Reader Expectations & Authorial Intent: What Matters?

Reader Expectations & Authorial Intent: What Matters?

Laura and I recorded a podcast on Monday which will be up on iTunes (Don't forget to rate us, yo!) and blog in the next few days in which we discuss the topic of reader expectations and reactions, particularly in the context of series and authors with large backlists. While Laura and I go in depth into the topic on that podcast, I know not everyone listens to it, and the discussion just keeps morphing online.

The reader expectations discussion erupted earlier this year when Charlaine Harris finally ended her Sookie Stackhouse series. Readers were unhappy that they'd invested 13 years into reading the series, watched Sookie float from love interest to love interest and finally end up with a partner who was, to them, rather unexciting.

Then we had the whole Divergent debacle in which some readers were incredibly upset about the choices author Veronica Roth made in the final book in that series, Allegiant. 

More recently, Gayle Forman has been criticized by readers frustrated with the companion novel to Just on Day, Just One Year

And there was also the brouhaha in the romance world because an author and reader (because--shocker--people can be both) "live tweeted" her reading of Susan Elizabeth Philips' Nobody's Baby But Mine (Janet detailed this on Dear Author earlier this week). 

This type of response isn't anything new, and it's not exclusive to reading.

When the television show Breaking Bad ended this year Lost fans took to the internet to complain that their series didn't get what they believed was a suitable ending like Breaking Bad did. Lost's last episode aired in May 2010 and people still felt emotional enough that another series ending dragged that frustration back up. Hell, I still haven't watched the last episode of Fringe, because I was so disgusted with the the way the writers systematically ruined Olivia's character. 

Disappointment with the direction or resolution to a story in which the consumer has invested time--whether that's a few evenings reading, five television seasons or--in the case of Harris' series--13 years worth of books, is a reality of successfully building an audience. 

What I find troubling is authors conflating disappointed readers with the fringe wackos making threats because they're unhappy with a story's resolution. 

The people who were unhappy with the ending of Allegiant are not the same as people who tweeted Veronica Roth and said she should be assaulted. 

The people who wanted Sookie to end up with a sexy vampire are far different from the people who wrote threatening letters to Charlaine Harris.

The people who said they're mad at Gayle Forman for writing a different story than Penguin chose to market are not dangerous, they feel misled.

So, let's stop grouping people who are unhappy with the outcome of a beloved series with people who should be reported to the police, all right?

These are not the same thing. At all. 

Then I thought about ALLEGIANT and MOCKINGJAY, two other series enders that got various amounts of hate. I’m not sure if Suzanne Collins got death threats, but Veronica Roth has.

This REALLY baffles me, not just because it is insanely bad manners to flame an author like that—you realize that they are people, right, with feelings and fears and doubts, just like you?—but what did readers expect? The worlds in DIVERGENT and THE HUNGER GAMES were incredibly dark, messy places. While the series both ended with redemption and hope, how could they not also reflect the darkness and messiness, the sacrifice and bloodshed, that had been so expertly woven into the previous books?

To that same line of thinking, I know many of you were disappointed with the ending of JUST ONE YEAR. A lot of you seemed to expect a book more in line with WHERE SHE WENT. Perhaps this was because of the kissing people on the cover (note to readers: authors have very little say about such covers and how misleading they might be) or maybe it was because you’d read WHERE SHE WENT and come to expect the Mia-Adam treatment. But why? Mia and Adam had a five-year history and had been through the trenches together. Allyson and Willem had one day—a transformative day—but a day together. A different life. A different story. A different ending.
— Gayle Forman on Tumblr

Gayle Forman is one of my favorite authors and I'm extremely troubled that she and another author I greatly respect, John Green, seem to be asserting that readers' response should consider the authors' feelings and intention before critiquing a work or expressing unhappiness. 

Both of these authors are engaging in what feels like reader shaming by asserting that readers didn't understand the authors' intent.

