Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reader Expectations

What you bring to the party can often determine how much fun the party is.

Let's look at HANNIBAL RISING, which was released today.

I read RED DRAGON back in 1984, and then SILENCE OF THE LAMBS when it came out in 1988. These books blew me away, and are largely the reason I write serial killer fiction.

Harris scared the crap out of me, and Lecter was the most terrifying character every created. A soulless intellectual sadist, whose manipulations frightened because they hinted at---and eventually revealed---violence and pure evil.

Then HANNIBAL came out. I hated HANNIBAL. In fact, hate wasn't strong enough a word. It was the first book I reviewed on Amazon, and the only book I ever gave one star.

My reasons were simple: Harris had taken the ultimate boogeyman and turned him into a silly hero. By giving Lecter a backstory, and sketchy motivation for his atrocities, Harris turned a terrifying character who haunted two masterpieces into a cartoonish allegory for Epicureanism. Lecter's taste for fine things, and the reveal that he only ate rude people, was not being true to the character in the prior books.

To make matters worse, Harris wasted Clarice as a hero, made much of the book a boring travelogue, added a gratuitous body-building lesbian to the mix, and topped it off with a lidless pedophile who giggled at the thought of pigs eating Lector's feet.

Quite a fall from SOTL and RD. And quite a disappointment for me, and millions of others who wanted to see Will Graham and Clarice Starling team up to catch Lecter.

So I had zero hope for HANNIBAL RISING, but putz that I am, went out and bought it the day it was released.

And it wasn't bad.

Here's the problem I'm wrestling with. Compared to RD and SOTL, HANNIBAL RISING isn't in the same league. It's certainly not scary---I don't think it can even be called a thriller.

Compared to HANNIBAL, it's a much better book, not only the plot, but the actual writing. No cartoonish villains here. No long and boring exposition. And there is an actual plot, and no character rings false (like Barney and Clarice in the previous book.)

Looking back at my feelings about HANNIBAL, much of the reason I hated it so much was that Harris let me down. He failed to meet expectations, and then betrayed his characters. IMO, he also betrayed his readers. It seemed as if Harris had fallen in love with Lecter, and had tried to redeem his character's actions in the first two books by justifying them with unsatisfying backstory and motivation. In HANNIBAL, Harris essentially said that "The shark from Jaws was really a good guy, once you got to know him."

Had I read HANNIBAL without reading SOTL and RD, perhaps I would have admired Harris's gutsy vision of serial killer as good guy. I still don't think HANNIBAL would be a good book, but I wouldn't get angry thinking about the 11 years I spent waiting to see what happened after SOTL.

So I tried to read HANNIBAL RISING without expectations, and pretend that Lecter was a brand new character. This is a trick I also do with the last three Star Wars movies.

It worked, and on it's own terms HANNIBAL RISING is pretty good.

The plot isn't complicated. This is a simple revenge story. An eight-year-old Lecter and his family are victims of war crimes, and he grows up a sociopath and goes after those who wronged him.

The writing is clean and sharp, and often lovely. While there isn't a lot of tension in the narrative, it did hold me. The ending wasn't the catastrophe that HANNIBAL was, and the book even managed to prompt a grin or two.

If this was just a book I picked up without knowing anything about it, I would have judged it pretty good.

So that's how I'm going to rate it. Three stars, pretty good.

Will this give you the thrills and chills of Harris's early work? No. The story is pretty straight forward, and you don't relate to any character, even the abused young Hannibal, because he is is emotionless, pitiless, and not dynamic.

Will it give you more insight into the evil genius that is Hannibal Lecter? No, because I still can't reconcile the Lector of RD and SOTL with the Lector of these last two novels.

Is it awful? No. There's some good writing here, and the story moves along briskly.

HANNIBAL RISING won't rise to your expectations, if you're hoping for a return to Harris's early style. But it isn't bad.

Which makes me to the point of this blog entry. Expectations play a big part in if a reader enjoys a book. If you come in expecting to be thrilled, you might be disappointed. If you come in expecting crap, you may be pleasantly surprised.

I've gotten a few reviews for Rusty Nail, harping on the fact that Jack keeps getting chased by serial killers. How many times can one person be the target of madmen?

Good point.

But in DIRTY MARTINI, I have no serial killers, and now I'm concerned my readership is going to say, "We expected serial killers---where are the serial killers?"

