Friday, September 9, 2011

Expectations

I was reading some online reviews and discussion of a group of books by a certain author. (I'd read and liked one of this author's books, and was trying to decide which one to read next.) An ongoing theme in the discussion gave me pause. Essentially, this person's readers loved the writer's early work, but seemed to feel that success had spoiled the later work. The author's new, more privileged position in life (which had occurred, ironically, as the result of the success of the early books) was now harder for the readers to relate to.

It's a common problem for artists whose work succeeds in a big way. If your early work is about living with roaches and collapsing ceilings and scraping together quarters to buy some ravioli at the corner grocery, plenty of people can relate. But if you become so popular that your art not only supports you but enables you to upgrade your lifestyle, is your audience still going to care when your new problems are which butler to hire and how much caviar to spread on your morning toast?

We should all have such problems, I can just hear the writers in my audience saying. Success, fame and fortune? Bring it on!

I was already thinking about issues of art and fame because I recently rewatched the movie Stardust Memories, which is about all the glop that accumulates around a successful artist. Stardust Memories makes fame look like a constant hassle, and the main character's art (film, in this case) is getting buried beneath a mountain of corporate baloney, criticism (especially from those who want to pigeonhole him, who want his new films to be just like his previous films), and personal problems. And somehow Stardust Memories manages to carry this off without making the main character repellent. Every time he slides into self-indulgence, one of the other characters delivers a snappy, often funny line that lifts the scene. Sometimes the main character even accomplishes this himself, as when he imagines a space alien telling him, in the voice of all his critics, that if he really wants to make a difference in the world, he should stop with all the gloomy pondering about mortality and "'Tell funnier jokes.'"

I doubt I'll ever have the problem of overwhelming fame to deal with myself, but all artists eventually have to deal with the expectations of their audiences, with the ongoing viability of their work in the marketplace. They have to decide whether they want to continue to tell the same kind of story that brought them attention initially, or to take the risk of trying new genres and subject matters and attitudes. Artists also change: the person who writes the fifth book is not the same as the person who wrote the first book.

In Stardust Memories, the redeeming spark in the center of all the pressure and nonsense is the art itself, the very human attempt to capture the fleeting wonder that is at the center of the crazy miracle we call life. Sometimes it's struggle and setback, but then there are those moments: a wet kiss of forgiveness, or a perfect Sunday morning with a loved one.

3 comments:

  1. I see this a lot in romance (and YA.) I think there are a lot of varying aspects that can potentially impact a writer's work. Some general ones that I think are commonly seen:

    Similar story. Even the best writers can end up having a story pattern. It's not a bad thing necessarily, but they have to be careful that the storyline they like to tell doesn't become a carbon copy each time they do it.

    Sickness/personal troubles. I know recently author Linda Howard admitted her past books haven't lived up to her originals due in part to an ongoing sickness she's had for years. It and her medication change up her brain, and she thinks that might be why her books are different (and I commend her for recognizing that they have shifted - most authors that famous rarely do.)

    High on fame/lack of quality. I see this in big names, too. I feel like people get high on a success (especially if it's really big) and don't always realize that success doesn't mean you've peaked. Writers should always be aiming for the best product, and I've seen ones that feel stagnant to me because of how much approval they're getting from fans with their base talent levels...when they could be making things even better.

    Change. Sometimes, authors just grow and change. I know many people that love an author's early work but hate the later work. I think people get a mind for what the author is trying to say, but, like with many relationships, the reader can grow away from the author. It's natural. Some authors switch genres (Catherine Coulter and Julie Garwood going from historical romance to romantic suspense, for instance) and thus switch voices to some extent, and others just change. I think the progression is more subtle in genre fiction because of the fact that authors write for fun and do it on a tighter schedule. People see that with literary authors, too, which is why I think fans find the difference between a stellar sophomore or debut novel and the writer's junior/senior work. A few years can make a big difference in voice if the author can't pin one down, and voice makes a big impact on how the readership responds to their story.

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  2. Thanks for such a thoughtful analysis, John. I agree.

    I also think sometimes a writer develops new interests and wants to write about them, and his/her original audience may not want to follow. In that case, the writer is not better or worse, just writing about different topics.

    I've also had the happy experience of seeing writers grow and get better with succeeding novels--I think we all hope we'll be that kind of writer!

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