I read a great deal. A great deal. Perhaps four to six hours of my every waking day are put to consuming the words of others rather than producing any of my own. (That might have something to do with my low output of late, but that’s a subject for another time.)
Time was, I eagerly awaited new offerings from several writers who had wholeheartedly adopted the “series” approach. That is, they wrote book after book in the same setting, or about the same protagonist(s) and / or antagonist(s). Some writers can do that without sacrificing originality or freshness. Such writers are jewels to be cherished...but not necessarily imitated.
This is on my mind this morning because of a recent discovery in my own decision making as a reader. I’d stumbled upon and purchased two book-sets – in each case the first three books of a series that continued on from there – by writers previously unknown to me, and had read both sets with enjoyment. Yet, at the conclusion of each such set, I thought about purchasing the next volumes in the series, and decided against it.
Why? One who goes through as much reading material as I should happily continue to read a series that’s begun worthily, no? Time was, I’d have thought so, at least in the abstract. But in the real world, I consciously decided not to go on with those two series. It required some thought to elucidate my decisions.
These days, series tend to go on forever. At least until the death of the writer...and as some recent examples would suggest, even that’s not an absolute barrier to their continuation. When a reader suspects that he’s begun to read such a series, at some point he will decide to continue on with it or not. What basis for decision is he likely to use?
If he hasn’t enjoyed what he’s read, the decision to stop is automatic and requires no explanation. But if he has, and suspects that the series will continue for the life of the writer, he must decide:
- Whether the setting and / or the characters are sufficiently attractive;
- Whether the overarching themes and the characteristic motifs are appealing enough;
- Whether the gestalt would support further, sufficiently imaginative and intriguing plots;
- Whether subsequent volumes would illuminate the conflicts and the Marquee Characters’ key decisions satisfyingly;
- Whether the prose itself is good enough.
The evaluations of those considerations tend to be subconscious. The reader might not be fully aware of his decision. This is more often the case when the reader decides not to continue with the series: that requires no effort, and inaction is easier to “understand” than action. Indeed, the reader might tell himself several times that “I’ve got to get to the bookstore / Amazon / wherever and get the next book in this series sometime soon,” and never do so.
I’ve had the experience of discontinuing my consumption of a series even with writers I greatly admire, whose other books and other series I’ve continued to read. Lawrence Block is an example; I read two of his books about professional thief Bernie Rhodenbarr and enjoyed them, but never went on to the subsequent ones, yet I slaver after his stories of private detective Matthew Scudder.
Clearly, there are pitfalls in series writing. The tale can grow stale; the hero’s decisions can become mechanical, predictable, and unsatisfying. The writer himself might become irritated with the series. It’s happened more than once; Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was desperate to kill off Sherlock Holmes, but his fans wouldn’t allow it!
He who embarks upon a series must remain aware of the trend lines in his work. He must judge for himself – in this regard, his readers will be less helpful – whether his stuff is becoming clichéd, repetitive, or otherwise unsatisfying. And he must be willing, albeit with many a tear, to kill off favorite heroes and to terminate adventures that were once exciting but have devolved into formula.
Otherwise readers such as I will report his deterioration to him through his sales figures...and that hurts worse than any other kind of negative feedback.