Aug 28 2007
The Novel of Formation
The novel of the same title by Charles Dickens is a bildungsroman, a novel of formation following a protagonist from childhood to maturity. In some cases, it might loosely be described as a coming of age story although it generally follows a protagonist from childhood to some significant period beyond adulthood.
A genre readers’ bildungsroman is the formation of their expectations through reading similarly situated books. At a smaller level, the formation of expectations can be reduced and assigned to an author or a series of books.
Series Books Foster Expectations
Reader expectation is fostered by series books. When an author writes single titles that are loosely connected, there is no continual emotional investment in the characters, but rather the author’s work. Overtime, the author can either build a relationship with a reader for quality work, uneven work, or bad work, depending on the reader’s response.
With a series where the main characters re-appear from book to book to book, the readers become emotionally attached to the characters more than the authors’ work. Readers become so involved in the characters that they almost become real to those readers. I’ve read of readers discussing everything about Roarke and Eve from JD Robb’s In Death series will from when and if they will have a child to what type of underwear Roarke wears. [He seems like a boxer or boxer/brief type of guy to me]
The author and publisher behind the series want you, the reader, to become emotionally attached. It is this emotional attachment that makes you yearn to read the next book the minute you finish the book at hand. It is this emotional attachment that leads you to attempt to convince other people to create the same relationship that you have with the characters from these books.
Conflicted Ownership of Characters
Readers lose sight as to who owns these characters. To some extent, the emotional attachment fosters a belief that it is the readers who own these characters when it truth, of course, it is the author. But the author’s ownership of these characters do not come unencumbered. Without the reader, those characters would cease to exist such as when series books are canceled because of lack of reader interest. Jane Rubino’s wonderful cozy mysteries never gained traction and I’ve not been treated to another Cat Fortunati Austen and Lt. Victor Cardenas book after the Raise the Dead. Former Luna authors, Gail Dayton and Laura Resnick had their series canceled to the chagrin of fans. (Both have found new life with other Juno and Daw, respectively).
In Karin Slaughter’s most recent book, she takes the readers’ expectations and their emotional connection to the characters and violently shrugs them aside. In a letter to her readers, she explains that the ending of Beyond Reach was a writerly challenge for her. I think she feared her books becoming static, like Evanovich.
She is not the only one to do this. Charlaine Harris and Patricia Cornwell both moved their characters across the chessboard of life to a place where they were checkmated. Harris abandoned her Roe Teagarden series and Cornwell had to engage in a Bobby Ewing-esque revival of one of her characters.
The aforementioned books are not in the romance genre, but the mystery genre. It is not a genre where happy and rosy endings are expected but ironically enough, there were loud outcries of unhappiness from the genre readers when their expectations went unmet. A review of amazon readers include comments such as “Shocked and Dismayed” “Never Again”, “Literary ‘Bait and Switch’” and author “slaughters her own book“.
It was interesting to me to see how many readers stated that not only was Beyond Reach their last Slaughter book, but that they regretted the time spent with Slaughter’s series in the first place. This was how I felt as well. On this blog and on Keishon’s blog where she reviewed Beyond Reach, the comments still roll in on Slaughter’s most recent book.
It is important to note that I am not advocating that authors make accommodations to meet expectations of readers. I think part of the reason that Evanovich has failed for me is because she tries too hard to meet the needs of all readers, Ranger and Morelli fans alike.
What I am saying is that when an author builds her career on the readers’ expectations, on the fostering of emotional attachment to a couple of protagonists; when the bestseller status and large advances come off the dollars of spent by readers in love with the characters, don’t be disappointed, unhappy, or surprised when those readers act as town crier to spread their distaste far and wide.
For me, I follow the “fool me once” axim. If an author breaks my expectations so thoroughly to the extent that I know she will play fast and loose with my emotional attachments to her characters, I would be foolish to follow her again and subject myself to further unhappiness. I gave up on Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series when I saw what was happening with one of the love interests for Sookie. I knew that I would become attached to this character and my feelings would be dashed so I cut myself off. I might be missing something but I think, in the end, I’ll be better off.