November 22, 2013

Bait-and-Switch Books

        This post is an odd sort of book review, because it’s about three series of which I’ve read only one.  These books represent one series each for me, my son P, and my daughter T, and they’re each a series that we loved… until we didn’t.
        I’ll start with my own series, because it’s the easiest to deal with.  The Hitchhiker’s Guide “Trilogy” by Douglas Adams is one of my favorites.  Particularly in high school and college I read it many times, shared it with friends, knew it practically by heart, and quoted it constantly.  By way of making this more of a review I’ll add that, in the spirit of P.G. Wodehouse, most of the fun is the combination of ridiculous situations and brilliant turns of phrase.  The humor is often a bit dark and cynical, but always, well, humorous.  Until the fifth book, published eight years after the fourth, when suddenly everything stops being funny and concentrates on being dark, cynical, and depressing.  I dislike that book, Mostly Harmless, for a number of reasons, but my point today is two of those reasons in particular.  The first is that it renders all the previous story, which I had so much enjoyed, essentially pointless, and the second is that I consider it something of a betrayal by the author.  More on both those points later, after my other examples.  As for The Hitchhiker’s Guide, I retain my love of the series by the simple expedient of pretending that the fifth book doesn’t exist.  I’ve never reread it, it isn’t on my bookshelf, and as far as I’m concerned it was never written!  (A sixth book was recently written for the series by Eoin Colfer, but I haven’t read it.  I’m too afraid.)
        Next up is T’s contribution to this topic, The Hunger Games trilogy.  Neither dystopias nor graphically violent gladiatorial combat are up my alley at all, so I let D and T read this trilogy without me, and this “review” comes therefore from their reports.  T loved the first book and D agreed that it was very good.  T plunged into the subsequent books with zeal, read like crazy, and emerged at the end of the third much disappointed.  Now, I can’t guess what was going on in author Suzanne Collins’s head - Did she imagine the first book as a stand-alone and then find herself unable to resist her publisher’s urging to spin out its success?  Did she plan the depressing ending right from the start on the theory that darkness and dysfunctionality  are the sure sign of Serious Literature?  Did she honestly think that readers
would find that ending Right and Satisfying?  I don’t know, but I do know that both D and T found the ending very disappointing, and while T rates The Hunger Games among her favorite books,  Catching Fire and Mockingjay don’t even make the list.  Why is this a betrayal by the author?  Think about it this way - if you’re a company that has built up a huge and loyal following of customers who love your uniquely comfortable sweatpants, then reinventing yourself as a company that sells fashionably constraining evening wear instead is probably not going to please that loyal fan base.  If readers loved The Hunger Games because Katniss was strong, brave, resourceful and overcame the odds, then giving those readers a sequel in which she ends up sick, unstable, and unable to cope with her failures is nothing more than a bait-and-switch.  (It would be equally wrong for the author of a deep, heart-felt, touching tragedy to follow up with a frivolous farce in which it turned out that the first book was all a big joke.)
        Finally, P’s series, starting with Tunnels by Brian Williams and Roderick Gordon.  He loved the series, devouring all the books and then waiting extremely impatiently for the release of the final book, Terminal, which just came out at the end of October.  Well, apparently the very end of the last book (Spoiler Alert) is the surprise twist that Our Hero turns into a Bad Guy.  Psych!  P says, “The series was one of my favorites.  Every book was a ten, and then the last one was a two.  It would be even lower, except that you could kind of ignore the final chapter.”
        Yes, authors should try new things and not merely stick to a successful formula, but if they want to go a radically different direction they should start a new story with new characters, not switch horses mid-stream.  Authors and readers build a relationship through the shared story, and authors, however much they may be entitled to write whatever they please, have a responsibility to that relationship, as to any other.  You don’t win fans with one thing and then snatch it away from them to smack them with something else - especially something that’s not merely different but which makes a lie of everything that they loved in the first place.  That’s betrayal.

[Pictures: Letterpress wood type 42 (From PreserveCottage);
Letterpress metal type question marks (From ReminiscencePapers).]

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