Monday, March 9, 2015

Author Accountability

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. 


  1. I haven't seen a single episode of How I Met Your Mother, but I have indeed read the books you highlighted, so I have a solid understanding of what you were trying to say here. That said, I also feel that writers should have the freedom to follow their artistic vision, but should at the same time be mindful of their audience, or more aptly, genre conventions.

    In the case of Allegiant, I felt the problem with the ending wasn't the fact that Tris died, but more to do with the manner in which she was killed off. The whole thing felt shoehorned in at the last minute for effect or shock value, rather than a logical progression of events. I know from reading Veronica Roth's blog that that wasn't the case, but I still feel it could have been executed better.

  2. I don't know what the answer is. I just know it upsets me greatly when a book or movie I enjoy for the most part ends poorly. And I prefer happy endings to tragic ones. There is more than enough tragedy in life.
    Life & Faith in Caneyhead

  3. I threw a big party for the last episode of Seinfeld. Even my son and his college friends came. I think we were all disappointed with the show's last episode. OTOH, I was very thrilled with the end of The Mentalist a few weeks ago. And I admit I was concerned the writers would mess things up. You just never know what is in an author's mind.

  4. I agree with Denise - I was so disappointed with the ending of Seinfeld.
    That is a tough question. Does the author compromise for the sake of the readers? I know if I am watching a movie or reading a book and the ending is unsatisfying, I'm disappointed. (Doesn't have to be happy, just satisfying.) So I'd probably lean more to yes, remain flexible and keep the fans in mind.

  5. I hate the HIMYM writers for what they did; that ending was awful! I like to pretend the last episode doesn't exist, so it just ends on Barney and Robin's wedding day (and they live happily ever after, dammit!)
    With Allegiant, however, I liked the ending. I think it suited Tris as a character, and anything else wouldn't have been believable. I liked that Roth chose the different route, rather than going with the standard happy ending.
    I was also distressed by J. K. Rowling saying that Ron and Hermione shouldn't have ended up together - the whole series leads up to it! I'm glad she went with what she wanted, too.

  6. First, I’d like to start off by acknowledging the brilliance of your friend Andy. Also, I’d like to point out how truly lucky you are to be friends with somebody that has such a good head on their shoulders.
    As to the point about HIMYM, I think there are two ways to go about writing a story. You can either have a story to tell, or you can have characters. If you have characters, then you just have to be true to the characters and see where the story takes you. If you are telling a story, it’s the writer’s responsibility to have a story worth telling. If you have a story worth telling, I think you have to have enough conviction to tell that story regardless of what you think the audience wants. With HIMYM, the story (despite the name) was never really about how Ted met his wife, it was about how he got over the tragic death of his wife by rekindling an old romance. To me, it makes sense that Ted would use his long drawn out story as a way of getting approval from his kids to date Robin. On top of that, I think that as much as he was trying to get approval from his kids, he was trying to convince himself that it was ok to move on from his wife. That’s why so few of the stories involved the wife, and so many of them involved Robin.
    With the whole kerfuffle about Ron and Hermione, I think that it was because she had been spending so much time on the set of the movies. Book Hermione and Book Ron are perfect for each other, but Movie Hermione and Movie Ron don’t have the same chemistry. I think Rupert Grint has mentioned in interviews that he views Emma Watson as more of a sister, and that chemistry shows in the films. Add in the fact that Hermione was practically turned into a mary sue in the movies, and it makes sense that some people feel like she was a better match for Harry Potter.

    1. I would agree with your HIMYM thesis...up until the point when Barney starts to fall for Robin and Ted, after initial hesitance, becomes supportive of their relationship. After that point, I felt the story stopped being one of Ted's love for Robin and shifted into a story about Ted/The Mother and Barney/Robin. To have Barney and Robin's marriage last half an episode AND to kill the mother off after we came to really love her character felt a disservice to the characters and the progression of the show (and showed, in my opinion, the writer's lack of appreciation for real development of the characters in favor of their original "surprise" ending concept).

      And yes. My friend Andy is a pretty smart guy. For the most part.

  7. Writers can't please everyone. Sometimes the relationships seemed forced in movies and shows because they can't explore the depths that a series of novels does. It's one of the reasons why the books are always better. I never watched HIMYM because I never watch sitcoms but I heard lots of opinions on it.
    I think you hit Roth's situation just right. YA readers don't want reality. If they did, they wouldn't read about teenagers saving the world because that's really never going to happen.

  8. We have such huge expectations for an ending that when it finally happens it is usually a downer. I am with you on Harry Potter and glad JK Rowling has her book end the way it does. She shouldn't second guess herself. I never watched How i Met Your Mother but now I have to find out what happened at the end. I did see the end of Seinfeld and it was weak. I loved the ending of "Lost" because it ended on a positive note

    1. Agreed. JK should NEVER second guess herself when it comes to Harry Potter!

  9. I have to stick with my artistic vision. As seen in my own reviews, they can be quite diverse, meaning to can't please everyone. As in HIMYM...same thing. The audience vote was split.

    My writing is my vision, or rather the character's vision. I have no clue what audiences want. I just hope I hit the mark with my followers...:)

  10. I've often thought I'm glad I don't have that kind of pressure, with thousands of fans expecting certain things. I'm a quiet writer with a small and quiet audience and it's so much more freeing than having an entire world waiting on you with their expectations.

  11. A good post, but I wish I'd listened to the spoiler warning. :)

  12. I think it comes down to what should happen and what we want to happen. If we are spoon fed the happy nice and tidy ending then the story often ends up amounting to a bit of fluff that makes us feel good, but doesn't necessary stick with us. Sometimes it's better in the long run to get a dose of the spinach and fiber because it makes us healthier and stronger. When the story ends as it should, which is not always happy or even conclusive, we tend to think about it more. We might not be happy about the ending and we might even be angry, but almost always we'll remember those stories longer than the sweet and nice ending stories.

    We usually read fiction to escape real life, but if the fiction is overly unreal then we are being mentally coddled and that doesn't help us grow in any intellectual way and we might as well watch a cartoon.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

  13. I'm solidly behind a good dose of realism. I seldom read YA fantasy, but I don't discount it. I just prefer to stay within the realm of what could happen given the characters and the situation. Any book that creates life-like characters well and sets them on a journey, has to have an ending that comes from those givens. If it doesn't then it's not satisfying for the reader. Tidy endings are sweet. They simply ca't always happen in life or in stories.