Genre and Expectations

This isn’t the post I intended to do today.  It was going to be about movies and what they can teach novelists about their art, but that will have to wait, because the universe is prodding me to talk about something else.  (I’ll have to crave your indulgence if it gets a bit long as I’m working this out as I go.)

First, Chuck Wendig started a conversation over at his blog about genre and whether we need it or whether it gets in the way of people telling the stories they want to tell.  Chuck being Chuck, it was expressed a bit more explosively than that, but that was part of what it was about.

I basically agree with this.  I think genre and naming it is a useful tool for marketing books but it doesn’t really have anything to do with whether a story is good or not or, and – this is the important part – whether there is an audience of readers who would like it.  But publishing is a business and most businesses like ‘sure things’, or as close to sure as can be arranged. So, in the print-only past, many genre-bending stories, which readers would have loved, struggled to find publishing homes.

The digital revolution has already, and is continuing to, change that. Publishers are more willing to take risks, people have the option of self-publishing and books can stay on the virtual shelf forever and take time to build a readership.  All of which means that we are now getting more books that don’t fit neatly into genre slots and some of them are doing very well thank you.  People like me, who don’t care what a book is classified as, as long as I love the story, are very happy about this.

BUT… not all readers are the same.  Had I responded to Chuck’s post (update: I have, now), I would have said, ‘but what about the romance readers’?  Romance readers LOVE their genre and its mores and perhaps more than any other group of genre fans, can be very protective of them.  Many romance readers do not want their genre bent or messed with, as its traditions are the very reasons they read it (and its multifarious sub-genres).

Before I go on, I need to make something very clear here.  I am not criticising or patronising romance readers.  I read romance.  If you have read this blog at all, or looked around, you will know I also write romance (among other things).  The romance community has been good to me and a smarter, kinder, nicer, more widely read bunch of people you would be hard pressed to find.  PLEASE do not think for the tiniest fraction of a second that I am joining the brainless commenters who dismiss whole groups of people as stupid or weird based on what they like to read.

What I’m saying is that some readers of particular genres LIKE the predictable aspects of their favoured genre and do not like stories that bend them.

This was brought home to me forcefully this morning when I was reading the reviews on Amazon for Eloisa James‘ latest Regency romance, The Ugly Duchess.

I bought this book at the recent Romance Writers of Australia conference.  Eloisa was one of the speakers at the conference and it is my habit to buy a copy of at least one of each speaker’s books and have them signed while there.  I hadn’t read anything else of hers although apparently lots of other people have, as she is a NYT bestseller.

I loved it.  I found the characters sympathetic, the love scenes moving and the story charming.  I especially loved Theo, the ugly duchess. I whizzed through it, hardly putting it down and enjoyed every page.

But apparently, this was not a universal experience.

Now, on the one hand, this is hardly surprising.  There is, as they say, no argument about taste.  But I must admit to being surprised by some of the criticisms.  Not because they were expressed horridly.  This was not a case of trolling.  Indeed, many of the commenters went out of their way to say how much they normally liked James’ work, but that this novel hadn’t worked for them.  And some of the criticisms, of things like pacing, are the sort of thing I would expect in a thoughtful review and although they weren’t problems for me, I could see their point.

The ones that surprised me were the objections that were rooted in genre expectations.

There were three big ones (from memory).

One was that the hero and heroine spend a significant chunk of the novel apart.  This didn’t bother me as I enjoyed the way they developed and their separation was a necessary part of that.  But at least one commenter described James’ decision to do this as violating a ‘rule’ of romance.

Another big stumbling block was that the hero slept with other people while they were apart.  I don’t want to make this a defence of the book or the characters, so I won’t go into his reasons and possible justifications, except to say that it didn’t particularly bother me in the context of the story.  But some of the reviewers found this an insuperable turn-off. I read several variations of ‘I know it happens in real life, but I turn to romance for fantasy and I don’t want to read it here’.

Another was the character of the Ugly Duchess herself.  In response to the circumstances in the novel, Theo, the heroine, becomes regimented to the point of rigidity.  Some commenters mentioned OCD and that’s not out of order.  This didn’t bother me at all.  I loved the characterisation and I found her hyper-organisation kind of endearing. But some people interpreted it very differently from me.  In itself, that is not surprising, but where I was surprised was in the underlying assumption that all romance heroines must be likeable all the time, or the story is ruined.

