Friday, April 22, 2011

Can We Still Be Friends*

So, you’ve just finished a novel by a favourite author, and you found yourself a bit disappointed. Maybe this novel just didn’t live up to the high quality you’ve come to expect from that author. What do you do? Do you continue to read that author’s work, or do you give up? An interesting comment exchange with Norman at Crime Scraps and Maxine at Petrona has got me thinking about why it is that with some series and authors, we’re willing to forgive the occasional less-than-best work and we still eagerly await the author’s next release. With other series and authors, though, we stop reading after the first weak effort and never really go back to that author. To some extent, of course, the answer to that question depends on the reader and the author. But there are qualities that just seem to keep us faithful to an author or a series, even after we’ve had a not-so-good experience with one of her or his books.


If you’re kind enough to read this blog, then you know that I’ve mentioned the importance of characters more than once. Without interesting and authentic characters who evolve over time, a series gets stale anyway. With those characters, readers come back time and again, even after a not-so-good experience.

For example, Jo Nesbø ‘s Harry Hole is a compelling character. He’s far from perfect (and for many people, that’s part of his appeal), and sometimes he’s his own worst enemy. But he is smart, complex enough to be interesting, and dedicated. He’s determined to do the right thing, even when it’s not clear what that right thing is. Because of Harry Hole’s fascinating and likeable character, readers queue up, even though some of the Harry Hole novels are quite violent, and some of them are longer than readers typically would choose. It doesn’t matter; we love Harry.

Another very popular set of characters appear in Donna Leon’s Commissario Guido Brunetti series. Guido Brunetti and his family are real, likeable people. Their fans love the “window” into the Brunetti family that they get in Leon’s novels, and they admire Brunetti’s dedication, his devotion to his family, and determination to do his job as well as he can. The other “regular” characters are also appealing, and fans love “visiting” them, too. Signorina Elettra Zorzi, Ispettore Lorenzo Vianello, and even the man we love to hate, Vice-Questore Patta, are all quite real to their fans. So devoted readers forgive the occasional Brunetti mystery that doesn’t live up to their expectations; they sill love “visiting” with their favourite characters.

Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series has also won worldwide fans of his characters. Mma. Precious Ramotswe is a wise, interesting, smart and sometimes humourous sleuth. Her associate, Mma. Grace Makutsi, is equally interesting and so is Mma. Ramotswe’s husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni. He’s got his own quiet wisdom and his own appeal. Devotees of this series are always eager to catch up with their favourite “regulars,” and they are willing to forgive the occasional story that’s a bit disjointed or in some other way falls short of expectations. Why? They can’t wait to catch up with their “friends” in the next instalment.


I’ve mentioned this quality before, too, and it’s really important. Michael Connelly, for instance, has of course created memorable characters in his Harry Bosch and now his Mickey Haller. But even more, he’s not afraid to innovate, to try something different and to see where it takes him. Fans of his series know that even if they are a little disappointed in one or another of his titles, that he’ll come back with something new and fresh the next time round. That plus his terrific characters makes a new Connelly title irresistible to those who’ve come to love his writing.

Agatha Christie also wasn’t afraid to try new kinds of plots and to experiment. Her most famous sleuths, Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple and Tommy and Tuppence Beresford have all sorts of different kinds of adventures, and Christie’s plot twists, new ideas and innovations are legendary. Even Christie’s most ardent fans wouldn’t say that everything she wrote was of the same quality. But even her weaker work shows her willingness not to be bound by whatever story had come before.

Focus on the Story

Perhaps it seems blatantly obvious to say that a good series has well-told stories. But I think the point bears a few comments here. Crime fiction fans want a taut, interesting story that keeps them wondering what’ll happen next. The answer to that question has to be believable, too. That’s part of what’s won so many fans to Philip Margolin’s legal thrillers, Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone stories and Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren stories, among many others. These authors write novels that are focused around the main plot. Yes, of course we get to know the characters and they evolve over time. So these plots aren’t what you would call too linear. But the novels are focused more than anything else on the story.

