Tuesday, December 11, 2007

When series go ... er, not as good as they used to be

I've asked how authors build up a series character over time, how series change over time, and how authors keep interest alive in a long-running series.

Now it's time for the hard questions. What makes a series go bad, or at least lose its luster? For me, Bill James' great Harpur & Iles novels lost something once Panicking Ralph Ember made it to the top and the manic Desmond Iles lost his chief target with the departure of Chief Constable Mark Lane. Have you had similar experiences with long-running series?

Or does the fault lie with the reader? Does the intensity of reading many books in a short time bring on impatience and fatigue? A reader commented on one of my earlier posts that she had bought almost the entire run of one series at the same time and read the novels one after another. "These books are quite good," she wrote, "but if you read them as I did, the formula is obvious." (italics mine)

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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28 Comments:

Blogger Linkmeister said...

There's an entire thread devoted to this at LibraryThing.

Robert Parker's Spenser was the first one mentioned. Patricia Cornwell, Elizabeth Peters (for her Amelia Peabody books), and PD James also got low marks. So did Lillian Jackson Braun.

My own choice in that thread was Alistair MacLean. His novels got increasingly bad as he got older and possibly drunker (or so I've read). They weren't series books, though.

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

I think it would be virtually impossible to maintain the same standard throughout a long running series. There are bound to be troughs and peaks.
Cornwell just dropped off a precipice when she lost the plot, both metaphorically and literally.

I am a little bit disappointed so far in the latest Donna Leon that I am reading it just seems a bit low key, and lacking any new interesting characters.

I must follow that thread and see if I agree although I quite enjoyed the last PD James I read. Dalgleish has never interested me in the same way as Peter Robinson's Alan Banks, Colin Dexter's Morse or the early Wexford books from Ruth Rendell, but I don't think the standard has dropped. Dlagleish is just not as interesting a character in my opinion.

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks, Linkmeister. That was an interesting discussion. I wonder if there's a common denominator to why series diminish. Bill James apparently felt that two motifs that had kept the series going had run their course, and he hasn't come up with anything to replace them. The most recent in the series, Girls, has some strong, fresh material, but nothing yet like the aspirations of Panicking Ralph or Iles' baiting of Chief Constable Lane.

I wonder if the writers you named prolong characters or motifs beyond their useful life or, if like James, they do the opposite, and innovate, only with uncertain success.

Or maybe, as with Alistair MacLean, there are other explanations.

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Uriah: One has to feel a certain sympathy for the author of a long-running series. How does one keep enough of what made the series a success while changing just enough to avoid going stale?

How long had it been since you read your previous Donna Leon novel?

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I forgot to mention that we may now share another interest. I bought a multi-CD set of Sibelius' seven symphonies today.

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Sibelius at the Finlandia Hall, Helsinki in a Scandinavian winter one of the highlights of my life!
I hope it snows in Philly for you, Sibelius sounds better with snow on the ground outside.

My last Donna Leon was read in March and now I think that had slipped slightly. But as I have not finished the book and am reviewing for Eurocrime I had better not give my verdict yet.

Enjoy the Sibelius.

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Sibelius' Sixth and Second Symphonies sound fine in warmer weather, too. (Those are the two I know. I haven't listed to the new record yet. At least until I get over this cold, I'd prefer my Sibelius on unexpectedly warm winter days, actually. Thanks for the kind Sibelius wishes, whatever the weather.)

I asked when you'd most recently read Donna Leon because I wondered if you might be suffering from series fatigue.

December 11, 2007  
Anonymous Katherine Howell said...

What I find interesting is that some recent authors have moved to using ensembles of characters, and changing the central point of view with each successive book. Michael Robotham, for example. It works well for me, but I'd be interested to know of any readers who'd prefer to stick with the same character?

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Adrian said...