They shouldn’t really have surprised me.  I have come across these feelings before.  But I just don’t feel this way about genre conventions, so it did surprise me that they could be SO important to other readers.

So, with this insight into the minds of a particular group of readers of a particular genre, where does this leave me?

As a reader, grateful for the 5 star reviewers, who shared my experience of the book, so that I don’t feel like a crazy person.

As a writer who is about to release a romance novel?

On the one hand, I’m terrified.  This has shown me just how hard this room can be to work and if it is this hard for Eloisa, what is it going to be like for me?  (And yet, I know that you can’t please all the people all of the time and if I couldn’t cope with that I wouldn’t be doing this. Still….)

On the other hand, there is a part of me that wants to go out and find every convention of the genre, tear it down and rebuild it in a new image of what a romantic story can be. (I am beginning to see why the pig-headed Duchess appealed to me.)  I love a good romance, but I like ones that feel ‘real’ just as much as ones that are more fantasy-based.  In fact, if I’m being honest, I like them more.

I like characters with good hearts but I like them even more when they’re good-hearted but also stubborn and difficult and do stupid things because then they feel more like the people I know and – let’s cut to the chase here – like me.  When someone has to rise above their own failures and weaknesses to find happiness, that’s my favourite kind of story.

I should say here that I’m sure there are plenty of romances that do this and also fulfill the requirements of the die-hard romance fans.  I’ve read ones that do it.  But clearly, some fans want more fantasy in their romance than I need or even want.  And clearly, some readers are more comfortable with stories that bend the ‘rules’ than others.

Here’s the thing.  As a writer, I’m not sure where this leaves me in regard to genre.  Can you play with the conventions of a genre and still be a proponent of the genre?  Where does the line fall between playing with the conventions and being disrespectful of the devotees of the genre?  I am sure (because I’ve heard her talking about the book) that for Eloisa, this novel was very much a book of her heart and absolutely a romance.  And I and the four and five-star reviewers agree.  But some of the readers – devoted fans of both the genre and Eloisa – feel let down.

What do you think?  How much responsibility does a writer have to the expectations of readers? And does it differ by genre?  Is it right to write with those things in mind, or wrong? Is it even possible? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

22 thoughts on “Genre and Expectations

  1. In a crime novel or mystery, I want the crime solved. In a romance…I want romance… but beyond that I am open to that happening however it happens. I don’t want that “here we go again” feeling from a book regardless of genre. I love those “oh I didn’t see that coming” books! Just as I love those “Oh that’s exactly what I would have done (and regretted it ) characters”. I’m not a purist however. I read across lots of types of fiction and love them all.

    I think we come to expect certain things from our favourite authors and that’s a whole different issue…I think it’s easier sometimes for them to write something radically different than something almost, but not quite what we expect.

    • Ooh, good point, Monique (about the almost but not quite). The number of comments that said ‘I love Eloisa, but…’ would seem to bear you out. Maybe it’s because I haven’t read her others. I guess it’s a case of you can’t please all the people…

  2. This is a great post Imelda. I’m with you. I love romances that break genre expectations. The only one I want is an optimistic ending but how the story gets there, as long as it make sense and is well done, I don’t care. I wish romance writers would take more risks. Hard to do (and easy for me to say) but that’s where good fiction comes from.

    • Thank you kedumba and thanks for taking the time to comment. Lovely to ‘meet’ you. I think it can be hard for writers to take risks, and only gets more so the more established they are. I think the digital age is helping though. I know more than one writer who has self-published some stories that were too short or two different for their regular publisher and it’s great that they have that opportunity. You have to write what you feel, or you’ll dry up, but it must be tough to feel that you’ve let down a fan. I’m with you, though. Give me hope, but by all means drag me through whatever you like to get there!

