Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Genre, reader expectations, and "marketing message"

As I noted in a previous post (and YouTube video), the lines between genre fiction and literary fiction are not absolute.

Genre fiction need not be peopled by forgettable, paper-thin characters. (In this regard, I mentioned Harry Bosch, the well-known and well-loved LAPD detective in Michael Connelly's crime novels.) 

There is also no law which states that a literary novel can't have a recognizable plot. (In fact, a literary novel will find a much wider audience if it actually has a recognizable plot. A dash of external conflict doesn't hurt a literary novel, either.)

Nevertheless, reader expectations must be acknowledged and satisfied

This is especially true when writing genre fiction, or a novel that might be mistaken for a piece of genre fiction.

Alan Lightman's novel Ghost is the story of a single, underemployed (but highly intelligent) 42-year-old man who embarks on a mission of self-exploration--after he sees what he believes to be the "ghost" of a recently deceased person.

Ghost is not a bad book. I read it at a time when I was, like the main character, in my early 40s. I was also underemployed and in a reflective state of mind. I was therefore able to relate to the protagonist's various musings.

That said, Ghost is a novel that seems doomed to the mid-list, and perhaps even written for the mid-list. 

The problem with Ghost is twofold. While Ghost is a thoughtful book, at times it lapses into the sort of navel-gazing that has become the chief cliché of literary fiction. 

And even though I was in many ways the ideal reader for this book, I found myself at times losing patience with the protagonist's unending introspection. At several junctures I wanted to shout, "Buck up man! Just get on with it, already!"

The bigger problem with Ghost, howeveris that the title and cover suggest that this is a work of paranormal--or even horror--fiction...and nothing could be further from the truth. 

There is only one scene in this book (the opening scene) that contains the paranormal; and even that instance of the paranormal is suggestive, so that the reader is left with a margin of doubt. Ghost is a literary, character-driven novel through and through.

Ghost received its share of five-star reviews from readers; but is it it is also clear that some readers came to the book with misaligned expectations. As a result, they didn't "get" it:

“This book had me hooked on Page ONE! But it went quickly downhill from there. Nothing else exciting ever happened. Even the main character was more and more unlikeable and boring. A big disappointment. Page One was great though! :)” 

“I kept waiting for the story to become compelling, but it just seemed to plod on and on. Not much of a "ghost" in this story, it is about a confused, pathetic middle aged man in crisis.”

These reviewers are perhaps being a little bit harsh (especially the second reviewer quoted above). Disgruntled reader reviewers, however, are seldom distinguished by their tendency to mince words.

Do I recommend Ghost? Yes, it's a worthwhile literary novel, especially for male readers over the age of 35.

But you should not read Ghost with the anticipation of the same chills you would get from a Stephen King or a Dan Simmons novel. Ghost isn't a scary book, largely because it isn't intended to be a scary book.

What we have here is not a failure of writing, but a poor choice of title and cover. To use the verbiage from one of my MBA classes, the marketing message isn't clear. From a distance, Ghost is all too easily mistaken for a paranormal novel. With different packaging, Ghost could have found more readers who would have appreciated it, and fewer readers who were  looking for something else.

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