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Saturday, December 30, 2006

 

Series loyalty

It's a strange and powerful force.

I ran into an example of it recently when noodling about on Amazon. Last time I checked, the new Harry Potter book had fourteen customer reviews.

Fourteen.

The publication date hasn't even been announced yet. Fourteen people have weighed in, all but one of them giving it five stars. (One marked it down because s/he didn't like the title.)

Now don't get me wrong. I like the Harry Potter books. When this new one comes out, I'm going to read it, and I expect I'll enjoy it. But giving it a star rating? That's just premature.

Even allowing for the fact that we know, generally speaking, what it'll probably be like, there's bound to be some uncertainty. Who knows? Maybe JK Rowling fell off a chair and hit her head before starting this new one. Maybe she got kidnapped by an evil ghost-writer. Maybe some East London coven cast a spell that forced her to write in a completely different style. Maybe she really hit her stride and wrote above her usual standard, maybe she couldn't quite work it out and wrote below. But this hasn't put off our enthusiastic friends.

Aside from one person who claims they've just finished the book (who's either somehow made it through the biggest embargo in publishing history, got confused about which book they were reviewing, or is having some mischievous fun), they're all discussing what they think is going to happen. Which is fine, but there are forums for that. The point I can't get past is that they haven't read it. But they're giving it top marks anyway, out of loyalty to the series.

Series loyalty is a mighty force, and one of its strongest effects is to mess with your perception of a work. As per my not-slagging-individual-writers-off principle, I'm not going to be able to name names here, so just imagine examples, but ... there's a phenomenon I've noticed that goes along with series loyalty, namely, some kind of equation between the time it takes to win a reader/viewer's loyalty, and the time it takes to lose it.

I've followed some series on TV which maintained reasonably consistent quality, some which declined gradually and some which hit a terrifying precipice and went into quality freefall, becoming wrecked travesties of their former glory. But the thing is, in the latter case, it took me a while to notice. Having watched and liked earlier episodes or seasons, I was looking forward to seeing new ones, and the pleasure of having my patience rewarded, for a while, got mistaken for the pleasure of watching something good. Then, after a while, bad episode after bad episode started to raise doubts in my mind, and, re-viewing early good stuff side by side with the late bad stuff, all I could say was, 'This later stuff is terrible! Why didn't I realise?'

If something is good, it generates tremendous good will. On that good will, you can coast for a while. Some people never give up, of course, but other people will find their patience exhausted, realise that something isn't good any more and withdraw their custom, at which point a series will get pulled, because it needs an audience. But what's the proportion of good-build-up to totally-fed-up? I'm guessing about fifty-fifty, but that's purely anecdotal. I'm sure there's a sociologist out there who could set me straight.

The effect of this, however, is undeniable. People keep consuming something that, without the history there, they wouldn't actually like.

Series are popular. Among other things, they save you the effort of finding something new to like - if you liked the previous one, it's a fairly safe bet you'll be interested in the next, which means you can grab the book, pay for it and get home before the rain starts back up. Time saved, plus you don't have to suffer that lowering depression that comes from forty-five minutes spent wandering around the bookshop, reading first chapters, muttering 'Nah', and occasionally looking around and thinking, 'I'm in a bookshop! I love books! Why can't I find one I actually want?'

It can have odd effects. Sometimes I get asked whether I'm going to write a sequel to my first novel, which is reasonable enough, though it makes me feel a bit genre-stereotyped, series being commonest in science fiction and crime, while I'm kicking and scratching the whole idea of genre wherever possible. (I'm not planning on one, but I will if a good enough idea strikes me, just so you know.) What really bewilders me are the people who talk about looking forward to reading the next in the series. Um - thanks for the compliment, but I never said there'd be one. There probably won't be. It makes me feel kind of nervous, like I might have gone sleepwalking one night and promised a series without realising it. (I can have whole conversations in my sleep, so this is not impossible.*)

And why is it that it tends to be genre books that are made into series? I don't know. There's no reason why you couldn't write a series that was mainstream; I'm told Robertson Davies does it, though I haven't read his (apparently excellent) stuff. I'm hoping that it's not that 'genre' readers are more conservative, but I fear it may be a possibility; I've certainly run into people who will quibble ferociously with a fantastical notion that's not a jot stranger than stuff they'll swallow without question because it's familiar - having an issue with a new depiction of time travel, say, while accepting faster-than-light spaceships without a blink. Possibly when you're dealing with the strange, it's just easier to build on what's gone before - though considering that free invention is a lovely thing, it seems a bit of a shame. But it's that loyalty again: you can spot the physics problems of a new concept, but one that's part of a series that's won your loyalty is spared the merciless glare of your logic-beam. It doesn't get held up to the same standards.

Personally, I'm all for disloyalty, for voting with your money and giving up on stuff when it starts to decline. Unless you're reading me and I'm having an off day, of course, because that's a different matter altogether. Loyalty, people, loyalty.


*Sample:
Me (out of nowhere): 'It's brown, I don't care what you say about it.'
Bewildered listener: 'Kit, you're not making sense.'
Me (impatient with BL's foolishness): 'I am making sense, I'm just not making sense to you.'

If I can argue in my sleep, I'm probably capable of promising to write an entire decalogue. Man, that's a thought that'll keep me awake tonight.

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