There's a certain series of books I've been reading for about six years now. They're terrific, usually-- exciting, touching, fascinating. The protagonist is smart and literate, and the fictional world gets better with every book. I usually hold this series up to friends as an example of its subgenre Really Done Right.
However, I read the latest book in this series last night, and it's... really not good.
Maybe the author's just had a rough season. It happens sometimes, and I know s/he's prolific, so maybe s/he just got really busy. The book felt underdone, as if not enough time had been applied to it: it needed to be rewritten and then spend a couple of months marinating in a drawer, in my not-so-humble opinion.
The thing is that until now, these books have been an auto-buy for me. I am by no means able to buy all the books I plan to read, but I do try to support my favorite authors with royalties when I can. Unfortunately, after the disappointment that this book was, I'm thinking of kicking the series off the auto-buy list.
That's why I'm wondering: when can you tell if a series has really jumped the shark?
To begin: I'm not talking about closed-ended sequences like The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire. Those are long, single stories that happen to be too large to confine to a single book. The series I'm talking about are open-ended: they go on for years, following the (generally) unrelated adventures of a single, charismatic protagonist. Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta series is one example; Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Wimsey books are another. Series like this can go on for years-- in theory, they're only limited by the author's interest and lifespan. Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake series, for example, is up to 21 books now, and the author's only 49. (None of these series, by the way, is the one I'm talking about.)
The thing is that authors change. The writer who began a popular series at the age of, say, 26 is not the writer who's still producing it at the age of 50-- or at least, s/he shouldn't be. When your life changes, should your long-running series change as well? What if your character's love interest was inspired by your spouse... and your marriage breaks up? Do you break up the fictional romance, too? Does your character suddenly discover the same kinds of flaws in his/her lover that you suddenly noticed in yours? Or do you go on writing the romance in the same way, and hope that none of your bitterness creeps through?
What if you change in more fundamental ways? What if you start out religious and become an atheist, or vice versa? What if your political beliefs do an about-face? Are you allowed to reflect that in your character? Of course. But your readers might feel betrayed, whether or not that feeling is justified. (By the way, this is why I'll probably never write a long-running series. I'm rarely the same person from year to year, much less from decade to decade.)
Packaged series-- the Sweet Valley books, the Nancy Drew mysteries, and more recently the notorious Vampire Diaries-- avoid the problem neatly: they're written to spec. If a book strays too far from the company line, then the company can demand it be rewritten. If an author won't comply, that author will quickly be out of a job. Characters in an open-ended packaged series stay more or less the same, and the authors are more or less interchangeable. I'd imagine that the big book-packaging groups lose more readers to boredom than for any other reason.
Independent writers, though-- the ones who own their own creative content-- sometimes have bad years. They can't hand over their commissions to other company employees in the event of a personal crisis-- and that means that the personal crisis often sneaks into the book. Another writer-- a longtime favorite of mine-- recently put out a couple of very strange books that caused some of her longtime fans to raise their eyebrows. It turned out that her husband had recently died, and that he'd been very ill around the time she would have been writing these two books. The next book in the series was up to her usual standard, but with a poignancy in its central romance that might not have been there before.
Longtime readers will stay with a favorite author through a bad book, or even two or three. But what do you do if a series really goes into a tailspin? I don't necessarily mean quality of writing-- though bad editing will make me leave a series sooner rather than later. I'm talking more about the main character's developments and decisions. What do you do if the protagonist of your favorite series hooks up with someone you can't stand? What if s/he breaks up with a love interest that was your main reason for sticking to the story? What if your favorite supporting character suddenly dies, or otherwise quits the scene? What if the focus of the book changes from solving murder mysteries to bonding with a new spouse? You could skip the offending books, I guess, and hope a "good" one came out later, but if it did you might not know what was going on anymore.
Open-ended series are often comfort reads: you go into them expecting a certain kind of story and a certain type of conclusion, and if these two things aren't there then you might be thrown for a loop. The protagonist in a long-running series is a fictional avatar, and if that avatar changes too much then the fans aren't likely to identify with it any longer. If your favorite series protagonist does a political heel-face-turn and becomes someone you don't agree with anymore, do you keep reading and hope s/he changes back, or do you give up and look for someone else who's more your style? '
I have to admit that I'm a bit impatient when series start to go "downhill." I've got a reading list the size of a house, and every time I pick up a book I'm doing it at the expense of six or seven others I'm equally interested in. If a series isn't doing it for me anymore... well, I hate to say it, but life is short and I have other things to do.
Still, though, I feel guilty letting go of an author I've been reading for years. The author whose book I finished last night is someone whom I've admired for a long time-- and someone whose career I aim to emulate. I know s/he doesn't know me from Eve, but I can't help feeling like I owe something to a person who's provided me with so much entertainment and inspiration. Anyone can have a bad book, after all. Maybe the next one will be better.
What do you do? If a series starts to disappoint you, how long will you keep reading before you give it up? What are the surest signs that a series is going downhill? And, on the other hand, what series have you read that have never disappointed you? Tell me about it in the comments, because I'd like to know!