Six impossible things

Deteriorating quality…or not

The other day, I was talking books with a non-writer acquaintance who eventually got around to the perennial complaint about how Mr. Long-Time Professional Writer’s work has gone horribly downhill, paired with a certain amount of bewilderment as to how an experienced professional could ever make so many basic beginner mistakes, like using adverbs and head-hopping and the like. I didn’t give the answer then, because it’s actually fairly complicated and I wasn’t in the mood for the argument I expected to result (given the particular acquaintance), but I will take a chance on it here.

The answer is complicated because there isn’t one possible reason; there are several, and on top of that, many of them are not mutually exclusive. But the very first one, the one that I see most often, is that the writer’s work hasn’t changed, only the reader’s perception of it.

Half the time, the problem is that, in the time since they first read and loved Mr./Ms. Pro’s work, the reader has read far more widely. Their taste has broadened and their perception has increased, so now they’re spotting characterization and stylistic problems that never bothered them before because they used to only care about the plot. The problems have always been there; the reader just never saw them (or cared enough about them to remember them).

The other half of the time, the reader loves books and really wants there to be more good ones. So they’ve gone out on the Internet and read discussions about What Makes Good Writing, and ended up memorizing a lot of Writing Rulez without completely understanding why the so-called “rules” object to whatever-it-is. And since they don’t really know why there are objections to this or that technique, they can’t tell when the writer is doing it deliberately and for very good story-related reasons (i.e., the “beginner mistake” is neither a mistake nor used in the way an actual beginner would use it).

Somewhat less often, the problem is that the reader’s tastes and expectations have changed, but the writer’s work hasn’t. Some readers start by wanting a particular type of book – often plot- and adventure-heavy – and slowly develop a taste for more complexity or variety. They don’t lose their taste for the first thing they loved; they still want the plot (or style, or characters), but they want it and something. Plot and characters and poetry. If the writer’s work doesn’t develop at the same pace, or in the same direction, the reader perceives it as their writing “going down hill,” when it’s really a change in what the particular reader wants.

Other times, the problem is that the writer has grown and developed, but the reader still wants the same type of story the writer was producing twenty to fifty years ago. Some writers are perfectly happy writing the same story over and over; others get bored and want a change. In extreme cases, you find writers who spend fifteen or twenty years mastering the crime story and then start writing fantasy or Romances or Westerns for a new challenge. (I know a couple of these writers; quite often, they end up using a pseudonym for their new genre to keep their old readers from being severely disappointed and/or to keep from frightening off new readers who don’t like whatever genre they started in.)

Those possibilities cover a lot of the bases, but they don’t deal with the case in which the writer’s work really has gone downhill. There are often external reasons for this (usually related to various medical problems that create stress and eat time and brain cells), but absent those, the real problem is usually that the writer has either gotten overcommitted or lazy.

Overcommitted means the writer is trying to write three or four books in the time it would usually take him/her to write one or two. A writer facing this kind of time crunch has to take shortcuts. Often, they’re shortcuts that he/she would normally take in a rough draft and then fix up in the rewrite (when you are barreling along on a tough scene, it’s often a lot easier to write “he said condescendingly,” “she answered snippily,” “he responded threateningly,” and so on than it is to figure out the thoughts or stage business or dialog rephrasing that would let the reader “hear” the tone without needing all the adverbs). When one is under a time crunch, one can easily forget to go back and do the fix. It’s even easier to leave out the parts of the story (plot, in-depth characterization, smoothing the style) that the particular writer struggles with. Struggling takes time they don’t have.

The lazy writer does all of the above, but without the excuse of having a time crunch. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell the difference from the writing itself; one has to be nosy enough to go hunting for news and/or gossip about Mr./Ms. Pro to find out whether they’re undergoing chemotherapy, have six deadlines coming up in the next three months, or seem to be doing just fine (and even this can be an illusion; some people don’t like their private worries and medical status spread all over the Internet).

