Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Reader Expectations

What you bring to the party can often determine how much fun the party is.

Let's look at HANNIBAL RISING, which was released today.

I read RED DRAGON back in 1984, and then SILENCE OF THE LAMBS when it came out in 1988. These books blew me away, and are largely the reason I write serial killer fiction.

Harris scared the crap out of me, and Lecter was the most terrifying character every created. A soulless intellectual sadist, whose manipulations frightened because they hinted at---and eventually revealed---violence and pure evil.

Then HANNIBAL came out. I hated HANNIBAL. In fact, hate wasn't strong enough a word. It was the first book I reviewed on Amazon, and the only book I ever gave one star.

My reasons were simple: Harris had taken the ultimate boogeyman and turned him into a silly hero. By giving Lecter a backstory, and sketchy motivation for his atrocities, Harris turned a terrifying character who haunted two masterpieces into a cartoonish allegory for Epicureanism. Lecter's taste for fine things, and the reveal that he only ate rude people, was not being true to the character in the prior books.

To make matters worse, Harris wasted Clarice as a hero, made much of the book a boring travelogue, added a gratuitous body-building lesbian to the mix, and topped it off with a lidless pedophile who giggled at the thought of pigs eating Lector's feet.

Quite a fall from SOTL and RD. And quite a disappointment for me, and millions of others who wanted to see Will Graham and Clarice Starling team up to catch Lecter.

So I had zero hope for HANNIBAL RISING, but putz that I am, went out and bought it the day it was released.

And it wasn't bad.

Here's the problem I'm wrestling with. Compared to RD and SOTL, HANNIBAL RISING isn't in the same league. It's certainly not scary---I don't think it can even be called a thriller.

Compared to HANNIBAL, it's a much better book, not only the plot, but the actual writing. No cartoonish villains here. No long and boring exposition. And there is an actual plot, and no character rings false (like Barney and Clarice in the previous book.)

Looking back at my feelings about HANNIBAL, much of the reason I hated it so much was that Harris let me down. He failed to meet expectations, and then betrayed his characters. IMO, he also betrayed his readers. It seemed as if Harris had fallen in love with Lecter, and had tried to redeem his character's actions in the first two books by justifying them with unsatisfying backstory and motivation. In HANNIBAL, Harris essentially said that "The shark from Jaws was really a good guy, once you got to know him."

Had I read HANNIBAL without reading SOTL and RD, perhaps I would have admired Harris's gutsy vision of serial killer as good guy. I still don't think HANNIBAL would be a good book, but I wouldn't get angry thinking about the 11 years I spent waiting to see what happened after SOTL.

So I tried to read HANNIBAL RISING without expectations, and pretend that Lecter was a brand new character. This is a trick I also do with the last three Star Wars movies.

It worked, and on it's own terms HANNIBAL RISING is pretty good.

The plot isn't complicated. This is a simple revenge story. An eight-year-old Lecter and his family are victims of war crimes, and he grows up a sociopath and goes after those who wronged him.

The writing is clean and sharp, and often lovely. While there isn't a lot of tension in the narrative, it did hold me. The ending wasn't the catastrophe that HANNIBAL was, and the book even managed to prompt a grin or two.

If this was just a book I picked up without knowing anything about it, I would have judged it pretty good.

So that's how I'm going to rate it. Three stars, pretty good.

Will this give you the thrills and chills of Harris's early work? No. The story is pretty straight forward, and you don't relate to any character, even the abused young Hannibal, because he is is emotionless, pitiless, and not dynamic.

Will it give you more insight into the evil genius that is Hannibal Lecter? No, because I still can't reconcile the Lector of RD and SOTL with the Lector of these last two novels.

Is it awful? No. There's some good writing here, and the story moves along briskly.

HANNIBAL RISING won't rise to your expectations, if you're hoping for a return to Harris's early style. But it isn't bad.

Which makes me to the point of this blog entry. Expectations play a big part in if a reader enjoys a book. If you come in expecting to be thrilled, you might be disappointed. If you come in expecting crap, you may be pleasantly surprised.

I've gotten a few reviews for Rusty Nail, harping on the fact that Jack keeps getting chased by serial killers. How many times can one person be the target of madmen?

Good point.

But in DIRTY MARTINI, I have no serial killers, and now I'm concerned my readership is going to say, "We expected serial killers---where are the serial killers?"

As writers, I believe we owe our readers something. We have to walk a line between giving them more of what they liked, and giving them something new.

We also have to be true to our characters, because once we create a character, that character takes on a life of their own. Hannibal Lecter, or Spenser, or Kay Scarpetta, or Alex Cross, or Jack Daniels, have readers who have specific ideas of how these characters should act, and what types of stories they should be involved in.

I can't expect my readers to give me the same break I gave HANNIBAL RISING. I have to remember why they became my fans in the first place, and respect their expectations.

If you're a writer, you should do the same. Though it really hasn't hurt Thomas Harris's career much...