Interesting post, Peter. I'm also interested - from both a personal and a professional perspective - in how writers maintain a series and why they so often deteriorate. Maybe one key is that they need a shock to shake them off the conveyor belt: I've just been reading the latest James Lee Burke, and have found it his best for a long while - maybe Katrina provided the shock for him.

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

That's a fine and thought-provoking answer, Katherine. Karin Fossum does something similar, not quite shifting point of view from book to book, but emphasizing her principal investigator, Sejer, far less than do most crime novelists. That can give her books a true ensemble feel.

One supposes such a tactic affords an author lots of latitude for experimenting. Simple math would seem to dictate that decreasing the focus on one character increases the space, time and creativity a writer can devote to variety. Indeed, the two of her novels that I've read, He Who Fears the Wolf and The Devil Holds the Candle, are differ more in narrative style than any two other books I can remember from the same series.

As for readers preferring the same character, I like to think readers are prepared to be surprised. As it happens, one of the sparks for this comment was a reader's complaint that she had read many of Lindsey Davis' Marcus Didius Falco books and found the slow progress of Falco's like from book to book maddening. Very shortly thereafter, I had a travelling companion who loved the books precisely for their progress through the protagonist's life. Both these women are discerning, intelligent and energetic readers, as far as I can tell. Heaven help the author who tries to please everybody!

December 11, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Adrian, I hadn't thought of the shock possibility. This is obviously an open-ended discussion, and perhaps the answers are different for each author. Katherine Howell offered an interesting suggestion for how some authors keep their series interesting (I suspect the writers do this at least as much to keep themselves interested as for readers.)

As far as series that flag, I offered the example of Bill James, whose superb and long-running series lagged a bit when he dropped two key plot elements. Donald Westlake is another case. A weaker book in his two best series is usually weaker because the ever-experimenting Westlake tried something bold that didn't quite work. All credit to him for trying, though. It's one of the things that makes him great.

And I hope your series runs long enough that you have the chance to grow tired of it!

December 12, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Peter, I am sure you will enjoy the Sibelius 4th and 5th as well.

No Donna Leon series fatigue but just a feeling we have entered a comfort zone and the novel lacks a cutting edge.

December 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I was attracted by a guidebook's description of the Fourth's departure from tradition, so I've been paying special attention to that symphony. Actually, the author says Sibelius got radical after his Second, so there's lots to keep my ears open for. I've quite enjoyed the Fourth so far.

Maybe Donna Leon will do something radical soon to shake the series up, like have Brunetti become a vegetarian.

December 12, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

Brunetti and Montalbano opening a vegan restaurant would be really radical!

December 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Montalbano coming home to find his housekeeper has prepared him a nice dish of bean sprouts.

December 12, 2007  
Anonymous LauraR said...

Olen Steinhauer also changes the protagonist for each of his novels, following a different member of the crime squad each time. He pulls it off extremely well.

I rather liked the most recent Donna Leon - quite nicely offbeat I felt. I also enjoyed the most recent P.D. James (apart from the "romantic" subplot) which felt a bit unrealistic, a bit of a token attempt.

December 12, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Thanks. Young Mr. Steinhauer seems to have a lot going for him: historical sweep, interesting settings and now, you tell me, an interesting narrative strategy for his series. But he might be in a somewhat different position. Didn't he write a sequence of, I think, five books, now complete? (What would one call such a set? A pentalogy?) That would spare him the task of maintaining interest in a series of open-ended length.

I think a series author must a) Avoid tinkering too radically with a successful formula, and b) Avoid repeating too closely a successful formula.

December 12, 2007  
Blogger Maxine said...

Long thread! I haven't read all of it, but in answer to your original question, James Patterson's Alex Cross series, good at first: now he's franchised, the books are travesties. (but sell, amazingly).
Also Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware -- first few really excellent, then disappointingly veered off into formula.
Some series keep going for years, just as good. Norman here refers to Wexford (Rendell) who amazingly has been churning out high-standard books for over 20 years. Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" (Kinsey Millhone) series is another -- she is up to T and although some are better than others, the overall standard is high. Stephen White's Alan Gregory series is very good, I think.
I just reviewed a book for Euro Crime by Sally Spencer, it was the 16th in a series but the first I had read. I thought it was jolly good, so there's another one that seems to have kept up its standards, if no. 16 is any indication.