Personally, I prefer to give writers the benefit of the doubt. After all, it’s more pleasant to think that my own tastes have grown and matured than that my favorite writer has gone downhill.

5 Comments
  1. There’s one pattern that I’ve learned to regard as a big warning sign: the Late Sequel. The writer produced one, or two, or three books in the world of X, perhaps a few years apart; then there’s a decade or more’s gap, and suddenly there’s “the new X book”. That book is very rarely any good.

    As well as the reasons you mention, the writer may be under pressure from the publisher (or their own bank statements) to produce something that’ll sell to all the old fans rather than what they actually feel like writing. Or they may have lost the inventiveness that allowed them to make the world of X fascinating in the first place and so can’t come up with a new world, but reckon they can still tell interesting stories in the old one.

    Sadly, one must also admit that when writers get rich and famous they get the power to override more of their editors’ suggestions, and some of them really shouldn’t; I can think of at least one fantasy series that gets substantially more bloated and illiterate as it goes along, because the publisher didn’t dare risk their biggest earner going elsewhere.

    • Interestingly, this has not been my experience at all – I particularly enjoyed Diane Duane’s more recent sequels to So You Want to Be a Wizard, and there was a looooong time when new ones weren’t being published.

      The only part that felt weird to me was that the kids suddenly had cellphones – she had picked up where she left off, but the new present was very technologically different from the present that was left behind. However, I’m sure this made it much easier for new readers (the target audience had likely not even been born when the first one was published) to relate to the books.

      I can’t think of any more examples of a series that was dropped and picked up many years later, actually. But then, I also don’t think I’ve ever had the experience of thinking that an author’s work is deteriorating.

  2. Shouldn’t you be able to tell the difference between an actual and perceived change very easily, though? Just look at the old books you liked. If there’s an author I love, and I’m meh on the early books, will happily reread the mid-career books, and am much less interested in rereading the recent books… it doesn’t say a thing about whether the recent books are actually worse or just less to my taste, but it does suggest that whatever has changed is in the books, not in me – otherwise I wouldn’t be voraciously rereading the ones I remembered liking.

    (Of course, I could be enjoying rereading them because of my memories of liking them the first time around? But I’ve reread enough books that made me go “Gah! Why did I like this?”* to think I’m not too terribly inclined to that.)

    * Also, of course, the ones that made me go “Huh? Why didn’t I like this? This is great!” Sometimes it goes the other way around.

  3. Oh yes, even a couple years between a series and a late sequel, especially if the writer has gone off and written other things can be a bad sign. Bujold has pulled it off, although I thought the last Vorkosiverse book read like a farewell to the series, so I was surprised to see another one coming.
    But I’ve read others that… well, to quote my fan-fic reading teen, read like bad fanfiction written by someone who didn’t understand the original.

    I’ve certainly had the author is developing/changing away from my tastes happen. I try to be clear when discussing why I stop reading one whether it is something like that, vs really IMO going downhill.

  4. On the late sequel, but in a non-SF/F instance there was a very long gap in Donald Westlake’s Parker series, and then he restarted it with _Comeback_ (nudge nudge) it it had all the qualities that had made it good before, plus improvements as his general writing skills had improved, in my view. It went on for quite a few more books, pretty much until his death, and stayed popular and IMO of good quality. So it doesn’t _always_ follow that a delayed sequel indicates a poor result.

    A rather different case is Roger Zelazny’s “Dilvish” series. There was a large gap after the first few stories, and then he resumed it and completed it with _The Changing Land_. The tone and style had changed somewhat, and some fans may have thought this a loss, but IMO the writing and plotting continued of high quality, although the difference was there.

    On the other hand, the late works of Keith Laumer are a textbook example of the “medical issues” kind of “has gone down hill” in my view. I could cite details if asked, but compare “Night of the Trolls” with its expansion into _The Stars Must Wait_ and you will see what I mean.

    -DES

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