As writers, I believe we owe our readers something. We have to walk a line between giving them more of what they liked, and giving them something new.

We also have to be true to our characters, because once we create a character, that character takes on a life of their own. Hannibal Lecter, or Spenser, or Kay Scarpetta, or Alex Cross, or Jack Daniels, have readers who have specific ideas of how these characters should act, and what types of stories they should be involved in.

I can't expect my readers to give me the same break I gave HANNIBAL RISING. I have to remember why they became my fans in the first place, and respect their expectations.

If you're a writer, you should do the same. Though it really hasn't hurt Thomas Harris's career much...

42 comments:

Aimless Writer said...

I expect a good thriller/mystery from Jack and Herb. Serial killers not required because I'm sure the crime will give the charactors a work out.

WtB said...

Joe,

You're right about expectations. There are certain series I follow just for certain facets: Alex Cross versus the Serial Killer, Elvis Cole versus the corrupt/perverted fill-in-the-blank, etc.

But I'm glad to hear that Dirty Martini stretches the boundary. We're still going to get great one liners, we're still going to get clever detective work, we're still going to get Jack's issues--right? A different kind of case is all right with me.

It's like Iron Maiden when they said ADIOS to Paul D'Anno and welcomed Bruce "air raid siren" Dickenson. We still got the galloping base and guitar duels, but BONUS, we got a vocalist with range.

Up the Irons, and Go Jack!

--WTB

Mark said...

Yes, but if I understand the premise of DIRTY MARTINI, you're talking a potential mass murderer, right?

I'm also inclined to think that Harris might have been able to quit writing entirely after RED DRAGON and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. He practically invented the serial killer sub-genre as it is today with DRAGON. (Which I read in college when it came out in hardcover, having picked up one of the few hardcover fiction novels at the MSU library--it scared the crap out of me).

I've always thought Harris' big mistake was to write a novel with Lecter as the main character. He wasn't the main character in either of the two first books. He was a means for the heroes to track serial killers and the price they had to pay for his cooperation was to let him into their heads--it's a beautiful conceit that made Lecter all the more scary because we could see him before us as an evil genius, and we could see the even darker shadow he cast on the souls of the detectives who had to deal with him. It was a wonderfully nuanced thing, and the only person who I think does something similar is Jack Kerley with his first two novels (not his third).

Best,
Mark Terry
www.markterrybooks.com

Jude Hardin said...

Stephen King (see NYT, June 13, 1999) and I thought the novel HANNIBAL was rather brilliant.

Looking forward to seeing Harris's latest installment.

As far as expectations are concerned, I try to judge every book as a stand-alone. If you're forced to stop and think about how it relates to a series, then the book you have in hand is a failure, IMO.

jessiegirl said...

I use to wonder about characters who were consistently and repeatedly pursued by madmen. How realistic is that?

But then I switched jobs and as i got to know my coworkers i learned that my current manager has moved out here from chicago because her sister, brother and father of her 4 children had all been murdered. Two by two different serial killers, and a gang drive by revenge killing. I've met other family members who confirm the story. What are the chances of that?

Suddenly a character with ridiculously bad luck who attracts sociopaths like a magnet seems more plausible.

jessiegirl said...
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Anonymous said...

Joe,

I've often thought there should be a rating category reserved for books or movies that not only disappoint, but also ruin the books/movies that came before. Alien III was like that, so was Hannibal.

I'm trusting Rusty Nail won't be.

Ty said...

Wow, you just sold me on Hannibal Rising. I had given up on Harris after Hannibal, now I'm interested again.

Allison Brennan said...

Very interesting post, Joe. I never read or saw HANNIBAL because I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED RED DRAGON and SOTL and heard that I would hate it. I have been going back and forth on HANNIBAL RISING because I am fascinating about what goes into making a sociopath/killer.

But regarding your other point, I wouldn't stress over a slight change of pace for your next book. Yes, readers have expectations. But you also don't want to become staid. SEE NO EVIL doesn't have a traditional serial killer (it's about teen thrill killers), yet I think it's the best I've written to date. So push the boundaries. It's your voice people are drawn to and the pacing of the stories more than holding to a "formula."

Now, if you decided to write science fiction and have aliens abduct Jack, then I think we'll need to talk . . .

Allison Brennan said...

MARK! You nailed it. :)

tess gerritsen said...

