Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

Great Expectations

great-expectations.jpg

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“.

Reader Regrets

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.

Jane Litte is the founder of Dear Author, a lawyer, and a lover of pencil skirts. She spends her downtime reading romances and writing about them. Her TBR pile is much larger than the one shown in the picture and not as pretty. You can reach Jane by email at jane @ dearauthor dot com

28 Comments

  1. Karen Scott
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 05:34:31

    It would be interesting to note who the majority of Slaughter’s readers are. I firmly believe that mostly women buy her books, and as women, we seem to get more emotionally invested in fictional characters than men do, and we tend to be less forgiving when we feel an author has betrayed us. Yes, I said betrayed. As melodramatic as that sounds, that’s how I feel, personally.

    Slaughter is welcomed to do what she likes with her characters, I am but a mere reader, but I’m a reader who has a choice in whether or not I follow the rest of her GC series. She’s a master at her craft, but after reading that ridiculous self-congratulatory, and smug letter, she wont be seeing another penny from me.

    Those books were dark enough, but I could cope with the darkness, as long as the two main characters were there.

    I hate it when authors forget that the main reason for their success is due to their fans, and the loyalty of those fans. Yes, she’s a great author, but in order to be hailed a great author, her sales numbers had to marry up, and without people forking over their hard-earned money, she’d be drowning in mid-list mediocrity.

    They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but it sure would be interesting to see how she does sales-wise with Skin Privileges.. erm, sorry Beyond Reach, and her next GC book, in comparison to her previous offerings.

    I’m convinced she’ll experience the Patricia Cornwell effect. Noticeable drop in sales, and reader backlash.

  2. Jennifer McKenzie
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 07:20:40

    As a reader, this is my reaction to authors as well. I DO feel I have a part in those characters since I’ve investing time and money in them. As an author, I recognize that the writer can’t take a poll when they’re writing.
    For example: I have a series that I wrote for Cobblestone and many have asked me if there will be another one. The thing is that I have no more stories that seem to be crying out to me involving that character. Do I force it? Do I “make something up” which is my job anyway?
    I don’t know if there will be anymore to that series, but I’m not going to “bang out another one” when the story isn’t there. I think it wouldn’t have the same impact.
    And believe me, it’s tempting to do it anyway.

  3. Susan G
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 07:48:28

    I have been a Karin Slaughter fan since the very first GC book. To be fair, her stories in this series have consistently been very dark and violent – to the point where I have stopped to ask myself at times, “Good G*d, what kind of person am I where I seek out this kind of thing?” My answer always came back to the fact that despite the horrors she wrote about I also found her story-telling and characterizations excellent.

    But after learning what she had decided to do with her characters I could not read “Beyond Reach”. In fact, even though it had been on my library hold list for months, the day is was available I picked it up and just immediately dumped it back in the book return. It was one of Karen’s comments above that just made me realize why I had such a negative reaction.

    Karen wrote, “Those books were dark enough, but I could cope with the darkness, as long as the two main characters were there.” This is what I don’t think Slaughter took into account – all that violence and darkness has to be balanced by some kind of goodness and light. In this series that balance was created by giving the reader Jeffrey and Sara’s relationship – the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. Take that away and these stories are just too sad and depressing for me.

  4. Ann Bruce
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 08:26:23

    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 don’t describe myself as an optimist, but the blinders stay on for at least 3 more books before I give it up. Stupidly, I hope that fan outcry would sway the author and get him/her back on track (hasn’t happened with a particular series, yet) because I’m slightly obsessive compulsive and need to have complete sets.

    These days, if I find out a book is part of a series, I’ll usually steer clear of it because I get so disappointed when something inevitably goes wrong. Please, more single titles, writers!

  5. francois
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 08:43:50

    “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.”

    Apparently it is human nature to judge things by the ending. So a bad ending to a film makes you remember the whole experience as awful. A bad last book of a series makes you feel the whole series was a waste of time.