Authors who craft their plots carefully and well don’t have to rely on too many co-incidences, “recycled” plots or too much blood and graphic violence. The plot carries the story and readers follow along eagerly. And readers are willing to forgive the occasional less-than-deep character or less-than-evocative setting if they know that in general, the author works hard to plot well.


I haven’t seen the research on this, so I can’t say with absolute certainty, but my guess is that readers are quicker to forgive a weak effort from an author whose work is usually strong than they are the same weakness in an author whose work is more uneven. I’m sure that all of you can think of at least as many crime fiction authors as I can whose work is consistently strong and has stayed that way. When those authors write a less-then-fine book, it’s easy to think, “Well, anyone can have an off-time. I’ll bet the next one will be much better.”

No author can be at his or her best all of the time. All authors stumble at least a little. Trust me. But what is your view on all of this? How easily do you forgive a beloved author for the occasional stumble? How many stumbles before you give up on that author? What pushes you in one direction or the other?

*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of song from Philadelphia’s own Todd Rundgren.


  1. Hm. Characters and setting are very important to me so I may accept a weak plot or a disappointing ending if I am able to forget myself and be drawn into the world the writer has created for me. I think I am fairly loyal to writers once I have fallen for a series, but after two-three genuine disappointments, I may give up on a writer altogether. What annoys me most of all is immensely popular writers who don´t seem to TRY; writers who think their name will sell any old story. I am much readier to forgive new writers who are still struggling to find their own voices.

  2. Dorte - That really is an important distinction. Established writers can logically be held to a fairly high standard, and like you, I get seriously annoyed when a "name" writer publishes something that shows little thought just because it's under that person's name. I've given up on more than one writer for that reason. New writers, though, do maybe merit a little more forgiveness. They're breaking into the field, they're establishing themselves and their voices and sometimes that means a touch of uneven-ness. So like you, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

    You make a solid point about being drawn into a world, too. That's sometimes enough for me to forgive something, too, depending on how egregious that something is. And once I get hooked on a series, I find it hard to give up until a few books have gone by that really disappointed me.

  3. I think there are a couple of other points too. What hits one reader smack between the eyes won't bother another, each novel strikes each of us slightly differently.

    I also think it is a little unreasonable of us to expect an author to keep getting better. As we know with someone like Agatha Christie a high is not necessarily followed by another high

  4. Kerrie - You're quite right about the differences among readers. All of us have different tastes and notice different things. So as you say, one reader might really notice and mind something, while another reader either doesn't notice it or perhaps even likes it.

    And you're also right that it isn't reasonable to expect an author to raise the bar, so to speak, all the time. No-one can do that all the time; authors are no different that way. That's why I think most of us are forgiving when a book doesn't live up to what we'd hoped. Most of us realise that an author is allowed not to hit a high, so to speak, and that others might think the world of a given book even if we don't. Good points!

  5. That's why I wonder too sometimes about rating books. I may conceivably give a book one rating and then (accidentally) re-read it some years later and either like or dislike it more and give it a different rating. Hopefully I won't go from a 4.5 to a 3 or vice versa but it is possible. Usually I find my ratings in such circumstances are within reasonable range of each other.

  6. Oh, Kerrie, that's an interesting point. People do change over the years, or they may have read a book the first time in one state of mind and read it again another time in quite another. And yes, I'm quite sure that affects one's ratings. My guess is, though, that as careful as you are when you read and rate, your ratings are fairly reliable in every sense of that word, including the statistical.

  7. One author I read--no matter how much she disappoints--is Val Mcdermid. Why? I style my writing on hers.

    However, here are a few reasons I will go back to an author even though they disappoint:
    (1) They are a debut author - I am always willing to give a new writer a chance. First books are not always their best work.
    (2) They write a series where I'm eagerly following the lives of the recurring characters. Will they, wont they scenario.
    (3) Some writers have a slump. So if book 1, 2, and three are wonderful and book four isn't, I might try book five.

