Not sure how common this is, but it has certainly happened to me. From the way reviews go, I doubt I am alone. Here’s how it goes, using a fictitious and somewhat composite example:
Let’s imagine a writer going by the pen name of Gertruda Lynn. (Real full name Geertruida Lynn Plutz; she thought that just using her first two names would be a truly unique, edgy pen name, something never done before.) Gertruda publishes a new young adult (as in, kids) urban paranormal (as in, elfy/vampy/wolfy/dragony) series called The Trials of Countess Flatula. Inspired by Twilight, Flatula’s twist is that she has gas. This throws a gritty, original wrench into the social dynamics of subsisting on the blood of the living. Of course, when you look like a fifteen-year-old girl but are 150 years of age and have the strength of a mountain gorilla, you only somewhat have to put up with cracks about your ‘problem.’ Her saving grace is her comical self-reflection, an odd mix of drama teen and maturity: “I wish I was dead! Oh, that’s right…” In her spare time, she volunteers for the Red Cross.
Flatula is a big seller, and soon thirtysomethings are cosplaying her at cons, with healthy assistance from heavy morning meals of hummus. Flatula merchandise (including her own branded hummus and a Beano knockoff) sells. Publishers have not quite hit a Rowling gusher, but it’s a Grisham gusher. The protag finds danger, adventure, love, and embarrassment. The stories begin to push the adult part of “young adult” as Flatula begins to experiment with her inner desires. Five books in, Flatula is a commercial force that feeds upon many debit card purchases.
And then Flatula’s tropes begin to repeat. Lynn’s fetishism becomes progressively obvious and irritating. Not only do the flaws in her writing not improve, she seems to double down on them as a flipped bird to critics. Reviews drop from the 4.5* to 4* to 3.5*, and the critical reviewers wonder what happened to their beloved series. They beg the author to come back. They hint that she is acting out all of her repressed pervs. Dark hints arise about farming-out to ‘lancers. This is less fun for Gertruda Lynn.
In fact, Lynn is out of ideas and sick of Flatula, but the cash cow is still giving buckets of money and she’s chained to the oars. Plus, deep down, a part of her is even sick of writing. This is not how she envisioned it, especially the publisher stuff. She feels she has fallen down some storyline rabbit holes she cannot escape; at the time they were like quick hits of plot cocaine, but she did not think through all the story doors they would slam shut, nor those that they would wedge and weld open. Her reviewers no longer shower her with universal adoration. ‘Lancers don’t seem like such a bad idea. She would like to start a new YA series, Count Dogulus (about a vampiric elven werewolf with a miniature transgender dragon), but she’s signed on for three more Flatula novels.
And Flatula’s carrying the mail. Seven books in, the stars have settled at 3*. Forty percent of the reviews fire salvo after salvo of quippy irritation: “Can’t Flatula take some Beano?” “Someone open Lynn’s windows, and quickly.” “Gertruda, why can’t you be what you once were to me? How can such a wonderful writer put out such garbage?” They sound as if Lynn stood them up on a date. Sixty percent still gush over the newest, Prepare to be Flatulated, which definitely departs PG for an R rating. The publisher does not give two damns about the reviews, because every Flatula book is a guaranteed endcap “bestseller”–a self-fulfilling distinction, being that they buy said endcap space.
Gertruda doesn’t even have to write, and increasingly, she does not. She prepares chapter outlines and story overviews, with supporting material, and lets the publisher hire ‘lancers. It’s a good gig, and the NDA assures that the ‘lancers keep their yaps shut. Reliable ‘lancers will receive return invitations. Flakes will not. Gertruda is now mostly the editor, and this is a problem, because she’s not competent to edit. She never once in her life had to tell a single paying client what was wrong with his/her writing. No editor has ever done so for her, so she’s never seen it done. (When the publisher bought her first book, it got minimal attention. When it became a cash cow, the publisher would do nothing to interrupt the continued lactation.)
In the meantime, Gertruda cannot forbear glancing at the increasingly nasty tone of reviews. At one point, she launches an angry blog post that becomes a trope. When she gets depressed, she reflects that at least she doesn’t have to work part-time at Michael’s any more. Flatula is still giving the money milk, even though the protag has become a tragic, ethically imprisoned figure whose dimensions have deteriorated rather than expanded.
Why do people keep buying this junk? Every day, dozens of new competing novels hit print. About one in ten should have been published, but we live in the era of self-publishing, where you can define yourself as a writer and make that definition appear true. The market does not, however, solemnize that perception; what it does is ratify the value of marketing. Good, bad, or atrocious, the writers who market will sell books. The self-published writers who do not market will sell few or none.
The publisher keeps endcapping Flatula, and she is a lock for X number of copies that will gross $Y and net $Z. The reviews change nothing. Lynn can keep writing (farming out/editing) Flatula forever if she wants, because that hard core will keep buying them and writing favorable reviews. And here is what’s crazy: Some of those reviewers sound educated, discerning, even bright. Why on earth? Shouldn’t the literary ourangoutangs be the last remaining members of the fan club?
Indeed, why? I call this phenomenon “series hypnosis.” Back in the olden days, schools had driver’s education classes. (Children, this is when schools actually made efforts to prepare you for life, rather than for stupid-ass standardized tests; if you don’t believe me, ask your grandparents.) Among other subjects such as the value of the turn signal, they taught us to watch for highway hypnosis. This was the dangerous tendency to just keep staring ahead over the miles, no longer alert to potential issues: speed trap setups, brake lights, people wanting to pass, deer, semis’ blind spots, and potholes. It happens when one cruises at a consistent speed for long periods of the time, which is dull. I still watch for it, because my instructor was right about it.
In series hypnosis, we get attached to something or somethings: specific characters, plotlines, authentic writing talent, whatever. We keep reading as this develops. New characters add some interest and twistiness. The edginess factor grows as the author steps up the shock value. This lulls us into a sort of multi-book hypnosis in which we are no longer judging the series by objective standards. “If this were the first Gertruda Lynn book I read, it would also be the last,” say some of the reviewers as they begin to awaken, as 4* subside 3*ward.
It’s not that the remaining discerning readers have somehow become morons. It’s that the series has become a habit, like chew or porn. The loyal readership has suspended its critical thinking. Those hypnotized by the series will just keep buying and approving. They have series hypnosis. It’s a form of literary nose-blindness.
I’m interested. How many series have you kept reading out of habit, well past their sell-by dates, until one day the accumulated dose of awful finally drove you away?
In my case, the answer is: more than I care to admit.