Here's the sad truth about readers: some of them are going to hate it when you try to do something different. Others are going to hate it when you write the same book over and over. You'll get called bad names by somebody no matter what you write. So you might as well write what you want to.

Jude Hardin said...

Amen, Tess.

PJ Parrish said...

Why "Hannibal" failed and "Hannibal Rising" won't match up either:

I think Mark Terry hit it right on the head in his observation that once Harris moved Lecter to centerstage, Lecter lost much of his power. Lecter played second fiddle to Graham in "Dragon" and to Starling in "Lambs." Those were essentially THEIR stories, and he hovered in the background like the devil he was. Exposed to the glare of the spotlight in the awful "Hannibal," Lecter looks merely ridiculous rather than menacing. Kind of like what happens when you shine a flashlight under your bed and poof! the boogeyman is gone.

"Silence of the Lambs" remains one of the best crime books written. But I still kick myself for spending good money on "Hannibal" and won't be fooled again.

Anonymous said...

I never read Hannibal (not my cuppa), but the journal reviews I saw on Amazon were quite favorable. I can understand Harris' "fans" bashing him on a public forum if they didn't like the book, but his fellow authors? Come on, folks. What goes around comes around, no?

Amusing that you guys are still talking about this book 17 years later. Good or bad, it certainly aroused some passion among writers.

JA Konrath said...

I can understand Harris' "fans" bashing him on a public forum if they didn't like the book, but his fellow authors? Come on, folks. What goes around comes around, no?

If I make 10 million dollars a book, I give my peers permission to bash me.

Actually, Hannibal is the only book I ever bemoan in public, though I have taken a few small shots at Patricia Cornwell--and if you tried to read her last few, you'd know why.

I do this as a disappointed fan. These authors have let me down. They began writing amazing books, and then terrible something happened.

Harris should know better. That may sound harsh, but I'm a writer, and if I completely disrespected my characters like Harris has done, I'd want someone to call me on it. He's thumbing his nose at the people who made him a success, and that's wrong.

Jim Michael Hansen said...

I think it's important for an author to deliver the same "type" of book that has attracted a following, meaning the same intensity, the same writing style, the same flavor--the same recognition factor. That doesn't mean that if the first two books have serial killer then the 3d must too. It means that if the first two had a very bad protagonist, then readers will be looking for that in the next book, and probably hoping to get it.

All my books are different but I'm careful to build a brand where the reader can expect the same writing style, edgy characters, a complicated plot, realisic motivators and a truly bad antagonist. The point is that if the author sticks to the brand concepts, the details of those concept can vary greatly. And probably should.

SAND STORM said...

You say Harris is cashing in, but I think the writer takes his characters were he/she wants them to go. They are the creators after all, how can we judge where the story goes? We read it and we like it or we don't the author is not wrong so much as what we perhaps expected was not answered and in turn we like or dislike where the story went. I reread Hannibal a couple of months back and admit I liked it better than when it first came out, largely because I didn't have expectations of what it may be.My two-bits.

Anonymous said...

So a seven-figure advance automatically renders an author immune to hurtful, scathing criticism from his/her peers?

To me, there are enough fan critics and pro reviewers out there without authors jumping in on the public lynchings.

We're all in this together, no? We should praise what we like, and exercise our right to remain silent about what we don't.

JA Konrath said...

So a seven-figure advance automatically renders an author immune to hurtful, scathing criticism from his/her peers?

Yes.

I've said before that I'd trade places with that guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces. The book was a lie, and the whole nation hated him, including Oprah.

I'd be able to live with all that hatred, on the island I bought from selling 5 million books.

And, frankly, I'm able to live with criticism, peer and otherwise, making much less than that (I refer to myself as a 'thousandaire')

A bad review isn't a public lynching. Getting dragged through the streets by your neck and hung from a tree in front of a group of people is a public lynching.

Harris had me as a fan, then lost me as a fan. My being an author doesn't mean I can't question what I perceive went wrong with his last two books.

Being reviewed, even badly, is something that all public figures, writers included, must contend with.

I doubt Thomas Harris was hurt by my remarks (as if he was aware of them.) But I can tell you I WAS hurt reading HANNIBAL. LAMBS meant so much to me, as a reader and as an author, and HANNIBAL devestated me.

I'd love to ask Harris why he made the choices he did. And I'm not alone. HANNIBAL had over 2000 Amazon reviews, many of them 1 star, many of them echoing my points.