    Evanovich passed that point for me a couple of Plum books ago. I wish she’d go back to writing standalones. Even in those the characters were recycled a lot – but it is a lot more bearable than the text equivalent of an endless holding pattern. (likewise MJ Davidson.)

  6. raspberry swyrl
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 09:27:26

    This is why I hate starting series now. I often find that ‘series authors' will drag a series on, instead of ending it off on a more satisfying high note. To keep the series going they will put the characters through drama that only serves to keep the series going but ends up destroying my love of the characters. While I do believe in character growth and overcoming hardship, I can tell the difference between the two. Plus, I have a short attention span. Very few series, with no end in sight, keep me wanting to keep reading the series over a span of many years, like Kenyon's books for example and I have never started LKH's books after reading some of those fan reviews. I do continue to like Kelly Armstrong's series even eight books in but like I said very few authors can keep my attention (and spending the money on the hardcover rather then wait for the paperback or for the library to get it) like that.

  7. Keishon
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 10:53:16

    I think Janet Evanovich writes for her fans, which isn’t always a good thing and one reason why I quit reading her books was because of her wanting to please fans of Morelli and Ranger and make it the focus of her series. Honestly, I liked them both but if one had to pick a guy for Stephanie, I would have preferred Morelli. I had to go there. Yes, I did.

    Anyway back on topic, each writer should write for herself/himself first and if it’s good, fans will follow. As for Karin Slaughter, same holds true for her, too. I just won’t be there to support her in this endeavor.

  8. CJ Lyons
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 10:55:44

    For me, unexpected character twists can be good or bad.

    They’re bad if they seem gratuitous–which frankly is the word I’d use for most of Slaughter’s books. Even though I’m a peds ER doc in my day job (or maybe because of this) I’ve found her work filled with violence, especially against women, that seems solely present not for any need of the plot or characters but to titillate and shock.

    As a reader, I don’t like to be manipulated just because a writer wants to see if they can get away with it or thinks it will increase buzz by being over the top–look at how much time this blog and others has spent on Slaughter’s work lately and you’ll see that if her only criteria are sales and buzz, then she made the right decision.

    As a writer, I think every series should have its own emotional arc. If it features one or two main characters then those characters will slowly achieve their end goal, each book serving as a stepping stone. Not necessarily that all books are plotted out ahead of time, but that eventual outcome should be in the writer’s mind as an end point, an emotional touchstone.

    Just my own two cents and what I strive for in my writing–since I won’t be published until next year, we’ll have to see if I can accomplish it or not, lol.
    CJ

  9. Bev Stephans
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 12:05:54

    In addition to romance, I read a lot of mysteries. Most of the mysteries that I read are series. I find that I enjoy them more with the same characters from one book to the next. When the characters and/or the author starts to get stale, I quit reading them. For example, Patricia Cornwell wrote Kay Scarpetta mysteries that were so good I could hardly wait for the next one. Then she changed the tense that she wrote in and also changed the character of Scarpetta. I quit reading all of her work. The same holds true of so many other authors that I once enjoyed.

    I have never read Karen Slaughter so I can’t comment on her work.

    I know that authors have to write for themselves but they also write for their fans whether or not they realize it. When an author disregards their readers, they are ringing a death knell.

  10. Sher
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 12:12:26

    I read and loved the Roe Teagarden books, and I didn’t mind a bit when a particular character died; I’d never cared for him and I wish she would write at least one more so we can find out how things turn out for Roe.

  11. Kat
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 12:32:12

    As a reader, I trust very, very few series authors. I just read a spoiler for one release I’m desperately waiting for, and now I’m trying to decide if I should wait for my friend to read it first and let me know if it’s *safe* to read. Logically, I know it should be fine, but I’m so emotionally invested in the series (and this character in particular) that I’m scared to risk it. (This is genre Romance, so in theory I shouldn’t worry, but still…) I rarely read continuing series precisely because of the uncertainty (though I would read a backlist–much less stressful).

