Earlier this year, Work Friend talked me into attending her book club in a desperate attempt to get me away from a computer screen for a few minutes and around people other than the software engineers I'm otherwise almost completely surrounded by. The experience has been fun, but not quite what I was expecting, due to the eclectic nature of the group; the last book club I was in was composed entirely of English-majoring college students, whereas this book club represents quite a large spectrum of "casual" and "serious" readers (here defined purely by "number of books read for pleasure per year", and no other connotation implied).
The eclectic nature of the participants leads to some delightful and entertaining conversations, but it does mean that we end up with a very eclectic reading list, some of which is composed of genres that I'm almost guaranteed not to like, but I've tried to keep an open mind. This month, for instance, we read The Long Fall by Walter Mosley - but it would be more truthful for me to say that the others read The Long Fall by Walter Mosley, whereas I barely managed to get through nine chapters before rage quitting because the mere idea that I might spend more of my time on this book made me seriously question what I was doing with my life.
And the thing is, by detective-novel-noir standards, "The Long Fall" probably isn't a terribly bad read. The main character, Leonid, is a middle-aged detective with a long history of being willing to take any dirty job and frame up whomever was necessary in order to pay the bills and make ends meet, but by the time we meet him in his shiny new novel, he's determined to turn over a new leaf and be a slightly better person. Not, you know, by giving up the fruits of his labor like his illegally-gained high-rise office. And not by putting himself in any danger of police investigation by coming forward to clear the names of the innocent people he's framed. And not even really by bothering to drop an anonymous note and maybe some exonerating evidence in the mail so that the police can do the hard work of clearing those innocent people for him. No, no, by "turning over a new leaf", he means that from here on out, he won't frame anyone unless they really deserve it. Or if he really has to in order to make ends meet. But not for kicks and giggles.
This is apparently what they call "gritty realism", but which I call "irritating authorial masturbation".
Perhaps it's unfair of me, but I can't help but dislike the heavy-handedness with which the reader seems absolutely ordered to like and trust Leonid. It's not that I have a problem with unlikable main characters - in fact, I think a good, solid, unlikable or unreliable narrator is a true joy to read - but I have an incredibly large bucket of problems with an unlikable character that we're supposed to like - or at least which all the other characters inexplicably love. Women - incredibly beautiful, accomplished, sexy women - fling themselves at Leonid at every possible opportunity, despite the fact that he barely gives them the time of day and he's incessantly rude and emotionally unavailable. Leonid's "children" (most of whom are not his biological children, since he has a habit of sleeping at his office and rarely coming home, so his wife tomcats around looking for love and for her lost youth, and Leonid will remind you once per chapter how So Very Tragic it is that he has to put up with that) absolutely adore him despite the fact that they rarely see him and when he does manage to drag himself home, he barely speaks more than a few sentences to his teenagers. (Everyone knows teenagers idolize fathers who are never there and won't speak to them when they are!) Even the manager of his gym - "one of New York's unsung master trainers" - absolutely fawns over him, telling him that he should have been a boxer, that he would have been great, that with his indisputable raw talent and iron jaw he "coulda cleaned the clock of every light heavy in 1989". Puh-leaze.
As a reader, it's tiresome to keep having new characters drop in - sexy, exciting, interesting, accomplished characters - solely for the purpose of talking up how incredibly awesome our main character is - especially when the main character is a schlumpy middle-aged detective whose mental narrative is a constant stream of whining and self-congratulatory moping and who can only make ends meet as a bottom-feeding detective. Wishing no disrespect to Mr. Mosley, having Jesus Christ and the Buddha pop up in text to gush over your character isn't going to make him automatically awesome. Period.
Or... maybe not. What was interesting to me was that I was actually the only one in my book club to hate Leonid as viscerally as I did - everyone else thought he was an interesting, if fallible, character. They were all terribly nice about it, but everything I didn't like - his aura that instantly caused all women, regardless of established personality, to fling themselves sexually at him; his frequent habit of stereotyping people immediately upon meeting them and then instantly being correct because he's a detective and that apparently makes him a psychic; his wall-banging disconnect between his "repentant" thoughts and his actual actions - they didn't really mind. It's not that they didn't see it, but that they didn't dislike it. (As I said, it's an interesting group with a lot of good discussions.)
One thing stood out at me, though: When I mentioned how frustrated I was with Leonid's unwillingness to revisit and resolve his past frame-up cases, one of the club members pointed out that surely the author was going to do that in another book. Indeed, this became the answer to many, many unresolved plot threads. Why was his relationship with his wife brought up over and over again but never dealt with in any meaningful way? That'll be in another book. Why were fifty or sixty characters introduced in this novel, half of which were never actually used? That'll be in another book. What was up with that one extremely pivotal life event that was mentioned once and then never again? That'll be in another book.
Without irony, several times in the book club meeting, someone would say, Did you notice how X was mentioned but never really went anywhere? I'm betting that will show up in a later book! This was usually said with excitement for what was to come - whereas all I felt was annoyance that it hadn't been dealt with properly in the current book.
Now, I've known for years and years that I don't much like long novel series, but I've never really been able to say why I don't like them. I like Galenorn's Sisters of the Moon (9 books and counting), and I'm a huge fan of Mercedes Lackey, whose Valdemar novels are basically a long series of trilogies. And even as a child, I loved Piers Anthony's Xanth novels, a series of something like 30+ novels (with only the first 17 or so being particularly good to my admittedly pun-hating mind). So it would seem that when I say "I don't like series", I actually mean, "I don't like some series" - and yet I've not before been able to put my finger on precisely why that is.
