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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Reader Expectation Versus Reality

The other night I was on goodreads when I saw a DNF (Did Not Finish) of Christopher Moore's BITE ME.  I was surprised, since I love the insanely wrong humor of Moore's books.  I've never met anyone who didn't like his work. Plus, the first book in the series, BLOODSUCKING FIENDS, is one of my all-time favorite reads of all time.  So I clicked on the DNF review. It immediately became apparent that the person reading the book was expecting a whole other type of book. She was put off by all the things that make a Christopher Moore novel a joy to read. It was clear she wasn't anticipating a black comedy with all the wrongness of films like Superbad.  I added a comment to her review explaining that the series is a comedy and supposed to be very tongue in cheek.  She said she might read the first one (since she started with the second) and keep that in mind. Quite honestly, I don't blame her for being WTF if she thought she was getting a vampire paranormal romance and ended up with Christopher Moore's really evil sense of humor. I would have been totally freaked out, too!

Reader expectation versus reality has been a popular discussion in my house of late. Kody Boye (my gay boyfriend, co-conspirator, and co-author on my YA novel) and I have both dealt with scathing reviews that were written by readers who definitely had a completely different idea of what our book should be about.  I've seen a lot of reviews where people were let down by their expectation of what a book should be versus the reality. And I'm not talking about bad writing, horrible plot lines, or the such. I'm talking about the disconnect between what the reader believes the book is about versus reality.

Of course, we're not the only authors who have to deal with reader ire over their viewpoint over what they expected our novels, or characters to be about versus the reality of our plot lines and characterization. 

Are covers to blame? Not only do covers brand an author, but an entire genre. Lately, there has been a bit of a blurring going on between the genres of YA, PNR and Urban Fantasy. I've faced this dilemma myself. THE TALE OF THE VAMPIRE BRIDE is gothic horror. Pure and simple. It's biggest influences are Bram Stoker's DRACULA, Sheridan LaFanu's CARMILLA, and Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE. Most of the time the book gets rave reviews, but every once in awhile someone gets very upset that the book isn't a lighthearted vampire romance.  The book's description clearly lays out what the book is about, but I'm starting to realize that people don't often read them. They just look at the cover. This is one of the reasons for the new cover change.  We went for a much more haunting gothic look this time around.

Yet it goes beyond just assumptions based on covers and the like. Writers are well aware of the fact that there are about ten (some argue three) basic plots. The trick is to make them unique with your own writing voice, characters, scenarios, etc.  Add in the basic tropes and stereotypes in specific genres, and readers begin to anticipate certain plot points to appear when reading in certain genres.

Examples from my own novels:  
  • Amaliya is the heroine of PRETTY WHEN SHE DIES.  She is the central character that all the events in the trilogy will revolve around. Since Cian is her love interest, his ex-girlfriend Samantha gets categorized almost immediately as the "villainess" even though she's a very loyal, courageous, and spunky young woman.  Samantha is in fact the secondary female protagonist in the trilogy and a vital part of the plot.
  • Since Katie is bisexual in AS THE WORLD DIES, the expectation among a few was that she would hook up with Jenni, even though Jenni's a straight woman.  I was raked over the coals more than once for having "heteronormative" relationships for the women. Yet, I saw the friendship/sisterhood of Katie and Jenni as the most important of the loving relationships in the story.
  • Vlad Dracula is Glynis's creator. He's a sociopath: charming, manipulative, self-centered, and incredibly cruel. He rapes and murders Glynis, makes her into a vampire, then enslaves her to him as one of his "brides." THE TALE OF THE VAMPIRE BRIDE is all about Glynis's struggle to escape him and get revenge on those who conspired against her and her family. I have seriously considered abandoning the series due to the emails I get from women who love Vlad and hope Glynis ends up with him. It has been pointed out to me by several people that in a lot of fiction nowadays the villain ends up the love interest. The expectation in the minds of readers is that Vlad must somehow be a potential love interest because of this common trope.
So what is an author to do?  I'll admit I worry about letting down my readership all the time. I want them to enjoy the stories I write, but I also recognize that sometimes they may not like the direction of the storyline, a character's personality,  or a plot point.  I have die hard fans that don't like certain things that I've had in my novels. I know that is inevitable.  I have struggled when I recognized that what I was about to write might upset a few people.  Yet I have to write the story that is in my mind.