  12. May
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 12:45:57

    Sher, the last 2 Roe Teagarden books are set after the death of that particular character. (Last Scene Alive and Poppy done to Death) I had the opposite reaction to you, and was disappointed in these 2, but if you were ok with the death, these should appeal to you.
    I agree that the way this kind of thing is written needs to be good enough to keep me reading even when I’m disappointed. Mrs Harris achieved this in my opinion.

  13. RfP
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 12:47:23

    I don’t have any opinions on the Slaughter books, but the “expectations” question is interesting. Jane, I like your approach, contrasting Slaughter and Evanovich. But I don’t think this is universally true:

    With a series where the main characters re-appear…, the readers become emotionally attached to the characters more than the authors' work.

    Good main characters are crucial to a series, but I more often quit a series due to boredom (too much conformity to expectations) than to being surprised or losing characters.

    I hate it when authors forget that the main reason for their success is due to their fans, and the loyalty of those fans. Yes, she's a great author, but in order to be hailed a great author, her sales numbers had to marry up

    I think someone is a great author not when she pleases the most people but when she writes stories that hang together and stay (close to) as gripping as the first book. Authors can get backed into corners by their own success–I still enjoy the occasional In Death book, but the newer books have less tension because Roarke and Eve’s relationship has stabilized. I wouldn’t want them to break up–that’s not in character! But it’s taken the books down a notch.

    Back on Slaughter–there can be good reasons for a twist.

    1. To keep the story from going stale for the reader.
    Jane says “the story would have been just as believable without what happened”. Maybe mystery-oriented readers would have disagreed; or Slaughter and her editors disagreed. Or maybe it really was gratuitous.

    2. To keep the story from going stale for the author.
    I can see why readers get upset, but I’d rather see an author try new challenges than coast. Whether the author starts a new series or takes a twist with an old, I usually read the next book and see where it goes.

    I’ll probably never read these books, but the author’s letter explaining her decision makes sense to me. It’s also similar to Kim Harrison’s explanations* of killing a character: “it made for a better story, and I had to hold true to that and write it that way.”
    *Her longer explanation is here: http://forum.laurellkhamilton.org/showthread.php?t=16970

    In the previous Harrison book I felt that that character had sex appeal, but held back the heroine and the overall plot. Even so, reading the death rocked me. But I’m more interested in the series knowing she’s focused on characters who can teach the heroine and stand beside her. I’d feared she was heading for Anitablakeville, where nothing bad happened and she was so powerful that her relationships were one-sided.

    I often find that ‘series authors' will drag a series on, instead of ending it off on a more satisfying high note. To keep the series going they will put the characters through drama that only serves to keep the series going but ends up destroying my love of the characters.

    To me, a series drags when each book is too predictable. A series needs to turn corners–and not always in pleasant ways in darker fiction, where a dangerous atmosphere is a crucial part of the books. It’s great to end on a high note, but often I find a mixed-bag ending more believable.

  14. Rebecca
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 13:49:46

    Does anyone else miss Charlaine Harris’s Shakespeare mysteries?

    i loved that series.

    Think the publisher decided not to continue with it.

    I haven’t read Karin’s series so can’t add to the discussion. I do wonder if the ending of this recent book somehow breeches the old covenent between the author and mystery reader that justice must be done and good must triumph over evil.

  15. Jane
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 14:24:41

    I want to write a more fulsome response later, but it came to my attention a recent blog post made by Charlaine Harris.

    “I've noticed lately that quite a few readers seem angry if books don't turn out in a way that would have made them happier. That's an attitude I find hard to understand. (Maybe it's my age? I don't know.) The writer is determiner of fate for his or her characters. Writing is a lone pastime, not a group endeavor. It doesn't take a village to write a book. It takes one person, shut up in a room for hours on end.”

    “know that readers have every right not to be happy with the way a book ends, or with the way characters meet their fate. But to be angry with the writer? The characters belong to the writer. I know in a certain sense they belong to the reader, too; but the characters live in the writer's mind and at her/his will.”