And yet, it was at this moment that I remembered some of the fan comments that bugged me most on my review of Jim Butcher's Storm Front (as well as the accompanying TV Trope page, although it's been cleaned up quite a bit recently) was the concept that you really couldn't and shouldn't criticize a series until it had completely ended, because any criticism you dealt with might be fixed in a later book. Didn't like the ridiculous and insulting Tsundere characterization of Murphy such that she frequently alternates between trusting Harry completely one moment and cuffing him over ridiculously circumstantial evidence the next? Don't you realize that is dealt with in Book 13 when Butcher finally reveals why Murphy is characterized that way? Didn't like the confusing and whiplash -causing "have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too" world building where the citizens of Chicago blatantly see magic happening in front of them and just 'forget' that it exists five minutes later? Can't you see that is a build-up to Book 47 when the Somebody Else's Problem field will be revealed? Felt like the lesbian-drug-addicted-vampire-prostitute scene added nothing whatsoever to advance the plot and was just a lame attempt at titillation? If you don't realize that's laying the foundation for Book 137, then there's no help for you.
And, you know, maybe these are valid points. Who am I to say how a series should unfold? Maybe it is perfectly valid writing to set up what I personally consider to be insultingly stereotyped characters, unrealistic relationships, and scenes that don't advance or compel the plot in order to have something to talk about in later books. And maybe it's not valid for me to come along behind the author carping about realism and characterization and conservation of detail when I'm basically criticizing a house builder for putting up a frame and a foundation when what I really want is four walls and a roof. But all I know is that I don't like it.
You take a series like Xanth or Sisters of the Moon - neither of which, I freely admit, is highbrow literature - and you won't see that level of delayed gratification within the narrative: almost nothing is introduced in the first book to be hastily dropped until six or seven books later. Each book in the series is almost a stand-alone book that builds off of the characters and situations established in the overall world in general and the previous book in particular. Xanth starts off with the adventures of Bink, before moving to follow his son Dor, then Dor's friend Smash, then Dor's daughter Ivy, and so forth - the series is multi-generational and while each new book generally sets the frame for the next book, they don't set a frame for a book eight or nine books later. In the same vein, Sisters of the Moon introduces a lot of concepts and characters early on who will become important later in the series, but they are introduced in a conservative fashion - if a character doesn't have a point in the existing book, they won't be brought up. Period.
I'll admit that a lot of this "it comes up later" edifying sounds to me like a cover-up for poor writing and sloppy world-building in the early novels before a series really takes off. I suppose it's possible that back when Jim Butcher was a struggling no-name author he deliberately introduced Harry Dresden as a raging misogynist in Book 1 on the off-chance that the series might get picked up and the character could overcome his open disdain for women in a planned Book 19, but it seems more likely to me that Harry was written in a misogynist fashion because Butcher was going for a "traditional" gritty detective noir feel and just plain didn't realize that to modern audiences his female characters would come off as insultingly characterized and his male main character needed some solid diversity training if he was going to be kept on the police force as a regular consultant. To my jaded mind, any later major growth in the character seems more like fixing what had been pointed out as broken rather than some grand chessmaster plan all along.
But even if something like "Harry is a misogynist" was a secret grand chessmaster plan all along, should that shield a series from criticism? I think not! I have hundreds of new books on my shelves just waiting to be read, and perhaps some of those books won't expect me to swallow hatred and intolerance until the author finally decides that his character can officially grow up in a Kirsten Learns A Lesson installation. I don't want to stick with a deliberately homophobic character just so that eighteen books down the line he can learn about tolerance from Tim-from-down-the-hall-who-always-dresses-so-nice-and-holds-the-door-open-when-Harry-brings-home-groceries. I don't want to stay for the long haul with a racist character so that twenty-seven books later he can learn the sad truth about white privilege. I don't want to wade through a series with an openly misogynist character in the hopes that he and his oh-isn't-it-cute-when-she-beats-him-up adorable "strong woman" sidekick can hopefully pull themselves out of the fifties and gain some actual depth and characterization.
To me, personally, authors don't get a pass just because they've announced an intention to milk a series for as long as they possibly can. If an author can't write a good first book to grab a my attention, they (and their fans) can't demand that I withhold judgment and continue to buy and read the series for as long as it's churned out on the off chance that the author might get around to fixing things... someday... if I'm patient and wait quietly. If Harry is going to openly declare that "Women are better at hating than men. They can focus it better, let it go better. Hell, witches are just plain MEANER than wizards," and not get called on it, heck not even reflect on it later when he turns out to be wrong, then I get to call him out for being someone I don't care to read more about, and the fact that he comes around in Book 19 doesn't matter because I am not going to wait around that long to find out.
And yet... and yet... some people do. Wait around to find out, I mean. And that's okay too - I'm not in the business of judging readers and why they read what they do. But I do find it interesting that I can read a book and be so infuriated by dangling plot threads and incomplete characterization and scenes that fail to advance either the plot or the world building narrative, and yet a completely different person can read the same book and see those same things and be excited at all the opportunities available to write more books and tidy it all up. (And presumably when everything from the first book is finally tidied up, the series will end, so the messier the first book, the better!)
So, honestly, I'm curious: Where do you, as a reader, fall on that spectrum? Do you like the "tangled thread" method of series-building where a messy first book fills you with anticipation at all the fun tidying to be done in the future, or do you prefer an orderly progression where details and characters are largely conserved until actually needed?