I was recently on a John Dickson Carr kick, seeking a break from literary fiction in favour of something lighter and more plot-based. Traditional detective fiction is a genre I have the highest respect for, as coming up with a really original mystery plot and setting without resorting to gimmickry or deux es machina isn’t easy. Over the course of ten days I read nine of his novels, and while some were truly clever, others fell as flat as week-old soda. And by the end of the ninth book – which happened to be the most poorly written of the lot – I’d had about as much of locked-room mysteries as I could stand for a while.
If I view it objectively, this is actually fairly normal. Literally no writer can produce equally good work every time, except for one-hit wonders, and they’re not who this post is about. I do tend to feel disappointed if I come across a below-par book by someone I really like, but it usually isn’t enough to completely turn me off the writer. Still, it can cut to the quick at times. Almost like a personal betrayal. You’ve counted on the writer to keep delivering, and they have, until suddenly they don’t. And it can be hard to know how to respond.
There are different reasons why a book from a favourite writer might disappoint you. Maybe the book itself isn’t that good, which is perfectly possible. I’d have never thought the same author could come up with something as dazzling as Lolita and as, well, not dazzling as Laughter In The Dark, but last time I checked the name on both of the covers was Vladimir Nabokov, so there you have it. Or maybe it’s less to do with the quality of the writing and more to do with your personal preferences. Maybe the book deals with a theme that’s uninteresting or emotionally triggering for you. Maybe the antagonist reminds you of someone in real life whom you dislike. Maybe you read a similar book just last week that happened to be written better. Whatever the case, it wasn’t your best ready experience.
Of course, your opinion of the book as a reader is yours alone. You either enjoy it or you don’t. But as a writer, I think there’s an important lesson to be taken away from this. Two lessons, actually.
First – that writing stellar content is hard. You think the writer isn’t aware that some of their books are far less competent than the others? Believe me, the writer is the first to know. They’re conscious of it right from the moment they lay down their pen to the time when the book is on the stands and the poor reviews are rolling in. And the sad part is, maybe they didn’t have a choice. Maybe they were under some lethal deadline and had to churn out a draft by hook or by crook. Maybe they were going through something in their personal lives that made it difficult for them to write as usual. Writing well is as much about mental health and circumstances as it is about ability. And even if the writer doesn’t personally feel like their book isn’t the best, they’re well aware that what some people will love, others will hate. And they’ll have to deal with feedback of both kinds. Which, honestly, requires some serious steeling of the mind.
Which brings me to the other lesson – you should take this as a sobering reminder of your own career as a writer, in that not everything you write will be equally good. Someday, you’ll be the one with a hard deadline or a fallow period or some other circumstance that forces you to push out a less-than-ideal manuscript. Someday you’ll be the one crippled with doubt about what people are going to say about your books. Because the truth is, no two people can have the same reaction to a book, because no two people went through the same combination of circumstances that led them to that book. You’ll never know whether one person felt like your book was their salvation means that someone else won’t feel like it ruined their life. And that can be scary, knowing that your brain child, the book you worked so hard on for so long and have finally released into the world, can evoke so many different responses in your readers, and not all good ones.
So before you diss the author of the disappointing book and vow to never read them again, consider – perhaps – having some empathy. Reminding yourself that everyone can’t have hits all the time. And that your individual opinion, while sacred, is one of a million others out there that the author has to contend with, and that that can be intimidating. And that you’ll have to see the other side of it someday.
As for the book itself? It’s perfectly fine to set it aside if you truly aren’t feeling it. Everyone has a finite amount of time, and it makes sense that you’d rather spend yours on books you’ll actually enjoy. And if you do decide to read it out of loyalty to the author? Go ahead. Evaluate it on its own merits, as you would any other book, but don’t let that necessarily colour your perception of the writer’s abilities. The writer is your favourite because they’ve given you reasons – more than one – to be thrilled. Them having written a disappointing book doesn’t change the fact that they’ve written those amazing ones too. Or maybe you can give the book a fairer chance – come back to it after a while, view it with a fresh perspective. You might find you enjoy it after all. It’s what I did with the tenth John Dickson Carr book I read – came back to it after reading other stuff in between, stuff that had nothing to do with locked room mysteries. And by the time I came back, I was ready to be thrilled again. And I was.
What does a disappointing book by a favourite author make you feel? Do you read it anyway, defer it for later or give it a hard pass? The comment section is all yours.