June 18, 2007 - Issue #268

From the Desk of Laurie Likes Books:

Expectations

Not long ago I read Julia Quinn's brand new release, The Secret Diaries of Miranda Cheever. I liked the book, but when it came time for me to assess it, I was glad I no longer review at AAR. I realized after some thought that had I not known who wrote the book, my grade would have been higher; rather than a qualified recommendation, I'd have given a wholehearted endorsement. Particularly in that what bothered me about the book didn't actually hurt the narrative or reflect badly on the characters. It's just that I'd come to expect a more subtle use of romance novel conventions from the author.

Ah...expectations. They're a bitch, aren't they, and not just for the reader. After having studied readers online for more than a decade, I've come to a conclusion that high expectations are quite often book killers. If a reviewer or commentator enthusiastically writes about a book, a great number of readers will be disappointed when the book doesn't live up to its expectations. I experienced that a couple of years ago after both devoting an ATBF column to and writing a DIK review for Lucy Monroe's The Real Deal. Some readers loved it, but because I'd extolled its virtues so strongly, there was no way for the book to live up to the expectations of others. Perhaps not surprisingly, the book had the dubious distinction of being voted the Worst Read of the year. Ouch. And the ignominy lives on...a recent thread on our Reviews Forum brought up the whole thing all over again. If I'd known then what I know now, I'd never have talked so enthusiastically about the book; among AAR's readers I might have done more harm than good. Even outside of AAR's readership, the book was discussed as having incredible buzz when I think the only buzz came from me.

Let's go back to Julia Quinn, though. In our annual reader poll conducted earlier this year, On the Way to the Wedding was voted not only Most Disappointing, but Worst Read. I've theorized that part of the reason for this Worst vote is that unconsciously or not, some readers blame Quinn for the so-called "Avonization" of romance simply because it was her success that spawned so many copy-cat romances. And while I can't blame heightened reader expectations of the book on our review (it earned a C+), over the years Quinn has earned such praise from reviewers and readers alike that a "correction" was bound to occur. FWIW, On the Way to the Wedding is a RITA finalist this year.

The "Avonization" issue brings up something else - expectation by publisher. When Adele Ashworth wrote for Jove, she wrote books like My Darling Caroline and Winter Garden that still show up on readers' lists of all-time favorites. But when she moved to Avon, quite a few readers were disappointed by the changes they saw in her books. Were some of them prepared to be disappointed even before the book came out, just because of the move to Avon? After all, a substantial number of readers had already set the stage for this when Judy Cuevas became Judith Ivory and jumped from Jove to Avon. Though the latter found more commercial success after that move, many readers continue to argue that she wrote more substantial books with Jove.

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Quinn isn't the first author to suffer from heightened expectations. Several years ago Dara Joy followed up her zany and sexy High Energy with the lackluster High Intensity. I was but one of many who voted it the Most Disappointing romance for the year it was released. Indeed, it "won" in that category. But it also "won" as our readers' Worst romance of the year. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: "I've read a lot of horrendous romances. I know horrendous romances. High Intensity, was not a horrendous romance...simply a horribly disappointing one."

Then there's Suzanne Brockmann's Gone Too Far, released in 2003. It won as our reader's Best Romance of the year, but also as the Worst Romance of the year. The book, if you'll recall, not only gave readers Sam and Alyssa's long-awaited HEA, it was also the author's jump into hardcover. For many, those two factors combined for a rather angry result; some readers felt the Brockmann had purposely jumped to hardcover with this particular release because readers were captive of the romance. If they wanted to read this couple's HEA - after being a secondary couple in so many other books - they'd have to pay hardcover prices for doing so. But for others, after the romance's build-up throughout those other books, there was no way Brockmann could have satisfied such heightened expectations.