    What I see Harris is saying is that readers don’t have the right to be angry about the direction of the books. Who else can a reader direct her anger at but the author particularly when the author is the one, as Harris acknowledges, decides what the characters do. It’s a bit disingenuous to say, ‘hey, these are my characters and I can fuck with them in whatever way I want but you can’t be mad about it’.

    The whole point of series books, instead of single titles, is to build up the readership. I’ve seen it referenced on authors’ blogs that series sell because authors can build off a returning reader base.

    Now, I am not for stagnation. I think MJD is one author whose Betsy series suffered from lack of character growth and increasing predictability. I think the question is whether what Harris, Cornwell and Slaughter did is the only creative outlet for stagnation?

    I.e., RfP is disappointed in the declining tension between Roarke and Eve now that they are a settled couple. If tension between the couple is what drives the series, then isn’t that a romance rather than a mystery and then doesn’t that incorporate a number of other reader expectations?

    To me Harris and Slaughter and every author wants the impossible. They not only want to write their books without reader influence (totally acceptable) but they also want to write their books free of reader judgment. If you want to write what you want free of criticism, don’t put it out there in the stream of commerce.

    How can an author, on the one hand want the reader to care about the characters, want to the reader to love them to pieces, but on the other hand not understand how a reader that they have lured into loving their books be angry at the creator, at the GOD of the characters, when the characters meet an unacceptable (to the reader) fate?

    I guess that is the ultimate God complex. Follow me and don’t judge me. I know I am right. It’s a paternalistic attitude I find objectionable.

  16. RfP
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 14:36:43

    I do wonder if the ending of this recent book somehow breeches the old covenent between the author and mystery reader that justice must be done and good must triumph over evil.

    Does that covenant apply to the main characters’ lives? I’d thought of it as mainly about solving the mystery and (often) punishing the bad guys. I can think of a few sleuths who suffer personal tragedies in the course of solving crimes. Maybe it varies by subgenre–I think equivocal endings are less common in “cozy” series mysteries.

    In what I’ve read recently, Inspector Morse dies; Margaret Maron kills off Oscar Nauman and puts Deborah Knott through a major breakup; in the hard-boiled tradition, Sam Spade types often lose friends and don’t get the girl. Even catching the bad guys isn’t guaranteed. Sherlock Holmes usually wins the battle but never the whole war against Moriarty.

  17. Nora Roberts
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 14:41:10

    A writer can’t please every reader every time–and should never attempt to, unless they’re hungry for a padded room. But a writer should never ignore, or betray, the basic reader expectations that brought those readers into the world he or she created.

  18. RfP
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 14:48:14

    RfP is disappointed in the declining tension between Roarke and Eve now that they are a settled couple. If tension between the couple is what drives the series, then isn't that a romance rather than a mystery and then doesn't that incorporate a number of other reader expectations?

    The optimum is a relationship plot AND a suspense plot. When either one loses tension, it’s disappointing.

    Edit:
    Ahem. Hi, Nora Roberts. Note that I *do* like Eve and Roarke’s relationship!

  19. Karen Scott
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 17:16:01

    It takes one person, shut up in a room for hours on end.

    That’s all well and good, but she’d soon be pissed if she sat all alone working on her books, and nobody bought them.

    Does anybody really think the series would have been as popular if J.K Rowling had decided to kill off Harry in the middle of the series? I think not, even she was astute enough to know that killing off Harry would have probably pissed off her readers.

    Writers can write what the hell they like, but they shouldn’t be surprised when their readers (who incidentally help them continue their career), feel fully justified in expressing their dismay, over the direction in which their books are going.

    Authors and readers have a symbiotic relationship, and for a writer not to realise this, seems more than just a little disingenuous to me.

  20. Jennifer McKenzie
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 17:17:55

    Margaret Maron kills off Oscar Nauman

    Oh I forgot about that one. It PISSED. ME. OFF. It took a while for me to read Maron again. And I LOVED that series.

    I didn’t feel betrayed by that one though.

    They not only want to write their books without reader influence (totally acceptable) but they also want to write their books free of reader judgment. If you want to write what you want free of criticism, don't put it out there in the stream of commerce.

