Why Authors Let You Down

I’ve been sharply reminded this week of the constant tension that thrums between creatives and consumers – or, to be blunt—the writer and the reader.  You.

(For this post, “consumer” is not merely someone who buys products.  I use the word to refer to anyone who consumes what creatives produce.  Consumers are viewers and listeners, readers and gamers and more.)

Calling that tension “reader expectations” is too simple.

Lemme explain.

Mark and I are currently working our way through the second season of True Detective.

Yes, I know it’s over two years old.  We don’t watch hours of television every day, so our to-be-watched queue is constantly back-logging.

We watched the first season of True Detective and were blown away by the story and the characters.  It was so good.  If you like mystery crime thrillers with the perfect blend of character and mystery, you’ll love this one.

Be warned:  It’s HBO, and like most of their shows, they don’t pull punches.  Raw stories, nudity, sex and swearing are all part of the story—in this case, justified and natural to the story and characters.

Because of how good the first season was, we both wanted to watch the second season.

However, we heard the rumours and prattle that the second series sucked.

Plus, the second season did not feature any on-going storylines or characters.  It was starting again with a whole new cast and story.

For both of the above reasons, we put off watching the second season, even though we fully intended to watch it and decide for ourselves.

Why pick it up, anyway?

Because the writer/production team were the same people.

In other words, Nic Pizzolatto, the series creator and writer, and Matthew McConaughey, et al, as producers, demonstrated in the first season that they could deliver.  They built up my trust enough to give them a chance with the second season.

As it happens, we’re halfway through the second season and so far, yes, it’s not quite the same silvered, sharp storytelling as before, but it’s compelling character studies, mixed with a high-stakes, high pressure environment, and I’m happy to watch the rest of the season to find out how it ends.

Pizzolatto has dangled the possibility of redemption of one of the main characters, which is one of my favourite themes, so I’m watching to see if that promise pays off at the end.  I do hope so!

There is enough quality in the second season, that I can understand why a third season has been green lit despite the second season panning by the critics.

And again, trust raises its head.   I trust that Pizzolatto will deliver a fully-rounded story as he did in the first season.  I know what the critics say.  I’m willing to judge for myself.

Which brings me back to reader expectations, and creative expression.

The reason it took us two years to get to watching the second season was because of critical panning (i.e. reader reviews), but we did watch it because of the quality of the first season (trust).

However, we didn’t rush to watch the second season, because there was no on-going storylines.

This is a biggie in the reader world.  Series outsell stand-alone novels (movies/games/TV shows), for this very reason.  Everyone wants to know what happens.  Everyone wants to see a story completely wrapped up.  That completion-compulsion is strong in all of us.

And that is where the tension between creatives and consumers comes in.  That is where I have mentally hovered for a couple of days, turning it over in my mind.

Readers want more and more of stories and characters they like.  They want series to go on forever and at the very same time they want to know how the story wraps up.  That means they want to stay with the series and they want it delivered quickly, so they get their “more” and they also want it to end…but not.  These are competing forces, which build that delicious anxiety that hovers over any ongoing story.

On the author side of the equation, there are dozens of choices to be made:  Series or standalone?    For me, the answer is very nearly always “series!” – and not because they sell well.  At least, not only because they sell well.  The very-long-form storytelling that series affords is one I prefer.  I can expand characters, dig deep into histories and build complex storylines that a single novel just doesn’t have the room to contain.

Other decisions are far more complex – and you saw many of them displayed in the differences between season one and season two of True Detective.  Writers like to build new stories and new characters.  They get sick of the established ones, or write themselves into impossible corners.  Or they get sick of the genre.  Or they had a dream/lightning bolt moment and now itch to write this new, shiny story over here.

Also, there is a peculiar fact about writing; the story, when written, never lives up to the perfection we conceive in our minds when we first start to develop it.  If the gap between the dream and the reality is too big or too flawed, writers will do anything to leave the bastard child behind and move onto the next story.

That creative restlessness is something we must weigh up against reader expectations and for every author and writer, the outcome is different…and personal.

Some writers choose to serve the reader, one hundred percent.  James Patterson, for example, has never changed genres or written anything “odd” or too different from everything that has come before.  As a result, readers adore him and buy his books over and over again.  Danielle Steele and Sandra Brown, ditto.

Other writers, like Pizzolatto, prefer to give their creative muscle more room. Maybe they are burned out on the older characters.  Indie authors who have failed to establish relationships with their readers have no idea what readers want and indulge themselves in the mistaken belief that writing what they want is a perk of the indie world.  (Actually, it is, but not in the way writers new to the indie world tend to believe.  More about this phenomenon in another post, as this one is already way too long! – t.)

It isn’t always a choice, either.  Traditionally published authors are told what they can and can’t write – series get chopped mid-stream because of numbers, or move publishing houses, or are assigned new editors who hate the last series…and other grief-inducing industry practices.

Then there are the creatives who are forced to produce upon demand.  Traditional publishing (again) is the perfect example.  But it’s not just publishing.  The Monty Python crew, in 1980, were forced to produce an album as part of their recording contract, when they had no desire to do so.  They dragged themselves into the recording studio and produced an album that they entitled Contractual Obligation, because that’s all it was.

The lack of understanding about reader expectations is also why so many sequels to best-selling anything (books, series, movies, games) are often disappointing—because the author thought they knew why the first installment was such a huge success…and got it wrong, or chose not to deliver the same elements this time.

The ones that get it wrong often get it right third time around.  The Indiana Jones franchise is a good example:  The third movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, figured out exactly what audiences liked about the first, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and recreated them in a new form.  The second movie, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, got it terribly wrong.

Every iteration of a classic character or story (King Arthur, for example) is an attempt by the writer(s)/director/producers and cast and crew to pin down what consumers like about that character and milieu–or, if the creatives are sliding toward the “art” end of the spectrum, it is their personal spin on the character and milieu which they hope consumers will enjoy and/or appreciate, too.

It’s a dance, a creative maelstrom that tugs authors first one way and then the other.  When you feel as though an author has gone off the rails, or let you down, this is generally what has happened – the author’s creative muscle has flexed; either voluntarily or involuntarily, for a whole range of reasons.

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