There's a significant amount of loyalty among romance readers to the authors they love to read, and readers express that by adding authors to their auto-buy list. But I think readers have more than one internal "auto-buy" level; in other words, it depends on how well readers like or love an author as to whether she's added to that list, and where she ranks on it. Think of it as a three-step ladder. Perhaps the lowest group on the ladder are those authors who never disappoint us. We don't necessarily love their books, but they always bring us a reasonable level of enjoyment. On the next rung of the ladder are those authors who have written one book that sits on our all-time keeper shelf. We know she's achieved greatness once, and look for it to possibly happen again, but realize that may never happen and probably won't. The highest rung of the ladder belongs to those authors who have thrilled us more than once. Perhaps two of their books sit on our keeper shelves, or three, or four...or more. We don't consciously believe that they will write DIK's every single time, but in our minds we've made a shift and subconsciously expect that they will, and if not a full-on keeper, then something closely approximating one.

What's most unfortunate is that the more a reader loves an author's writing, the more and more difficult it becomes for that author to live up to expectations. It's easy to see that inverse relationship with highly-hyped finales of favorite TV shows. No doubt last week's final episode of The Sopranos will be debated for months to come, but I thought the ending suited the series, even if I blurted out "WTF?!" when the screen went black. On the other hand, I was horribly disappointed by the finales for Seinfeld and Will & Grace. With both of those half-hour comedies, the one-hour clip show airing prior to the finale far exceeded my actual enjoyment of the finale. To this day when I think of the end of Seinfeld, I prefer to remember the goodbyes accompanying Green Day's Good Riddance in the clip show prior to the finale, to Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer sitting in that jail cell at the end of the actual episode. And who else was disappointed in how Will and Grace ended last year? Were these episodes really as awful as we remember, or was there just so much hype surrounding them that they were doomed to entertain as advertised?

Discovering that a favorite author is only human after all can be a tough thing to handle. I remember the first Julie Garwood I read that I didn't out-and-out love. I may have laughed harder at the funny parts that weren't really as funny as they had been in the past...and sighed after descriptions of the hero that really didn't thrill me as they should have. I dismissed the book as a fluke and waited for the next one, which was good, but not great. By the time Garwood's next book was released, I didn't even grab it to read immediately for fear of the disappointment if it wasn't up to my expectations.

Sometimes this seems like an act of self-preservation, because deep down I know the author has lost it...at least for me. But at other times, I end up angry at myself for waiting. Anne has shelves of books she kept meaning to read but was afraid wouldn't live up to her expectations. Unfortunately she found out she was missing the boat on a lot of great authors and books, including those by Julia Quinn.

Poor Julia Quinn...she's going to be my example yet again. Two of her books sit on my all-time keeper shelves, and to be honest, I might not have had an online career without her. See, after I read Splendid, I emailed her and asked her a ton of questions, so many that in order to justify her answering them, I knew I had to turn it into an interview for publication somewhere. That's how Laurie Likes Books was born, btw.

You'd think that with such enthusiasm for an author, I'd read each and every book by her. I'm actually embarrassed to say that of all my favorite authors, I've read the fewest books by Julia Quinn. I've bought them all, and when she's "on", she's amazing. When she's not quite there, I feel like I'm doing a disservice to both of us by reading her books. Which is why three years went on in-between Minx and How To Marry a Marquis and even longer went on between her delightful short story in the Scottish Brides anthology and It's In His Kiss. When I read It's in His Kiss, which earned a B+ from me, I wanted to smack myself for waiting so long!

The assessment that reader expectations can be a bitch is mine, but what do authors think? Anne Stuart, who writes with a very distinctive style and voice, says that author expectations can be as well. She writes, "I start [a book] thinking it's going to change the world and cure cancer. When I'm finished with them sometimes I have to face reality, that while I did my absolute best it just didn't reach the heights that I wanted. And sometimes they actually do, so then I have to deal with the fact that readers might not agree. (That's happened more than once - that I've written a book that's so good it makes me weep, and no one notices)." Stuart adds that for her, "Readers' expectations are less of a challenge than my own. If I know I've got it right then I can weather the fact that some readers just don't get me."