He had a chance to address his critics, and mend some bridges with readers, with the new book. He didn't.

Should I broach that in a public forum such as my blog? Yes. Because this is something writers should thing about.

Should writers take potshots at their peers? No. It's petty, and does no good.

I don't consider Harris a peer. He's a god, fallen from grace.

lorraine said...

We're all in this together, no? We should praise what we like, and exercise our right to remain silent about what we don't.

Except that sometimes, as writers, when we are able to discuss what went wrong with a book we've read, we're able to better understand craft issues and have a conversation about what worked and what didn't, and how we can learn from that. We can also open it up to an industry wide discussion as to where the line between writer as creator and reader as consumer is drawn, like is being done here. It's critical analysis rather than blistering or intentionally hurtful dissing.

Becoming writers doesn't automatically preclude us from ever having an opinion on a published book. At least, I would hope not! Not with most writers being such passionate readers...

Tom Schreck said...

Let's be honest-- most of us live pretty mundane lives. I'm betting most cops never get involved in a serial killer case.

Of course, its not realistic that Jack would get involved in several. My character is a boxing social worker who robin hoods his way into the lives of his clients and saves them from bad guys. Along the way he foils terrorist plots and serial killers. Ridiculous?--of course.

Willing suspension of disbelief I think its called. Reality is pretty boring--give me the serial killers and let me have some fun.

tess gerritsen said...

These are interesting points!

I can tell you that getting a 7-figure advance doesn't make one immune to getting your feelings hurt. I know it seems like it should. But any writer who really cares about his art is always going to feel protective of his baby, regardless of the size of his advance.

I'm one of those lucky writers who does get seven-figure advances, but believe me, I sweat and struggle over each and every book just the same, because it's an extension of who I am.

This is not to say that readers don't have the right to hate the result of my year's labors. But the size of one's advance doesn't make one any less human or vulnerable to criticism. We all hate to criticize the debut author, because at that stage their career is so fragile. But does that mean we have two standards for criticism? That we go easy on the new authors, but feel free to be critical when it's an established author?

Is there one standard of criticism for all books? Or should we just be vicious with the 7-figure authors? Should there be an income cut-off? Under six figures, we give them a handicap and over six figures we can be perfectly frank? And over seven figures, we let 'er rip?

JA Konrath said...

Under six figures, we give them a handicap and over six figures we can be perfectly frank? And over seven figures, we let 'er rip?

I'm going to play the hypocrite card here, and say we really shouldn't ever criticize our peers in public, except for Thomas Harris. :)

Insulting a work of art isn't good for anyone. The art already exists, and can't be changed, no matter the opinion of the public.

And anyone who goes around badmouthing artists probably has a large assortment of chips on their shoulder.

But I believe Thomas Harris is an exception, for several reasons.

First, he created the sub-genre of serial killer thrillers.

Second, he spends seven years on a book, so one would think he'd take the time to craft it meticulously (that was the case with Black Sunday, Red Dragon, and Silence.)

Third, he makes such a ridiculous amount of money, he's in a different league from anyone except Cornwell, King, Brown, and Koontz.

Fourth, he seems disdainful of his readers.

I waited 11 years for HANNIBAL to come out. At the end of SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Lector was loose in the world. Evil incarnate, free to prey upon man, including Clarice and Will Graham--the man who caught him.

I waited 11 years to find out what happened next. And I felt betrayed when I read it. I've never had that type of experience with a book before.

I want accountability. The man invented a new style of thriller, then turned his back on the fans he made. There are really no comparsions in the literary world for what Harris did.

Let's look at THE SURGEON. I read it when it came out, in 2001, at roughly the same time I began writing WHISKEY SOUR. I liked Rizzoli, damaged as she was, and really dug the villain.

The book ended well, allowing for the possibility of a sequel. I waited for it.

When THE APPRENTICE came out a year later, I bought it the day it was released, and I loved it even more than THE SURGEON. The characters evolved, the new villain was terrific, and it was a nice continuation of all the things that worked in the previous book.

If, in THE APPRENTICE, you made Hoyt the hero, and Rizzoli a mindless shell who became seduced by Hoyt, I would have been annoyed. You had raised my expecatations with the first one, and I wanted a payoff. I feel like you delivered.

