The other night my husband and I were watching an old re-run episode of How I Met Your Mother, and it reminded me of a discussion my friends and I had following the show's finale. For those who didn't watch the series or it's conclusion, the CBS comedy went out with a controversial ending that split their fan base between those who found it fitting, and those who thought it was THE WORST THING EVER. (In case you couldn't guess, I'm one of the latter.)
[To be clear, this post really isn't about a TV series. It's about author accountability and what that means. And it'll be a little long-winded.]
You see, when my friend Andy and I were discussing the HIMYM final (read "discussing" as a euphemism for heatedly debating), he asked me if I thought the show's creators should be held accountable to the audience they both thrilled and pissed off. As one of the "pissed off", my immediate thought was . . . of course! Of course they should cater to my every whim. And if there are other fans that disagree with me, too bad.
But you can see how this idea of accountability is both fascinating and debatable. The assumption is that authors are held accountable to either A) their artistic vision, or B) their audience. And sometimes they simply don't agree.
Let's take a look at the Divergent novels for example. This series spent a great deal of time in the limelight last year due to the release of the first movie adaptation and the final book of the trilogy, Allegiant. [SPOILERS ahead] I'll admit that I never read Allegiant, but it would be hard to miss the uproar that followed it's release. Audiences were outraged when the series' protagonist was killed off, so much so that author Veronica Roth spoke out defending her choices.
In some ways I understand her decision. I too have become disillusioned with the YA market spitting out a surfeit of teen love stories set against post-apocalyptic or "dystopian" backgrounds. Inevitably both partners make it through war and turmoil with nary a scratch, only to be reunited with their "true love" and live happily ever after. This is neither realistic, nor original. So I can't really blame Roth for taking a more George R. R. Martin-esque approach and bumping off at least one of the lovebirds.
On the other hand, she's chosen to write for a mass market that doesn't really want reality or, some might argue, originality. They want the war and devastation, followed by the predictable happy ending. So it's not shocking that her audience took exception to her more maudlin conclusion. So the question remains, should Roth have been accountable to the audience that stuck with her through three novels, or herself?
[More SPOILERS ahead] Last February, seven years after the release of the final chapter in the Harry Potter series, J. K. Rowling made the somewhat shocking statement that she shouldn't have written Ron and Hermione ending up together; that this decision was a reflection of her own wish fulfillment rather than remaining faithful to the characters' development. I have to say, I found this statement quite distressing. Not because I don't understand a writer's desire to hold onto one of their "little darlings" as they say -- that's a struggle I am quite familiar with. But rather because I've read the novels countless times, listened to the audio books so often I wore out my discs, and I simply can't imagine a world in which Ron and Hermione didn't end up together. I could say the same of Harry and Ginny (for those who might argue a Harry/Hermione match-up). She spent seven books setting up the future depicted in the series' epilogue, and to write it otherwise would have felt incohesive. In the case of Harry Potter, I'm thankful Rowling followed through on her own wish fulfillment. I'd bet the majority of her audience, like me, shared that same wish. And hey, who's to says an author can't be considered among the audience of their own work? Write first for yourself they always say.
In this case, I'd argue that J. K. Rowling remains accountable to her audience rather than her own artistic vision (in which a more "realistic" Ron and Hermione don't wind up together). How I Met Your Mother, on the other hand, suffers in from the writers' refusal to stray from the ending they scripted back in season one. Sure, if the show had ended earlier it might have made sense. But once the audience was finally introduced to the mother character and had the chance to fall in love with her, the original ending no longer fit with the arch of the show. In other words, this is a situation in which the "author" might have been better off listening to audience opinion rather than chaining themselves to their outdated artistic vision. In my humble opinion.
So one has to wonder then what's the better choice? Artistic vision, or audience approval? It's a complicated issue, and one which lack a definitive answer. In the end I believe that authors should ultimately stay true to the work itself. Ron and Hermione end up together not because audiences prefer it that way, but because the relationship built over the seven novels leads them there. Ted and Robin should go their separate ways because after ten seasons of trial and error, they realize they still want different things and found love with other people. And as for Allegiant, well, who knows. I probably won't get around to reading that one.
As for my own work, I'll do my best to remain flexible with my artistic vision and follow the story where it leads me.