  3. Wonderful post, Imelda. As a genre bender, I know the feeling of “where will this book fit in and will they forgive it and me for pushing the boundaries?” But I think you just have to write the book that it true to you and your tastes, and trust that the readers will find it. I’ve been fortunate to see mine slowly be adopted. Sure, I’ve had a few detractors — people who just didn’t “get” it. But that’s going to happen with any novel. So if you write and release what makes you happy, the readers will come. And you can count me among them. 😀

    • Thanks, honey! And right back atcha!
      Realistically, that’s where I’ve come to. The way I see it, I only have so many years to write. I have to write the stories of my heart and hope that there are people who ‘get’ me and my style. My heart bled for Eloisa, though, when I read a comment that suggested that she had ‘phoned it in’ and not put her usual amount of work in. Having heard her talk about this book, I’m SURE that’s not the case. Guess it’s a reinforcement of what they say about not reading your reviews!

  4. Do authors have a responsibility to meet reader expectations? I think Frank Zappa summed it up, about his music – I paraphrase: ‘I write what pleases me. If others are pleased, that’s good’. I think that’s true for those of us composing in words, too. That said, the reality is that anything TOO way out might not attract an audience, simply because it’s too weird to be accessible. Bottom line is that the onus is on writers to be CREATIVE – including with genre.

    • That’s what I’ve always thought, Matthew. I must admit, I don’t really understand it when people get really upset over a novel. Some work for you, some don’t, at least that’s what I’ve always felt. There are always more! But I guess I now understand that people DO get upset, and intellectually I understand why, even though I don’t get it emotionally and it gives one pause. It is a lesson, if in nothing else, in the necessity for a thick skin, if you want to be in the creative business – and/or, in not reading the reviews!

      • I guess part of it is to do with reader expectations and the anticipation of repeating the pleasure they get from particular genres they like – but that shouldn’t stifle creativity on our part as authors!

        • Disappointed anticipation is always upsetting, I guess. But you’re absolutely right. We can only write what we feel and hope that it resonates. I mean, I think if you wrote a so-called romance that didn’t have a happy ending, you’d just be asking for a lynching. That would be passive-agressive. But I think it’s impossible to predict every response, so you just have to go with Frank Zappa’s philosophy and hope for the best. Any other route is asking for madness, I think!

  5. Y’know… I have no memory of initialling the clause in my contract that says, as a writer, that I must subjugate my own development as a professional or my own interests and desires for my readers’. I think some readers forget that there is a real person behind the stories, and that person deserves as much satisfaction in their craft as they do as a reader.

    When an author of Eloisa James’ calibre wants to flex her creative fingers a little, push the envelope a little, and write the story or the character SHE wants to write then the readers who aren’t as flexible or creative minded or who don’t like the world outside of the envelope will just have to live with that.

    We cannot ONLY write the stories we usually write or we stagnate and, pretty soon, even those aren’t great any more.

    I make it my business to try and break a minimum of one ‘rule’ per book–to see if I can do it in a way that readers will still bear, to see if I can do it at all, and because I hate being told what to do (or not to do). Good stories and good characters have to be as varied and imperfect as real ones, don’t they, to strike us deep inside where we should be struck?

    I love and value the people who love and value my stories (when they do) but when they don’t I can only shrug and know that I wrote the story I wanted to.

    Great post, Imelda.

  6. This is a fantastic post. I was riveted to the end. To be what the genre wants you to be, or to be what you want to be within the genre, “genre-bending”, is an incredible life/ career question.
    You ask a few questions at the end. I hope I have time to come back at a later and answer one or two.

        • No you didn’t, did you? I didn’t mean that you did! ARGH, the difficulties of talking in print! I was impressed that you had managed to type genre three times in 5 lines WITHOUT doing it! Oh, blardy flaargen! (new nonsense word coined around her recently for when things all go horribly pear-shaped).

          • I love you! You are a riot! I’m a yo-yo because blardy flaargent is the life I’m living right now. (How does one pronounce that?) One more shooting day! 2 days of wrap then off to see Mom! Hey, now that it’s pointed out, I’m glad I didn’t make “the” mistake. At least because I’m working, I was able to send enough money home to get Mom put up in a decent place. I’m offered a CBS pilot, but all jobs are put aside until …… ♥

  7. Pingback: Changing Face of Publishing, Including Romance | Susan Sheehey

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