For SINNER and BODY DOUBLE, you took Rizzoli and Isles in new directions, but you still stayed true to your characters.

VANISH was harsher than I expected, the tone darker than your previous books. I thought it was amazing. I enjoyed MEPHISTO even more---it was more like THE SURGEON in tone, but had a playful sense of horror about it, plus some delightful use of religious history.

My point: you may have tried new things, but you always respected your characters, and in my opinion, your readers.

Harris did not. I feel as if he thumbed his nose at me, and criticized his readers for embracing him.

I've probably reviewed forty or fifty books on Amazon, and given each 5 stars. Except for HANNIBAL.

I read a few books a year that I don't really like. But I don't review those, nor do I badmouth their authors.

But Harris is an exception.

Jude Hardin said...

Well said, Tess.

I don't think Thomas Harris ever set out to write a bad book, or "thumb his nose" at his fans. What kind of idiot would do that, no matter how rich they are?

He wrote a classic--Silence of the Lambs--and in literature it's nearly impossible to repeat that. It makes me wonder if he should have just gone the way of JD Salinger and Harper Lee, and bowed out gracefully.

And I agree with anon: Let the critics have their way--that's their job. Writers, however, should be supportive of one another, no matter the level of success.

My question to the authors here: If you were ever fortunate enough to pen a true classic, would you try to follow it up or would you ride off in the sunset with your millions?

Personally, I respect Harris for his efforts. I think he did it FOR the fans, not as an egotistical means to alienate them.

But maybe Harper Lee did the smart thing.

Jude Hardin said...

I wrote my comment before I saw yours, Joe. It seems that you took Hannibal as some sort of personal betrayal, and I don't think that's fair. I sincerely believe that Lecter's character was well-drawn from the beginning, and that the book Hannibal simply revealed some aspects of his character that the public didn't want, or didn't need, to know. Indeed, Lecter was a more of a horrible force when there was an element of mystery behind him. We didn't get to know him very well in SOTL, and I think it was more Anthony Hopkins's portrayal that made him an icon than what we saw in the book.

At any rate, I appreciated Hannibal for what it was--a glimpse into the psychology of a true disturbo. The ending did upset me--I wanted Starling to rise and blow him away. But then again, that's what we would have expected, and it's always more powerful to give the reader what they DON'T expect. Even though the ending pissed a lot of us off (including, obviously, the director who filmed the sequel), it certainly aroused emotions, which is all any author can hope for.

JA Konrath said...

I sincerely believe that Lecter's character was well-drawn from the beginning, and that the book Hannibal simply revealed some aspects of his character that the public didn't want, or didn't need, to know.

Then you need to reread the books.

In Red Dragon, Lecter told Dollarhyde to kill Graham, and his wife and child.

He mauled a nurse while in prison.

He laughes at church roof collapses, killing innocent people.

He helps Dollarhyde, and Gumb, two active killers who prey on the innocent.

He allows Senator Martin's daughter to die.

Who ate a census taker's liver with fava beans and a nice chianti?

Who had to be put in restraints every time he was moved?

And so on. This is not a man who only eats the rude. This is a monster.

As for me feeling betrayed, that's 100% fair, or am I supposed to supress my reaction?

Anonymous said...

Wait a minute, JA.

On the one hand, you say you'd be James Frey in a minute—which means (1) lying to your readers and (2) being untrue to your characters. Then you get all over Harris for what you perceive as similar affronts?

I don't get it.

Jude Hardin said...

As I recall:

Senator Martin's daughter was rescued; Starling used Lecter's cryptic clues to find Gumb.

The census taker's liver was eaten with fava beans and a big Amarone. Chianti was from the movie.

Lecter did way more killing in Hannibal than he did in SOTL, and in graphic fashion. Are you forgetting he disemboweled Pazzi and hung him out a window by an electrical cord? That he sauteed Krendel's brain and fed parts of it to him while he was still alive?

Lecter was no hero in Hannibal. He was every bit the monster he always was. That he only ate the rude was Starling's perception, not TH's.

Starling's and Lecter's relationship was complex from the start. They were drawn to each other in some sort of bizarre way, and Hannibal was always protective of Clarice. I don't see that Harris betrayed the character of Hannibal Lecter, but maybe I'm missing something.

Or maybe YOU need to reread the books. :)

Jude Hardin said...

Oh, yeah...

And are you forgetting why Mason Verger had no face?