The controversy surrounding some of Stuart's books also plays a part in this expectations game. She writes of Into the Fire, one of her most controversial books (it earned a D grade here at AAR), "People either loved it or hated it, and some of the people who hated it usually love my stuff. I adored that book, nothing will change that, but I just have to roll with the punches and accept the fact that it's not for everyone). For what it's worth, my next book is so good it cures cancer."

Loretta Chase is an author so highly thought of that as far back as 1996, I heard other authors at RWA say they'd read her shopping list. Lord of Scoundrels earned top spot in our 2004 and 2000 Top 100 Romances Poll (it'll be interesting to see what happens when we re-do that poll later this year!). Mr. Impossible was the big winner in our poll for 2005 releases and Lord Perfect earned multiple awards in our poll for 2006 releases. How does she deal with reader expectations?

This is a great question. Reader expectations do affect me, and I've had to find a way to keep from letting that cripple me. Many authors already have an extremely strict Judge in our heads, criticizing every word we write. It's extremely inhibiting, and I think it gets worse - not for all of us, but for at least some - the longer we are writing.

The trouble is, writing is a solitary job. We don't get feedback from colleagues during the work day, or encouragement while we're at our computers, hunting for the right scene or the right phrase. We get through our workdays by believing in ourselves, so we need to be careful to avoid anything that undermines this belief. It takes a lot of confidence to sit all by yourself and write stuff you expect other people to pay money to read.

My solution, basically, is to pretend I have a mental volume control. As I sit down to work, I turn that Judge - and any of the reader expectations it represents - down. On good writing days, one can turn it off completely, I've noticed. The other thing I do is avoid reading reviews. I recently saw an interview with David Mamet, and he said there comes a point where you have to stop pretending you don't pay attention to reviews and really stop paying attention to them. Whether they're good or bad, they're not going to help your work, and we need to be all about the work, not what others say about it.

Well, that makes sense, yet it's impossible to avoid all reviews. Publishing professionals send the good ones to me, as do friends & family - and hey, I want that ego boost, same as anyone else. However, I've stopped going looking for them. So that's a way of keeping the noise down to a manageable level. It also reduces negativity. Human beings are programmed to remember negative things that happen because that's a survival trait. This is why the slaps and slams - fair or not, deserved or simply insane - stick with writers for years afterwards, while the kudos have the life span of a gnat. The last thing I need in my workday is a lot of negativity roiling in my head.

As to direct contact with readers - that's a different story. I'd never dream of ignoring reader emails and letters or awards and such. They often make my day - or week or month. Still, I need to compartmentalize these, too. While I'm at work, they have to be subdued or silent, like the TV, radio, and the temptations to surf the Web.

Although we didn't talk about it specifically, Chase's mention of the Web brings up a point that Teresa Medeiros made in an ATBF segment way back in 2000. Back then she wrote that "It's nearly impossible to create something beautiful and original and dangerous with thousands of people looking over your shoulder during the very act of creation. If you partake of it very often, it becomes an insidious poison that kills every original and thought-provoking idea before it has a chance to take root." She argued that too much time listening to readers causes an author to second-guess not only what reaction will be for the book just hitting the stands, but the book she's sitting down to write. She continued: "Will they find the heroine TSTL (Too Stupid to Live)? Will they brand the conflict that used to be called a plot simply a BM (Big Misunderstanding)? Will they find the hero too cruel, the heroine too sweet? Do they hate pets in books? Do they hate cutesy children? Will they misinterpret the hero's seduction of the heroine as a forced seduction or even (horrors!), a rape? Before long, you find yourself sitting paralyzed in front of the keyboard, unable to write a single word without hearing their voices in your head."

Indeed, some of the authors who have gone "missing in action" may have done so because they took too much away from interactions with readers on-line. Every once in a while, you'll come across an author who struggles with her next book because their first one generated so much buzz that they feel insecure in their ability to live up to it. And what do they do if the messages are contradictory? Some readers loved it, others want less sex, others want more. Some loved the strong heroine, others found her too wimpy. Some readers want lots of historical details, others want more romance. And of course, authors learn that they can't write a detailed wallpaper historical with a strong yet wimpy heroine that's erotic and has no sex. Sadly, some authors never get beyond that, which is one of many rumors floating around about Lisa Valdez and her so far non-existent follow-up to Passion.

