There are hundreds of types of fiction, but, arguably, they all boil down to three: literary, genre, and crossover. I’m forever interested in the distinctions between those three (and why those distinctions exist in the first place), but recently I had a conversation about distinctions from a completely different perspective—the reader’s.
I know, you’d think I would have understood the influence this perspective has on these distinctions a long time ago. I did, to a certain extent, but it was more along the lines of “Hey, reader, come on this journey with me! Maybe it won’t be what you expected, but I promise it’s going to be worth it!” It wasn’t until I saw, and understood my reaction to, the movie Pain & Gain that I really got that what I was saying wasn’t taking into account the power of what a reader brings to our books before they even pick them up off the shelf or download them. I’m talking about the power of expectations.
But first, Pain & Gain. I love Mark Wahlberg and pretty much trust, at this point, that the movies he’s in are going to be of a certain caliber. The trailers for Pain & Gain, at least the ones I saw, portrayed it as a comedy. I was all on fire to see it. When my husband and son went on a camping trip together, I eagerly bought my ticket and a great big box of Reese’s Pieces and claimed my seat in the exact center of the theater.
True to the trailers, when the movie began, it was very funny. But as I sat there in the dark, munching tiny peanut butter spheres, it became harder and harder to maintain my laughter. In fact, as the true awfulness of the situation became clear, I stopped laughing all together. These horrible things had really been done to a real man by the real main characters.
This was not a funny story—not at all. In fact, it was horrifying.
Fast forward to my discussion with other writers about reader expectations.
I’ve always maintained that, as long as you write a good story, your readers will come along for the ride. I’ve done my fair share of genre-twisting, running on the far side of a “rule,” playing with the tropes and definitions of our genre. And, to a certain extent, I think those are good things to do.
But the lesson I learned from Pain & Gain was this: if you tell your audience you’ve written a certain kind of story, in a certain genre, they come into it with certain expectations. And those expectations can be a good thing. They prime the pump of your audience, predisposing them to like your work.
On the other hand, if you lead them to believe your story is one thing, and it’s really something else, those same expectations are going to sink you.
For example, you can write amazing romance, absolutely knock that ball out of the park, but if your cover blurb, Amazon description, and jacket copy try to sell it as lit fic, you are going to get bad reviews. Because your story is bad? No! Because you failed to meet the readers’ expectations—they aren’t expecting romance, and won’t recognize your efforts in that genre. (And vice versa!) They’re looking for lit fic, and they’re not getting it, and they hate your book because of that.
I hated Pain & Gain because it wasn’t funny (whether or not it is a good movie at all is a different discussion). I couldn’t change my expectations half-way through and re-imagine the movie as whatever it was trying to be, because I was too busy being horrified by the subject matter, which certainly didn’t meet my expectations.
Ultimately, we can write whatever kind of book we like. We can tweak and twist the “rules” of our genre every which way (and this can be, in part, the definition of “crossover”). But it’s also our responsibility to understand the expectations of our audience. There are rules to our genres and sub-genres, and when we write, whether we like it or not, our stories are going to be judged, in part, on whether or not we met the expectations of our audience, based on those rules. Does this mean we’re locked into tropes and the like? No. But if we’re going to push the genre, we need to be clear exactly which direction we’re pushing in. We can’t just presume our readers will love the sushi we serve them when they very clearly ordered lasagna.