Let’s face it, every one of our favorite authors probably has a book we like slightly less than the rest. Sometimes this is because it truly is a weaker book, while other times it may be due to changes in writing style, a different editor, a rushed deadline or some other factor. More often than not, this is the book we don’t reread, it’s the one we give away to our friends or trade in at the used bookshop, but it doesn’t stop us from buying the next novel (though it might make us hesitate).
The novel may not be weaker at all, but a departure from the author’s established genre to one where many fans don’t wish to follow. I can’t count the number of times that an author has switched genres and I, as a bookseller, hear about it. Often reader loyalty will bring them to pick up this new book, only to be disappointed by the radical changes the author has made to fit his/her plotline into this new arena.
Is our ability to forgive based on the strength of an author’s backlist? Are we more likely to forgive an author that slumps on the fourth book than on his/her sophomore effort? Will the placement of the slump dictate whether this author is still bought in hardback, paperback, or checked out from the library? And what makes us go back at all, why not quit cold turkey?
Going cold turkey would mean (to me at least) we thought the author was irredeemable. If my abusive author/reader relationship of choice could be proved irredeemable, I would walk away and never look back, but much like cigarettes there are defined addicted qualities that reel me back in:
- The books represent a calming influence during a point of upheaval: We all have books that we read when we are stressed out or feeling depressed that offer the escape we need. It is only later, when our emotions have settled and we try to reread them that we realize these books are not the GREATEST. THING. EVER, but do, in fact, suck donkey balls. Bring back that stress, however, and you’ll go crawling back to that author faster than you can book a therapy session.
- The book represents disappointed potential: Once upon a time I “volunteered” to be a teacher’s assistant for a class of college freshmen and reading their first essays had to be one of the most painful experiences of my life. This was not because they were all bad (although some had me wondering if maybe mom or dad had written their kid’s entrance essay), but because no one seemed to know how to trim the fat. Underneath the layers of repetition and hanging threads were some great ideas just waiting to bust free, but it took a lot of slash and burn editing to get to them. This potential is the same thing I recognize in the authors I keep going back to, whether it is in the plot, characterizations, writing style or all of the above. It’s why I keep picking up the next book with the hope that it will be better, that an editor or the writer will have gotten ruthless, taken a page from Carver (just a page, not a whole book which can be a bitch to handle at times), and did a little showing instead of telling.
- Disappointed Potential Redux or “the first few books were great and then…:” You’re following a series and it is great, wonderful, stu-fucking-pendous. You can’t wait to tell your family, friends, neighbors and book group about it. Then the fourth or fifth book comes out and that worshipful love starts to dim. The plot has started to repeat itself, characters are acting differently without precedent, villains are brought back from the dead for no apparent reason, and there is no end in sight. But you love this series and you’ve been following it for years. You have to know how it ends because each story has advanced the overarching plot. Besides, s/he has to finish the books soon, right?
I’m sure there are many more reasons we go back, or different nuances to the ones I’ve posted above. And we all have our own limitations, the point where we say enough is enough and never look back. Still, I have to wonder what influences that decision and how much we are willing to forgive and forget. If you knew that an author was going through a hard time in their personal life would you be happy that even managed to put out a book (despite the fact that it wasn’t up to previous standards) or would you wish they had waited? Would you have stayed loyal during that wait or moved on and forgotten the author’s name?
The questions are endless, but I would love to read your thoughts on those already posed, as well as any you come up with.