When Your Favourite Authors Jump the Shark

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If you’re not familiar with the reference, “jumping the shark” is what Fonzie did in a latter episode of Happy Days – and it was the point at which people started thinking the show had gone on a few episodes too long. After all, he is water skiing in the scene in which he jumps the shark. Yes, that’s almost unbelievably right. He literally jumps a shark while water skiing!

Now I would never suggest that anyone should ever stop writing – how would we ever get better if we stopped? – but there seem to be a number of uber successful writers who have reached a point where their writing, which was once “must read” to me, is now a bit ho hum. In fact, I have stopped reading some of my once favourite writers altogether.

Matthew Reilly
Matthew Reilly is the poster boy for all writers working towards their first published novel. After receiving more rejections that most of us could handle, he self-published his first book, Contest.

And then he took the next step that most of us wouldn’t have the courage to take. He went down to Angus & Robertson’s flagship Pitt Street store in Sydney and asked if they would put his book on their shelves. They agreed.

In an unbelievable stroke of luck that couldn’t have happened were it not for Matthew’s initiative, an editor at Pan Macmillan was perusing the competition in that Angus & Robertson store and came across Contest. She called the number listed in the front of the book, Matthew’s parent’s phone number, and the rest is history.

I’ve read and loved all of Matthew’s earlier works – Ice Station, Temple, Scarecrow, Area 7, Seven Ancient Wonders, Six Sacred Stones, Five Greatest Warriors.

I struggled with Hover Car Racer, which isn’t surprising because I’m hardly the intended demographic (Matthew has frequently said he writes books that he hopes can get boys reading again).

And then came The Tournament. A historical murder mystery featuring Queen Elizabeth and chess. And later The Great Zoo of China with fire-breathing dragons. Now I can’t pass judgement on either of these books because I haven’t read them. But that was the problem. Matthew had deviated away from his original genre of current day action adventure. And if there are two things I don’t enjoy as a reader, they are historical fiction and fantasy.

And as simply as that, the expectations that used to make me the first person in line to buy his new books were gone. And now I don’t read his work at all anymore.

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It’s perhaps a cautionary tale for writers as well as readers. Changing the genre you write in can disillusion readers who specifically read you because of what you’ve done before. And equally, buying a book simply because it’s written by an author you’ve enjoyed previously doesn’t guarantee your reading experience.

Patricia Cornwell
Patricia Cornwell is perhaps a strange one for me in that I never actually liked any of her characters (with the exception of Virginia West’s cat) but I couldn’t stop reading her books regardless.

I’ve always been unable to empathise with Kay Scarpetta. I respected her. I admired her. But she’s just a little bit too cold for me to actually like her. Virginia West and Win Garano, the other main characters in different book series, were pretty much forgettable. Nonetheless, I have entire shelves dedicated to Patricia Cornwell’s books.

I’m not sure when exactly my passion cooled but I think it was right around the time Benton Wesley re-emerged in Blow Fly after having faked his death several books before. We, as readers, didn’t know Kay Scarpetta’s on again, off again lover and eventual husband wasn’t really dead. And his comeback struck a false note like a concert pianist who just can’t find the right key and move on to finish the piece of music in the way it’s meant to be finished.

All the books after this felt like one too many. I understand why Patricia Cornwell has continued to write the Kay Scarpetta books – none of her other attempts to write different series have really been the successes she hoped for. I continued to buy and read her books up until a couple of years ago but my heart wasn’t really in it anymore.

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Surely writers have a responsibility, both to their readers and to their own legacies, to recognise when a character has reached its expiry date? Apart from the Bruce Willis problem (how does the same shit keep happening to the same guy?), the surprising absence of psychological impact from being exposed to that many murders and being the victim of that many murder attempts makes the ongoing storylines unbelievable.

Jeffrey Archer
Jeffrey Archer was, is and always will be my favourite author. I read his best novels and collections of short stories during my formative reading and writing years and was intrigued by his own personal story, being cheated out of a significant sum of money and turning it into his very first novel (Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less).

Shall We Tell The President?, Kane and Abel, The Prodigal Daughter, A Matter of Honour, First Among Equals, Honour Amongst Thieves, Twelve Red Herrings, The Fourth Estate – so many terrific books.

The first moment that something changed for me was when he went to jail. Nothing to do with his writing at all. Yes, it’s a key component of being a writer to be able to make things up but finding out it extends way beyond what’s being presented on the page was disillusioning.

Think James Frey and A Million Little Pieces. Think Belle Gibson and The Whole Pantry. Think Helen Demidenko and The Hand That Signed The Paper. Readers don’t mind being lied to – that’s what fiction is at the most basic level after all – but readers don’t like being deceived.

I persisted because, like I said, Jeffrey Archer will always be my favourite author. But as far as I was concerned, he wasn’t reaching the same heights he previously had. It wasn’t until the Harry Clifton series, though, that my mind was made up. I read the first one. I bought the second one. But I never read it. And I haven’t bought another Jeffrey Archer book since.

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Another cautionary tale for writers perhaps? You may think your writing can be separated from your other activities, both personal and professional, but your readers may disagree. You can be one of those writers who protects your privacy at all costs and keeps out of the limelight and realistically expects your private and working lives to remain separate – a pseudonym can help with this. But if you’re one of those writers who lets the world in, you can’t be angry if when you do something morally or ethically questionable, judgements are passed and it affects your readership.

So these are my once favourite authors who have outlived their welcome. Are there any writers you once loved that you have left by the wayside?

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2 thoughts on “When Your Favourite Authors Jump the Shark

  1. Haven’t read the Great Zoo of China yet but do have it. Did read The Tournament. If I can use a strange analogy it was like Metallica’s Load Album. Not a bad album by itself but not really Metallica. Tournament is like that. Surprisingly interesting and easy read and totally different from everything else he had done. not so much jumping the shark but trying something new. I think it is better than his number book (seven ancient wonders etc) which were ok but lacked his normal depth and character generation. It is a kind of Name of the Rose light. Reece

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    • Reading and favourite writers are very subjective, right down to whether or not their latest books are as good as earlier works or indeed any good at all. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading Matthew Reilly – go Aussie authors! – it was more a personal statement from me about how my reading habits seem to be changing. That might be because my previously favourite writers aren’t as good as they used to be but it might just as easily be that I’m the one changing. In any event, the important thing is to continue reading. 🙂

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