Authors who write in multiple styles - or sub-genres - face a different set of problems with reader expectations than authors who always write, say, Medievals or romantic suspense. Linda Howard, who moved from series romance to single title romantic suspense, eventually branched out into romantic comedy. Did all of her readers move with her from one sub-genre to another? Were all readers happy about the move? No, which may account for why her heroine Blair Mallory, is either loved or hated by readers...there doesn't seem to be any in-between. This character, btw, won as both Best Heroine and Most Annoying Lead Character last year. In this year's poll, Blair earned honorable mention in the Heroine category and "won", once again, as Most Annoying Lead Character.

Linda Howard offers her perspective:

Interesting question about reader expectations, because it can really mess with a writer's head if he/she spends a lot of time trying to address all the preferences that are out there. Which reader do you pick to try to please? And if you try to please someone who's unhappy with your work, you risk alienating everyone who is happy. We've talked about this before; I think reader preferences (and thus, expectations) are so diverse and subjective that it's not only impossible to please everyone, but ridiculous to think you can. A lot of people absolutely hate everything I write. This doesn't mean I'm the world's most horrible writer, or that they have no taste. It means what I write isn't their cup of tea.

There's nothing personal in their dislike of what I write. Heck, they might like me personally, if they ever met me. Then again, they might not. <g>

I'm not immune to the "must please everyone" virus - but when I become aware of it, I try my best to ignore it or work around it, because the only way I can work is if I pay attention to the story, whatever that may be. Each story is different, so I fully expect each new book to have some fans and some who gag at the thought of it - and the mix of readers changes with every book. I can't write the perfect book. All I can do is try to write each story to the best of my ability - with mixed results. But I think expectations can be paralyzing to a writer, if meeting those expectations is what is uppermost in her mind instead of what she should be concentrating on, which is the story.

Because I'm an avid reader, I also look at this from the other side. When I pick up a book, all I ask is that I be entertained. I don't read critically, or analytically - at least not if I'm being entertained. If I'm not entertained, then things start bugging me. Research based on movies/television is almost always wrong, and that drives me nuts, regardless. But if I'm entertained, I can overlook a lot of flaws. I'm blessed with low expectations. Because I expect so little, I'm pleasantly surprised a lot of the time.

So please don't expect a DIK from me every time, because I can't possibly deliver. I may have been seized by a story premise that you absolutely hate. My personal life may have been in one of those bad years. Even I, with my low expectations, have ups and downs with books by my favorite authors. But if I was entertained, then I'm happy.

 

Connie Brockway transitioned last year from historical to contemporary romance because, as she writes, "after spending a certain number of years and/or pages with the same type of fantasy, it no longer seems as compelling." To be successful in writing fiction, she argues, an author must write about "the things they themselves find interesting, and provocative, and exciting". The bloom may be off the rose for an author, but for her readers, who haven't spent "85 months exploring alpha males in Regency dress", the story remains fresh. What to do? According to Brockway, the author must "find some way to reinvest herself in the storylines she's been writing, or move on".

As for her own particular experience, because Brockway's books have long varied in tone - remember the one-two punch of All Through the Night and My Dearest Enemy, released back to back? - her readers have long been flexible. Some may have prefered only her light work to her dark work, or vice versa, but because of this ability to write in different tones, she had a leg up with publishers, who already had proof of her versatility once she felt the need to move on.

Brockway writes that her transition "from historical romance to hysterical romance" was aided by her participation in the recently defunct author blog SQUAWKRADIO.COM . During the year before the release of Hot Dish, she writes, she " was introduced to new readers who were probably more likely to give my contemporary a shot after having read me in blog format." But the bottom line for Brockway is this: "I, as the author, have to be honest about how much enthusiasm I can bring to a project. That enthusiam is essential and can never be replaced by desire, no matter how sincere or how great, to entertain loyal readers."

