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?