Lecter was very much the monster in the book Hannibal.

Jude Hardin said...

I was just looking through my copy of Hannibal. Actually, it was Barney who said (to Clarice), "He told me once that, whenever it was 'feasible,' he preferred to eat the rude. 'Free-range rude,' he called them."

The word "feasible" says a lot here, I think. And I'm thinking the line "he only ate the rude" was from Clarice in the movie, but I'm not for sure on that.

JA Konrath said...

Then you get all over Harris for what you perceive as similar affronts?

Apples and oranges.

Memoir and a sequel to a thriller are two different things.

And the reason I'd trade places with Frey has nothing to do with what he wrote---I used him as an example of the slings and arrows I'd be willing to suffer if I made that much money.

Lecter was no hero in Hannibal.

He was the protagonist, and the character that the reader was forced to identify with and root for. That's why Harris chose Mason Verger as the villain--he was more repugnant than Lecter.

Clarice was wasted as a character in HANNIBAL. So is Jack Crawford. The Barney affair sub plot is ridiculous. So are the pigs, Verger, and Mason's body building sister.

Hannibal's backstory was trite and unsatisfying. And the ending, which had Clarice become Lecter's love interested after eating a brain---that was an insult.

HANNIBAL failed on all levels.

Jude Hardin said...

I think the only reason Lecter's backstory was trite was because eleven years passed between the publications of SOTL and Hannibal, and a bunch of other authors jumped on the serial killer bandwagon during that time. I think Lecter's backstory was there all along, only revealed in Hannibal.

We disagree that Hannibal was a failure as a novel, and that's okay. More people share your view than mine. But I still maintain that many of those views are distorted by the fact that Harris wrote a classic (SOTL) and then followed it up years later, after it had become a cultural phenomenon. Whatever he would have written would have fallen under severe criticism, just as a follow up to To Kill A Mockingbird or a sequel to Catcher in the Rye or (and this happened, didn't it?) Gone with the Wind would have.

I still rooted for Clarice, even though much of the narrative was devoted to Lecter and Verger. Even though Lecter was the lesser of two evils, he was still a really bad guy.

I admit, I thought the ending was ridiculous the first time I read it. But I think there are some heavy psychological themes going on that I don't fully understand. If Harris would just come on out and explain what he was getting at...

Where are you, Tom?

ec said...
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JA Konrath said...

But I still maintain that many of those views are distorted by the fact that Harris wrote a classic (SOTL) and then followed it up years later, after it had become a cultural phenomenon.

I agree. Expectations were very high, and they account for much of the reason I hated HANNIBAL.

ec said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ty said...

Come on. I'll admit expectations were extremely high for Hannibal, but what Harris did with Clarice ... geez, it even would have been a better ending if she had been killed.

Lector's back story I can live with, though it wasn't needed, in my opinion. It took away much of the mystique of the monster.

The Clarice Starling of Lambs (an inexperienced woman at least 10 years younger) never would have fallen for half Lector's garbage in Hannibal, then I as a reader am expected to believe an older and more experienced Clarice would go along with all this?

Please.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to try and address several different themes in this ongoing conversation.


Reader Expectations

I agree with Allison Brennan and Jim Michael Hansen in that you do not have to have Jack hunt down serial killers in each novel. One would hope that there are not psychopathic killers waiting in queue to appear.

She could just solve a single murder. If people come to expect a certain level of suspense and drama from an author, that is what they are looking for in a new volume by the same author.

However, should you want to branch out and try a new genre, then you will absolutely need a new protagonist to focus on. That would make your fans realize this is something different and their expectations would be adjusted accordingly.

Author's admitting disappointment over someone else's work

Why not?

We are human and we all have our own preferences as to what we like when it comes to drama and entertainment. I think however, there should be a certain level of civility used in describing the disappointment. Also, if the authors involved are at a similar status level, I think there is a difference of expectation to be shown to one another.

I feel that the courteous thing to do is to attempt to establish communication directly with the author.

If you do not receive a reply because you are at a lower status rank than the author - then you have more freedom to discuss publicly your reader reaction.

Another question you should ask yourself if whether or not your public criticism is likely to deleteriously impact the earning potential of the author in question. I highly doubt Thomas Harris's bottom line will be impacted one way or the other by the comments on this blog. If anything, it may actually encourage people to buy a copy of his newest book. I was also grossly disappointed with Hannibal and had no interest whatsoever in continuing reading the series, but might read it after Joe's comments.