I do try very hard to make certain that readers understand what each of my books is about, that I do consider myself to be a horror writer (though I know I bleed over into other genres sometimes), I do kill characters, and I'm not always very nice to them as a whole. Even with the covers of my Indie books I try to convey exactly what the reader will be getting when they crack open one of my novels.

In the end, a writer can never truly fulfill every reader's expectation.

Yet, should a reader be angry with a writer for not writing they book they anticipated when they looked at the cover? Should they write a negative review because the book they thought was a YA romance is really a horror tale?  I have faced this very conundrum myself and struggled with what I should do.

What are your thoughts?
   

10 comments:

  1. I'm always a bit annoyed with myself when I purchase a book without really reading the synopsis, and then it turns out the book is really not what I expected. But as with all 'negative' reviews, I try and point that out, and also look for the positives that someone who enjoys that particular genre/style.

    On the flip side, sometimes those kind of reviews actually help me decide that I want to read the book - someone saying 'I expected this to be a paranormal romance, but it's a hardcore horror novel!', would actually sway me that it's something I'd like.

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    1. I've actually picked up books because someone said "Oh, my god, this was a horror story, not a romance!"

      I've also had people say "I'm deducting half a star because of this, that and the other thing" which basically amounted to that I didn't write the story they way they expected it to go. I could see that actually drawing interest.

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  2. I love CMoore and his Beta males. He even managed to convince me that maybe the reason why I'm still single is because I keep trying to have relationships with these Alphas when maybe a Beta is the best fit for me.

    Wonderful post as always.

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    1. Ah..the Alpha male. The first ones to die in a disaster because they don't think before they act. Recent studies even showed that women and children have a better chance of survival than an Alpha male. I guess that means the Betas will inherit the earth. :)

      Rhiannon

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  3. This is a fantastic subject and I see this reflected in a lot of reviews! I touch on the fact in some of my reviews that (although I try VERY hard) preconceived expectations exist. I feel you should not allow those expectations to determine if the book was good/bad/so-so. Sometimes I have to take a step back and be like...well this is not expected...and that is OK. I think a recent example of this was A Blood Seduction by Pamela Palmer (now - honestly part of this in my opinion is a publisher error) it was advertised as ParRom - it was most certainly a Dark Urban Fantasy or Dark Para. The Vamp's were evil as I even say in my review that they were Dracula-esque. I rated it for the quality of the writing etc NOT based on the fact that my expectations were wrong. I saw SO many reviews that were bad on this book for that one reason - wrong expectation.
    Now - Christopher Moore is one my fav's so apparently we have the same level of humor. The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove is one of my fav's as well as Biff. Christopher Moore is just down right hilarious.

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    1. Since I'm a Hybrid author, I see both sides of the coin. With my Indie work I try very hard to convey exactly what the reader will find in the pages of my book. But a publishing house may want to skew the description to appeal to a much wider audience. I flinched when the description to THE FIRST DAYS mentioned a love triangle (there isn't one), but I understood that it may have been part of the marketing ploy to get women to read the book.

      I got slammed over and over again by one reader when FIGHTING TO SURVIVE didn't match the back cover description to a in her mind. Yet, I didn't write the back cover description. I wrote the book. Someone else at the publishing house wrote a description they felt would sell the book.

      It's very tricky ground. I, too, have picked up a book expecting one thing from the description, but getting something altogether different. It can be a bit jarring.

      And you get massive points, Annie! The Lust Lizard is one of my favs!

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  4. It happens. Despite the over quoted saying not to judge a book by it's cover people do. Including me. You've mentioned before that when you write you get a mental picture of events happening in your head and that is what you write. I say stick with that. The multiple stars you get in most reviews is a good indication you're doing something right. Please don't ditch this series because of a few reviews. Besides, do you really want to trust the judgement of people who think Vlad is the hero of this story?

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    1. I have decided to keep writing the series. I was just upset by the idea of perpetuating the recent upsurge in rape culture in books. I do not see villains as heroes, especially when they have raped and killed.

      Thanks for your kind comment!

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  5. It should not be your problem if people are too stupid too see what is the genre of the book :P By the way, The tale of the vampire bride is the best vampire series i have read so don't stop it !

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    1. No worries. I plan to continue it!

      Rhiannon

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Thanks for commenting!