    Here's reasons I won't go back:
    (1) I don't like the way the writer gives into the publisher's demands. Sometimes a writer will add words to meet a quota and instead of adding plot or character development, they add flowery and unnecessary prose.
    (2) I don't like where the characters are going. Or if the writer decides to kill off a main character for no reason.

    Interesting post. I think writers do well to consider their readers because ultimately, they're the ones buying.

  8. I found your post so interesting as yesterday I was reading one of my favourite authors when wow, the book began to sag and manipulation of characters and setting was obvious. I was disappointed and surprised but still a fan. Love the other books and look forward to the next one. We all strike out now and then.

  9. Clarissa - I think a lot of writers stay with a favourite author if they use that author's style as a model. And thanks for sharing when you will stay with an author and when you won't Like you, I forgive debut and newer authors as they get settled into their writing. It can take a little time. And you're quit right that anyone might, as you say, hit a slump. And then, too, the author may be trying something new that some readers would like but I don't. I am less forgiving of authors who, as you say, give in to publisher demands or in some other way make it clear that they are not keeping the reader in mind. You're right that authors really need to consider their readers.

    Diane - Interesting timing, wasn't that? I've had it happen to me, too, where I've eagerly begun books by authors I really loved and then been disappointed. As you say, we strike out sometimes, and most readers are forgiving of those temporary lapses. But I have to admit I will stop reading an author if I can see, as Clarissa said, that the author is going in a direction that's no longer my taste. I'll also stop reading if the author starts writing "cookie cutter" stories instead of well-written ones.

  10. I have reached the age where I just don't read more than one or two books per author. I usually seek out the ones nominated for awards or reviewed positively and read them. Since half of the books I read are non-crime fiction, there is just not enough time now to go through an author's entire work-not matter how good. Early one I read every book by authors I liked. Sad that the day for that has passed.

  11. What makes me give up on an author is when he/she starts coasting on his laurels, or even hiring people to ghost-write under his name. We all know some best-selling authors who have done this, and when I see such laziness and what strikes me as arrogance, I stop reading him.

  12. Patti - I know exactly what you mean. There are very few authors out there whose back-catalogue I'll seek out and go through. I have a list of authors whose work I love, but even for most of them, I have to confess I haven't read every single book. There just is no time...

    Barbara - I agree completely! Authors who "coast" and assume that their name is enough for a book annoy me, too, and there is more than one author whose work I won't go near any more because of that. It isn't easy to write, and an author who's gotten respect because of her or his good writing deserves to be read. But I also think that authors need to keep earning that respect.

  13. I agree with Barbara's point. An author who stumbles through trying something different can surely be forgiven. An author who takes readers for granted is a bit different.

  14. Martin - Well-put. I forgive fairly easily if an author is trying something new. I admire that. An author who takes readers for granted? That is, indeed, a different sort of thing.

  15. I think it's only natural that an author will have a bit of a slump in writing a series from time to time. There can be many different reasons for it. As readers I think we sometimes expect too much from a book and for that reason we believe it's not the author's best work. As a fan who enjoys reading series, I'll go back to an author even after a book doesn't measure up so to speak. It's when that series continues in a downward trend, I'll stop reading.

    Thoughts in Progress

  16. Mason - I think you put your finger on a very important point. There's a difference between one book that's a disappointment and a downward trend. We really do have high expectations for authors, especially authors whose work we love. So if the author writes something we don't like as much, we feel disappointed. It's important, as you say, to keep it in perspective. One book is not the same as a trend and people's expectations all differ from one another. What one person thinks is a disappointment, another may like. So like you, I generally don't give up on an author whose work I really like just because of one disappointing novel. It takes more than that for me...

  17. I tend to give up when the novels began to feel "same old same old" even if I loved the characters through many books. I've given up on two well known series recently, but I'm pretty sure I'll never give up on Lee Child's Jack Reacher. :)

  18. Pat - I know just exactly what you mean! If I get the feeling that the author is "recycling" stories and not adding anything new, I give up as well. Of course, like you, I also have a few authors whom I'll always read, I think, even if their plots or characters don't exactly evolve ;-).