Nora Roberts well knows about reader expectations, as well as how writing in multiple genres effects those expectations. She argues that the development of her stories and their characters "must be sacred". She agrees that "reader expectations are important" and she "certainly wants to meet them", but the question of which reader muddies the point. As a result, she argues, she "can't write with the reader and his or her expectations over my shoulder." As a result, she worries about reader expectations only in the largest sense - by creating the best story she can. She concludes: "I need to give them a good book with interesting characters, with a solid love story, suspense if I'm doing suspense, and a happy ending. How I do it, and how it's flavored, has to be up to me."

The last author I contacted about reader expectations was none other than Julia Quinn herself. Here's what she had to say about them:

I have friends who never read reviews. They don't look up their books on Amazon, and they don't ever search for their own name on the AAR bulletin boards.

I am not one of those people.

Seriously. That time you were looking up referral hits in your blogstats and you saw that someone found you by searching for “Julia Quinn”? That was me. (Once. On the off chance 52 people found you that way, please know I have nothing to do with the other 51.) I never check my rankings at Amazon, but I always look for new reviews. And yes, I lurk. I almost never post anywhere, but I lurk.

Why? Feedback. I crave it. I don’t always like it, but I crave it. I don’t think that I could have been a writer in the pre-internet age. Part of my joy in being a writer is in the reader reaction. I write to be read. The simple act of putting words on paper isn’t quite enough. For me, a book is made up of two distinct, and equally important experiences - the act of writing it, and the act of reading it. If my tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, then no, it didn’t make a sound.

But as any author will tell you, reader feedback is a blessing and a curse. Because the more feedback we receive, the more we are aware of reader expectations. And one thing I’ve noticed is that a reader’s expectations do indeed play a role in how well she enjoys a book. When When He Was Wicked came out, many people loved it, but quite a few others were irate. It was not a laugh a minute. It made them cry. It was not what they had come to expect from a Julia Quinn novel. One angry reader even wrote that it would have been a good novel...if it had been written by Lisa Kleypas.

Genre authors are constantly walking a fine line. How do we give a reader an experience that is comfortable and familiar (and enjoyable!) while making sure we don’t write the same book over and over again? Oh, and do it all in a way that nurses our own creative needs. It’s not always easy. In fact, it never is.

Over the years I’ve learned that while I need reader feedback to remain connected to what I do, in the end, it doesn’t really affect my writing process. Oh sure, I recognize that certain things are resonating with readers, and I keep that in mind when I’m developing stories. But in the end, I have to trust my gut. For every single one of my books I have received email from a reader who was disappointed. And for every single one I have also received email from a reader who thought it was my best ever. I am often asked which of my books is my favorite. It’s an impossible question. There are things about each of my books I wish I could change (even if I don’t know how I would change it.) And there are things about each of my books I’ve loved, moments in the writing process where I actually caught my breath and thought, “Yes.”

Which is why, even though I know I’m bound to disappoint someone with every offering, I keep following my own instincts and trust that I will find (and hopefully keep) my audience. With every book I try to grow and change. It might not be noticeable to the reader, but I can point to something in each novel that helped me to stretch. And when I go and read my reviews, I see that some people loved it, and some... didn’t. It just wasn’t what they expected.

 

Questions To Consider:

You've heard my perspective on reader expectations, and you've heard from several favorite authors about them. Now it's your turn. Let's start with these questions, but by no means must you stick only with them on the ATBF Forum:

Please share your experiences with books you've heard great - or horrendous - things about. Did some of these books live up to your expectations, exceed them, or fail them at some level?

What about books you've lauded or condemned...did other readers concur or disagree, and what were your reactions as a result?

Which authors have you followed into new, previously unpreferred sub-genres, which have you not decided to follow, and how did each of these decisions work out for you?

How many chances do you give auto-buy authors once they disappoint you, and what does it take to land on your auto-buy list?

What role do you think the Internet has played, is playing, and will continue to play in shaping, consciously or unconsciously, the writing of romance novels...and your enjoyment of them?

TTFN, as Tigger said to Winnie the Pooh,
Laurie Likes Books

 

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