Monday, October 24, 2016

Writer, Know Thy Reader

I wouldn't exactly call myself a "fan" of Emily Giffin. (As a heterosexual middle-aged man, I am far, far outside her target market.) But I do have a healthy respect for her work. A few years ago, out of curiosity to see what all the fuss was about, I read her first published novel, Something Borrowed. (If you ask me about reading this book in front of the guys at the gym, I will resolutely deny even knowing of the book’s existence; but I’m admitting this for you folks on the Internet.)

Something Borrowed is a fairly typical chick lit/romance lit novel in terms of the basic premise. A young woman discovers that she's in love with her best friend's fiancé. Hijinks ensue.

As noted above, I’m not the target market for this sort of fare, and this is not the type of fiction I usually read for pleasure. Not only was I not supposed to have read Something Borrowed, I was also supposed to have hated it. 

Nevertheless, I have to admit that Something Borrowed is a pretty good book, in terms of compelling the reader to turn the pages. Emily Giffin is a good writer, even if she doesn't write books with me in mind. 

I have looked at the plot summaries of Emily Giffin's other published novels. Her books are, indeed, romance novels at their core. (Most romance novels ask one of two questions: a.) Which alpha male will the female protagonist choose? Or b.) which woman will the alpha male choose?)

Miss Giffin has a large fan base, and she sells truckloads of books. She is one of the big players in her field. And if she was even able to please me, she is clearly good at what she does. 

But about two years ago Emily Giffin published a novel that her fans didn't like—at least based on the Amazon reader reviews. Why not?

It turns out that the plot of The One & Only involves a young woman having a romantic relationship with a much older man. The older man had also been something of a father figure to her during her youth (though he was not her biological father, I should emphatically note). Moreover, the novel is set in the South, and seems to involve a lot about football.

This was a big departure from the Emily Giffin formula in a number of ways. Almost all of her novels feature highly educated female protagonists who work in law, public relations, or other boutique professions. They usually live in a large city on the East Coast, like New York or Boston.

But the most significant departure inThe One & Only was the central romantic relationship. 

Emily Giffin's male protagonists are idealized, romance lit hunks. They are uniformly tall, dashing, and well educated. They are either surgeons or high-profile attorneys. And they go for women who are their peers, both in terms of age and education.

Looking at the reader/reviewer comments on Amazon, it was readily apparent that Emily Giffin's readers didn't like the cross-generational relationship in The One & Only. Many of her readers didn't seem to get past the premise itself, calling it "creepy" and whatnot.

Greg Iles could have gotten away with the central relationship premise in The One & Only. (He has explored similar territory before.) Clive Cussler or Stephen Hunter fans would have had no problems with it. (The romantic relationship is always secondary to the plots of these authors' books, anyway.)

But Emily Giffin’s fans have come to expect "age-appropriate" relationships between highly educated young women of the Brahmin class, and handsome, youngish alpha males. They don't want to read about a young woman hooking up with a man old enough to be her father…regardless of whether he is her father or not!

We could, of course, have a long, spirited debate about whether or not relationships between adults of vastly different ages are inherently "creepy" or exploitive. (That is one of those debates that always draws strong partisans on both sides.) But let’s not. None of that really matters as far as Emily Giffin's readers are concerned. Her secret sauce involves a certain type of relationship. This is what her readers have come to expect—and The One & Only didn't deliver it.

Readers like variety—but within certain parameters. Clive Cussler fans don't want to read coming-of-age romance stories. Jonathan Franzen's fans would have a cow if his next novel included a car chase or a shootout. Michael Connelly's readers expect his villains to be very human criminals, not ghosts or vampires. 

At one time or another, almost every writer feels the yearning to branch out, to go "outside the box". 

Experimentation and innovation are important in fiction. The writer who never branches out becomes the writer who endlessly repeats himself—writing the same story again and again.

But established reader expectations are important, too. The writer who fails to keep in mind the expectations of his or her reader base will likely suffer reader revolt, whether or not the book is objectively “good”. 

Don’t give them werewolves, in other words, if they’re expecting Islamic terrorists. Don’t go overboard on the romance if your previous books have been packed with gun battles. 

And if your readers have come to expect a youngish romantic male lead, don’t suddenly give them a father figure instead. 

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