    Very interesting. And good to remember.

  21. Kate
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 19:29:53

    It’s the Weekend at Bernie’s syndrome. The author knows that the character died. The deal is, do they tell anyone else, or just….

    I’m kidding, but only sorta. It happened to me once.

  22. RfP
    Aug 28, 2007 @ 20:24:48

    It PISSED. ME. OFF. It took a while for me to read Maron again. And I LOVED that series.

    I was upset about it, but I wasn’t mad at the author. In fact I switched to reading Maron’s other series–and promptly landed on Bloody Kin, which opens with Kate’s husband’s murder :P

  23. francois
    Aug 29, 2007 @ 10:26:02

    “Does anybody really think the series would have been as popular if J.K Rowling had decided to kill off Harry in the middle of the series?”

    SPOILERish!!

    Am I the only one disappointed that he didn’t die? Seriously I felt it would have been a great ending and would have worked well. Instead of which there is some lame deus ex machina, his sacrifice wasn’t really a sacrifice and the only people killed off are those you don’t really care so much about. Plus the awful epilogue, which is a device straight out of a formula romance novel.

    Anyway, though I’m a fan of the series my attitude to this disappointment is merely “meh”, “I won’t bother buying my own copy of the book” and “It’ll probably still make a good film”. Strangely no hostile feelings towards JK at all. I suppose if I could write a better book I should get out there and do it.

  24. Kat
    Aug 29, 2007 @ 10:44:50

    As to Harry Potter, I would have been surprised if he’d died. I think we tend to forget the series is really for children, and rarely would I expect main characters to be killed off in those kinds of books. If I remember what I was like as a very young reader, I reckon I would have loved the epilogue, too.

  25. Sher
    Aug 29, 2007 @ 14:51:31

    Thanks, May, I have read those books, I was just hoping for one more. Thinking a little more, I can understand the feeling of betrayal by readers, but I’m not as upset with the idea.

    When Elizabeth George killed Helen, I cried for Lynley and Havers and all the other characters. I was shocked but I can’t wait to read the next one. If somehow Nora Roberts decided that Peabody, Mira or Somerset (or anybody) had to bite it, I’d probably quit reading the series for a while but I would go back.

    I guess I haven’t been betrayed by the right author yet. Catherine Asaro, leave the Ruby Dynasty alive!

  26. Eliz
    Sep 04, 2007 @ 10:26:48

    I agre that writers should not always write for the expectatins of thei rfans, but there has to be a compromise somewhere int he mix. If a particular writer pens a series, he or she should strongly consider the ramifications of getting rid of one or more of the beloved. I am a really big Karin Slaughter fan, and only found out the ending of her most recent book by accident. I’m glad though, because i thinkI would have had a much harder time with it had I read the book first than the way I actually found out. Sure, characters die, and sometimes we as readers aren’t as bothered because that particular person isn’t all that endearing ot us, but to take a romance of sorts, no matter how subplot it might have been, and take out one of those characters to me is a betrayal. I think what bothered me the most is to find out that the characters I rooted for were only brought together to be ripped apart, so the whole time I rooted for them, it was all beside the point because the ending of this book was just too dificult to think about. I haven’t and probably won’t read the book, although I paid for it, and won’t read any future books by Slaughter unless there is some drastic turn-around. It seemed a little open ended int he end, because although you figured this character had to be dead, (how could he have survived what he went trhough), there oculd still be room for another surprise. Though Slaughter has stated this is not so, I have to wonder what all the negative comments will mean for us the readers.

  27. Eliz
    Sep 04, 2007 @ 12:54:58

    BTW, does anyone know if Ms. Slaughter has commented any further on her book besides writing the letter? I was trying to find interviews that took place after its release, but have been unsuccessful in dong so.

    Thanks,

  28. Ramy
    Sep 26, 2008 @ 16:17:39

    hi everyone…im doing a book review on great expectations…does anyone think they could help me?

%d bloggers like this: