agree completely the POV thing is frustrating when the author has no control and drifts from one head to another, or from omniscient to third. Of course, one can do anything so long as one does it well (that's my only rule of writing) but it is toothjarringly awful when it is done badly.

What I had in mind, however, was not quite that but the device whereby a book is divided up so that we follow one character's view, and then another in the next chapter and so on. Even when each chapter is done well (and technically it is often done well), I am finding this annoying at the moment. I want to follow one person through the action rather than have to keep inhabiting different bodies. What brought my dissatisfaction to a head last week was reading 'The Steel Remains'; as one pov character is so much more interesting than the other two I resented every page I did not spend in his company. My ire had been bubbling under for a while, and some months ago I decided that my WIP would be written entirely in close third from one viewpoint, but with that particular book I found the use of multiple third made it sit on the cusp between being something I truly loved and something I'd cast aside.

I think that Martin's use of this device in ASOIAF has led to its adoption across the fantasy genre to the point where it has become pretty well the default mode, much as omniscient was in the first part of the twentieth century or first person present is in much YA fiction. I know some people love it precisely because they enjoy the variety of viewpoints, but I am growing weary.

And that was a rant! Sorry to divert.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

Harriet, Mark again: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. I found myself thumbing forward in GRRM's stuff toward the end because I didn't care about all the other pts of view in between the stuff that actually interested me. I've written before: if I'm thumbing ahead the book is dead.

GRRM is not the first to go this route, but his success has now become the model, sadly.

I cannot imagine how LOTR would read if Tolkien had done the same after FOTR. I actually considered doing it once that way. I'm glad I didn't.

Heroines of Fantasy said...

By doing I meant reading LOTR, btw.