December 13, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

A long thread is a good thread, though I like the struggling little short threads, too.

The great variety of answers seems to prove one thing: that the subject is a sure-fire conversation starter. My bedtime reading last night was Rex Stout. He managed to keep a good formula going for a good long time.

December 13, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

The Donna Leon is different and has a good kick in the tail. I am enjoying it more as I get closer to the finish.
Rith Rendell started her Wexfords in 1964, while Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe went from 1934 to an amazing1975.
Other long running series with their starting dates come from PD James [Adam Dalgleish] 1962, Reginald Hill [Dalziel and Pascoe]1970, Colin Dexter [Morse]1975.
But I think even Rex Stout would have to take second place to Georges Simenon and his 87 Maigret novels.

December 14, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Crime readers today tend to regard Simenon as some strange creature, or at least a product of a different age, and hence not to think of him in discussions like these.

Edgar Wallace, some of the more prolific pulpsters and a few of Conan Doyle's early rivals turned out prodigious numbers of words, but I don't think any wrote as much about one character as Simenon did. Many, I suspect, kept writing the same stories with different names for essentially the same characters, though.

Erle Stanley Gardner, of Perry Mason fame, was also astoundingly productive. He might make an interesting case study. I recently read one of his stories in The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps. It's an excellent, suspenseful, well crafted piece of work, but its climax makes it very easy to believe that Gardner worked hastily.

December 14, 2007  
Anonymous Michael Walters said...

Just one small addendum to this long thread. I'm a little surprised that no-one's mentioned Ed McBain. He arguably pioneered the ensemble approach in the 87th precinct series, and, although the quality inevitably varied, he sustained it extraordinarily well for the best part of 50 years. I recently heard a suggestion that McBain/Hunter had been a little forgotten since his death - I hope not.

December 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

I had Ed McBain in mind, and I can't think of anyone who used the ensemble approach earlier or as extensively. I can think of a few reasons I might not have mentioned him:

1) I've read just two of the books (one of them indifferent, the other superb).

2) For what it's worth, which may not be much, I get the impression that, rather than varying protagonists from book to book among a cast of investigators, he used the same ensemble cast from book to book.

December 15, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ed McBain has not been forgotten, by the way, at least not by his fellow crime writers.

December 15, 2007  
Blogger Maxine said...

I was very excited a few years ago when the whole Ed McBain oeuvre was reprinted from book 1 - I bought the first two, read the first, but was not impressed enough to read the second. I am sure I shall get around to it one day, a post-retirement project!

Maj Sjowell and Per Wahloo's Martin Beck series (10 books) is another classic example. I've read two so far and loved them. Maybe someone already mentioned them - sorry if so -- I didn't go back to read the whole thread again before writing this comment.

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Maxine, I'd have thought you more likely to buy and read the entire series at once.

Perhaps the series was slow finding its stride, and the first book was not the best place to start. I mentioned that I've read two from the large, long-running series. Of these, Nocturne was stunningly good.

No one has mentioned Sjowall and Wahloo yet, but even if they had, there's no rule against mentioning a series more than once. Once you've read seven or eight of the books, report back on what keeps the series fresh.

December 16, 2007  
Blogger Maxine said...

I only bought the first two of the McBains because I think the publisher re-released them in bits. S and W, yes, I bought the first 8 in one go, and have recently bought the last 2 which have just been released over here.
Got a lot of catching up to do over the Christmas holiday!

December 18, 2007  
Blogger Peter said...

Ah, sounds as if your holiday will be pleasant if you'll have that much time to read.

I should try a permutation of this question: Why do series flag for readers who read the series out of order? Reader fatigue, or something else?

December 18, 2007  

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