Another thought to consider is that authors write reviews of books all the time in newspapers, and some of them are quite unkind.

Discussing disappointment in this venue seems tame in comparison.

Comparison with an incident in the HP fandom

I bring this up because of a different genre and an even bigger and wealthier author than Thomas Harris: J.K. Rowling. I was a huge fan of her work and became immersed in the Harry Potter online fandom after book 4.

It is a strange and wild fandom with its own rules and lingo. If you establish your reputation online that spans more than one website or list serv (and the online HP fandom does *a lot* of cross polination) you can become what is known as a Big Name Fandomer or BNF.

Some of course were bigger than others, but the influence BNF's have over others is greater than just your average fourteen year old with a home computer.

I'm probably a third tier BNF, but still my name and online persona is known and has its influence. I read one of the numerous companion books to the HP series and had some quibbles with it. I emailed the author with my copious nitpicky notes, some of which were due to incorrect spellings of words unique to the series as well as my differences of opinions regarding some of his theories or conclusions.

It was the start of a regular correspondence and friendship.

I mention this because after book 6 came out, this same author wrote several essays and posted them on his website. Another BNF read one of his essays, disliked his conclusions and publicly trashed him on her popular LJ.

I thought it was discourteous of her, and I called her out publicly on her blog on that point. I also used the line from Spiderman "with great power comes great responsibility."

I felt she should have contacted him privately as I had, then she could have possibly developed a similar relationship with him. And, since he is a published author and she is only an online fanfic author, he actually has a bottom line which could be impacted by her comments.

Authors showing disrespect for their fans

Ahem, I have a story about a larger case of disrespect shown to fans than simply disappointing your fans by writing something not living up to expectations.

Once again, I am referring to the HP fandom. After book 6's release, J.K. Rowling was interviewed by two members of the online fandom who created wildly popular websites. There are many theories passionately debated online, and these two ambassadors from the HP fandom were partisans for one particular theory.

And JKR was well aware of the volatility of this debate.

Book 6 strongly hinted that the two interviewers were on the winning end of debate, and the interview removed all doubt. Thing is, the two interviewers were nasty and vicious to those who disagreed with their positions. The transcript of that interview is rife with personal asides that are derogatory such as "All laugh; Melissa doubles over, hysterical, and may have died." While one of the very partison reporters then repeatedly referred to a significant portion of the fanbase as "delusional."

J.K. Rowling hand picked these two people to interview her, and after the interview was published online - she never repudiated their behavior nor how it insulted many of her fans.

It caused a lot of acrimony in the fandom. It was like pouring salt in open wounds.

I was much more insulted that she never attempted to mitigate the public insulting of her fans by these two hand chosen ambassadors than I was by any of the gloating that resulted in the aftermath of Book 6.

And I have lost all interest in gleaning the series for further clues or even developing new theories. I'll read Book 7 when it comes out, but basically the author's attempt to let it "blow over" by being silent was what really made me lose interest in the HP franchise.

(On a side point, I was also greatly disappointed with many of the aspects of Book 6, but that is OT for this post and would make it just so much more incredibly loooong.) Oh, and yes I did write to J.K. Rowling, but have not gotten any reply. More importantly she has never made mention of this brouhaha on her website, except to mention in glowing terms the two people who interviewed her. As if she was thrilled by their actions during and after the interview.

Hence by her silence on the issue she expressed her tacit endorsement.

Moral of that story: Do not openly insult any of your fans. And if someone else does insults your fans by proxy in your name, you should publicly repudiate that sign of disrespect. Or you risk losing the respect of your fans.

James Frey and integrity

Joe, please tell me that you were being facetious when you said you would trade places with James Frey.

Because as far as I'm concerned the guy has no morals, scruples, ethics or personal integrity. I have no respect for him as a person, and no interest whatsoever in reading anything he has written in the past or anything that he might write in the future.

Obviously the man has talent, otherwise he would not have sold as many books as he had nor garnered the coveted endorsement by Oprah.

However, he broke the rules by lying to his audience. He told them what he wrote actually happened to him, and many things didn't. At least not the way he described. He embellished, which is okay when you are telling jokes or family stories that get taller with each subsequent telling.

It is not okay when writing memoirs, unless you are upfront by saying that you exaggerate. Then you are probably telling humorous tales as well, and not serious stories about addiction.

