Curmudgeon’s Corner: Expectations

Written by Sanford Begley

I’m reading the second book by a new author. I won’t tell you who because it doesn’t matter. I have barely started it and am already disappointed. Not because it isn’t a good book, it is so far. And not because it isn’t as well written as the first, actually I think it is probably better written. The characters are well drawn, the action, while just beginning, crisp, and just enough info being emplaced to recall the first book without being repetitive.

star beastSo, with all those things going for it, why am I disappointed? Mostly because I am a normal human. When we find a new author, or filmmaker, or musical group our expectations are low. If the artist exceeded our expectations we love the work. We get a high off the new and exciting, the unexpected. It creates a resonance in our hearts that is difficult to equal. In most cases the artist isn’t capable of doing so. The greater the original, the worse the later work looks. I’ve read early Heinlein, I’ve read the works from his peak, and I’ve read the works on the downhill slope. His earliest work was probably decent for the field at the time, not great. His best work occurred after he had written for a number of years, arguably his worst stuff published while he was alive was during his later years.

So if you started Heinlein with his early shorts you liked him, but he wasn’t a god of writing. By the time he hit his peak he was as good as anyone in any genre. Thing is, you knew he had good and bad and stuff in between. Now I know people who say his worst was better than anyone else’s best, I don’t. Part of that is people invest emotionally in an artist and deny to themselves that their favorite is merely human.  

hard magicSo a good first act is exceptionally difficult for an artist to follow up on. Some succeed, some fail. Plenty of people make one really good work, and then never achieve that height again. Others, Larry Correia is a good example of this, start off well and do better as they continue. Monster Hunter International was a very good book, the sequels well written. His second series, Hard Magic is actually the much better work in my honest opinion. Monster Hunter happened to resonate with a desire for good guys kicking the bad guys butts and the bad guys, being monsters, were definitely bad guys. White Hats and Black Hats appeal to all of us at a base level, MHI gave that to us in spades. Hard Magic, despite the magical aspects deals with human bad guys and doesn’t hit the white hat thing so purely. The writing and storytelling is better, most people will never see that for their own emotional reactions.

The we get things like Star Wars where a feedback from the nature of the basic tale, and the fantasy/SF nature of the medium  gave us an iconic trilogy. (Disclaimer, I’m actually not a Star Wars fan so I am going at this as an observer) When they tried to recreate the magic much later with The Phantom Menace the cultural situation wasn’t the same. The movie wasn’t going to be able to have the same appeal, people felt shortchanged. That was the real reason the second/first/whatever trilogy was such a disappointment to the fans. The originals had set a high bar. I haven’t seen the latest, but I think part of the reason for its success is that expectations were far lower, people were surprised at how much better it was than its immediate predecessors.

The takeaway from this is that we really need to remember to evaluate every work both in a vacuum and in its matrix. I am swallowing my unhappiness at the work I am reading not exciting me like the first one did, and enjoying it on its own merits. It is good, my sorrow is at myself for allowing my emotional reaction to the first take away from my enjoyment of the second. I think we should all remember that comparing two things does not do justice to either, unless we first judge both on their own merits


2 responses to “Curmudgeon’s Corner: Expectations”

  1. Thomas Monaghan Avatar
    Thomas Monaghan

    Well sometimes authors don’t improve they just revert to their preferred waiting style(Scalzi).

    1. sanford Avatar

      Note I dismissed those with the phrase “Plenty of people make one really good work, and then never achieve that height again.”