Jun 3 2008
Jennifer Crusie, the writer of one of my favorite contemporary romances, Welcome to Temptation, wrote the following:
Somebody asked me in an interview once what the responsibilities of the writer and the reader were. I knew the responsibilities of the writer inside out, but I’d never thought about the responsibilities of the reader; to me, anybody who paid money for my book was pretty much fulfilling her responsibility. But it was a job interview, so I thought about it and decided that the responsibility of the reader was to read the book with an open mind, to not read the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” and say, “I don’t believe that.” To give the writer a fair shot at inviting her in, to maybe broaden her viewpoint some. If all a reader wants is fiction that repeats her own world view, she’s asking the writer to reinforce her,not entertain and illuminate.
The problem is that readers come to a book with a lot of reader baggage. Take commenter Laura V who wondered if there was a cultural gap which prevented her from relating to the heroine. In The Sheik and The Virgin Secretary because Kylie describes herself as coming from good “peasant stock” but then references tanning and pedicures, but from Laura’s experience in the UK, tanning salons and pedicures aren’t as plentiful as they are in Robin’s home state where cheap nail and tanning salons are everywhere. Lidia, Harlequin Presents fan and reader at Iheartpresents.com blogged that she couldn’t read romances featuring first cousins. Daniela blogged about how she had a problem with siblings and even best friends to lovers theme. Some people don’t like a certain amount of violence. Some people don’t read books with explicit sex and some people won’t read books when the bedroom door is closed.
I will rarely read books featuring adoptees because authors often trivialize the emotional experience and I can’t relate. I thought that the treatment was so trivializing of the experience. I will rarely read a book that features lawyers because I simply cannot allow myself to suspend my disbelief regarding the antics the authors portray lawyers partaking in (we still have the moral turpitude clause, people!). I can’t read those books that feature wills that require people to marry other people because that is generally not enforceable. Poor Jayne won’t read them either after I told her that.
Even beyond my person bias is the book bias. I’ve read so many romances – thousands of them – that to some extent all books suffer reader baggage built up from previous authors. Everytime I come across a love triangle, I think of Janet Evanovich’s refusal to make her characters move in any significant direction and wonder if this author, too, will string me along for thirteen plus books on the slender edge of the relationship triangle. Everytime I read a paranormal with a vampire and werewolf lover, I wonder if it will become some horrible debacle wherein the heroine begins not only to bed the vampire and the werewolf but every goblin, faerie spirit, and shapeshifter known and unknown.
Last week’s comments showed that we all have bias and filters when it comes to reading a book. Robin wrote about independent heroines in romance and how they challenge the very structure of romance. The comments revealed any number of positions, all valid:
I like heroines who have a worthy goal outside of a relationship. And some of my favorite couples are outside the strict bounds of romance for that reason. I like the idea of a partnership of equals.
I’m not sure I understand why one would need to write/want to read a romance about persons who are truly better off by themselves. The whole premise of romance, to me at least, is that despite the obstacles, the hero and heroine will be better off together rather than apart. I cannot really see the place of a true anti-heroine in romance because by the definition I get from the essay, she would not be suitable to a relationship. So if there’s to be one, the heroine would have to give up something that’s essential to her person which does not make for a healthy, happy couple in the long run or a sane, fulfilled heroine.
I’m pretty young and just barely engaged, but I’ve been living with the fiance for the last year and, as far as I can tell, we’re more like a Venn diagram. There are still areas that are distinctly "me’ and distinctly "him,’ but there’s a nice overlap in the middle that is "us.’
No reader is a clean slate. Every reader comes with his or her own special baggage. We will read things into the book that aren’t there based on our personal experiences and biases. Juror consultants tell you that jurors will adopt a certain way the story is told and then fit the subsequent facts into that story or disregard facts that don’t fit with the story. I think readers are like that. We read into stories identities, backgrounds, excuses, reasonings for characters and stories that we like. We ascribe negative attributes, read negative inferences for the characters and stories we don’t.
When you look at Janine’s review of the Spymaster’s Lady and the subsequent commenters who saw Annique as almost infantile v. the opinion of other readers such as myself that saw Annique as truly unique and competent in her spy games, so competent that it took three able bodied men (okay, one was seriously injured) to capture her.
It’s why when you find a reviewer you trust, you can rely upon their recommendations. they probably have a similar frame of view.
While it may not be fair for the author to have to confront such a beleaguered reading audience, the fact remains that people who are of an age, who have any life experience will have formed opinions regarding certain individuals.
There is the author that can overcome those problems/issues/biased frames of references but no one author will be able to win over every reader.
It’s hard as an author to come to grips with this and I think it is hard as a reader too. I know in the case of some authors, I’ve felt that they have written above me even though I consider myself to have a certain modicum of intelligence. I’ve kept reading some author because I find their style of writing something that I want to like but never really do. I’ve had authors on the pedestal and when I don’t understand their writing or when their work doesn’t work for me, I do think there is some deficit in me.
What I think is happening is less that there is a deficit in me or a deficit in the writing but that our frames of references are so different; our tastes so different that we won’t come to an agreement about the valuation of “good.”