If the events in his real life were not dramatic enough for publication as they occured he should have written a novel. Then he could have allowed his own experience to be a starting place.

Then he would have earned respect. As it is, he has brought about contempt for himself. He is a pariah, at least in my eyes.

There is nothing about him that I envy. And I hope, deep down that you agree with me on this point.

Because I would like to see success earned on its merits and not based on deceit. Which is exactly what I think about James Frey. He is worthy of derision, as are many other writers who have committed similar ethical sins such as:

Janet Cooke
Jayson Blair
Mike Barnicle

I'll stop there, but I would not want to emulate any of those writers in any way, shape or form.

Enough for now, I'll step off my soapbox.

JA Konrath said...

Joe, please tell me that you were being facetious when you said you would trade places with James Frey.

I wouldn't do what Frey did. But I wouldn't mind being hated by the public if I had his money.

Harry said...

I'm a ways into Hannibal Rising, and feeling a little flat about it, so thanks for encouraging me to continue. As for Jack Daniels, she'd be interesting reading the phone book to a gorup of girl scouts. Non-lethal scouts, even.

ec said...

l.c., have you considered the possibility that J.K. Rowlings might have been just as unhappy with that interview as you were? If that interview was conducted by email, shd might not have seen the finished product until it was posted, so it is quite possible she was unaware the interviewers intended to add what you perceived to be gloating, insulting asides. And it's also possible that she never actually read the finished interview. I'm only an obscure midlist fantasy author, but I've given quite a few email interviews and I haven't read them all (mostly because they were published in a Russian magazine or a Turkish website, and I'm not much of a linguist), and it doesn't stretch my powers of imagination much to envision a scenario in which Ms. Rowling was unaware of the situation that you found so insulting.

And what if she DID know about it?
It's my opinion that letting it blow over was probably the best course. Why draw more attention to the situation? She probably would have created more hard feelings by jumping in than by staying out. There are many ways for a writer to show disrespect for readers, but NOT getting involved in their online fights is, imo, not one of them.

Thriller/mystery readers sometimes disect the setting and debate minutia, but for fantasy readers this is common practice. Threads on message boards debating what SHOULD happen next are very common, as are threads discussing preferred courses that some readers believe the books "should have taken." Writers should probably stay as far away from these discussions as possible. Participants often see themselves as "winning" if the story does indeed take the course they prefer, and it is not uncommon for those who "lose" to take it personally and claim the author "doesn't listen to or care about the readers." Oftentimes, the less you know about the fans' interaction with each other and their speculations about the directions the books in a series are taking, the less trouble you're likely to get into. If flame wars erupt, acting as a sort of playground monitor will almost certainly create hard feelings, and, as your post demonstrated, NOT playing that role can also create hard feelings. Monitoring fans' online behavior is a no-win situation, and imo, it should not be considered part of a writer's job description.

tess gerritsen said...

lc, it's a mistake to think that authors are in any way aware of what's being said about them and their books in the online world. I'm sure that JKR is way too busy writing her books to spend hours every day trolling through online fansites. To think otherwise strikes me as something of a delusion of grandeur on the fan's part.

Also, regarding whether authors reply to emails from fans: Often, when I reply to emails, my message gets bounced back as undeliverable. Sometimes it's caught in the recipient's spam folder. Other times, I get rather bewildering messages that the recipient's mailbox doesn't exist, (yet I had hit "reply" to whoever sent the message.) I'm sure there are a great number of fans out there who think I rudely ignored their emails. When, in fact, I tried to respond but couldn't get through.

anne frasier said...

"As writers, I believe we owe our readers something. We have to walk a line between giving them more of what they liked, and giving them something new."

isn't that the truth?

i've gone through the same serial killer problem. my first book was a serial killer book. my publisher felt one SK book was enough, and i know i lost a lot of readers when i quit writing SK books. maybe it would have happened anyway, but i felt i turned my back on readers. My publisher felt SK books were over or soon to be over. that argument made sense, but i don't know. to my mind nothing really maintains that constant state of horror and threat like a serial killer book. i think the shift i made was too big. i didn't give readers what they liked along with something new. that said, i do think i'm building a new audience with whatever the hell it is i'm writing now. :D kind of gothic horror i think. and i'm really enjoying writing it, so it's not like i moved to something i didn't want to do.