Frankly, this is dripping with (hopefully) unintended arrogance, insinuating that the readers just need to better comprehend what the author/creator wanted the reader to get out of the work. Sure, some readers won't pick up on themes and key concepts in a text (I miss things all the times, and I'm trained in that type of analysis), but does that mean that doesn't mean that readers who expect a romance, for example (because that's what a work is promoted as), are just a bunch of feeble-minded Twihards (as implied here) who can't read deeply.

Further, I have some questions about this entire line of thinking:

  1. If the reader doesn't catch those themes, then their experience with the text is invalid and shouldn't be part of the discourse on the work? 
  2. That authorial intent is more important than reader experience?
  3. That if a book's promise (via its marketing) shouldn't be a factor, even if that promise is wholly unmet?
  4. If a reader understands the author's intent, and yet remains unconvinced, is that a problem of the reader?
  5. Any reader who doesn't buy into the author's vision is the problem? 

To tease out the point to the extreme, does that mean that positive reader experiences are also invalid if they're outside the bounds of the author's intent?

Or does the respect the author's intent rule only apply to negative reading experiences? 

Laura and I had a fairly intense texting conversation about this subject yesterday afternoon and Laura brought up the particularly important point, which she gave me permission to quote:

...when a reader LOVES a book and its ending and freaks out about it via social media right after finishing, do authors run around saying, "Are you sure you don't want to take time to consider my authorial intent?"

No. No they do not. They retweet and say thank you.

It's just unfair to say that someone who loves a book "understood what the author was trying to say" and then say someone who didn't love it just didn't take the time to understand it.

Laura also made the point in our conversation that imbued in the discussion about reader dissatisfaction with Allegiant/Just One Year/Sookie Stackhouse #13 is the assumption that readers haven't examined their own biases. And I agree with Laura that while not everyone (or anyone?) is completely self-aware regarding what they bring to their consumption of media of any sort, books included, many, many of us are quite intentional in our attempts at understanding our biases. I know that I am particularly critical of the way families, gendered power dynamics and animals are handled in storytelling, for example. I don't think that awareness is unusual or special.

Let's talk some specifics about why readers may be disappointed.

In the case of Just One Year (a book I quite liked and recommended on this blog), the Penguin marketing department chose to sell the book as something as

  1. “Picking up where Just One Day left off;” and
  2. A “sweeping romance.”

In reality, the book does not pick up where the first book left off and the romance does not happen on the pages of the book (I talk about this in-depth in my review of Just One Year, a book I recommend as long as the reader understands that they will not be reading the book that's described in the novel's marketing copy). Understandably, readers are frustrated by this as they were promised apples and got oranges.

Does this mean that Gayle should have written about apples*? Nope, not at all.

What it means is that the marketing was untruthful. And consumers have a problem with that. This happens all the time, and businesses are called out on it constantly. 

To dismiss a disconnect between a work's marketing and its reality is disrespectful to its audience.

I’m not saying Gayle’s dismissing that disconnect, but she doesn’t address it at all, and authors don’t because it’s pretty much not okay to say,

“Hey, my publisher is marketing this book as X, even though it’s Y, because X is an easier sell.” 

[An aside. In my communications classes, I push the concept of using the following three-question litmus test for any marketing campaign: Is it true? Is it meaningful? Is it distinct? If you start looking at promotional campaigns, it's mind-boggling how many campaigns fail the first question, making the other answers meaningless, even if they can often be answered in the affirmative.]

In the case of book marketing, it particularly sucks, because authors generally have no say in how their books are promoted. But many, many readers don’t know that, and therefore it’s understandable that when they're frustrated, they complain to the author, not the Penguin marketing department. (Again, I am not saying that's okay, I'm simply saying that it's understandable.)

Do I think people should be emailing and tweeting and Facebook an author saying that they think a book sucks? Well, no, that's pretty rude and generally not okay behavior. (Also rude: Bloggers/Goodreaders who tweet negative reviews to authors--why do people do that? This baffles me. An author is highly unlikely to send their fans to read a review of their book when the reviewer hate it.) But, at the same time, it's one of the downsides of accessibility and engagement (which is a keystone of the current marketing climate). I wish I had a better solution to the unpleasantness of that reality, but I don't. 

Frankly, I have a lot of sympathy for the recipients of unsolicited "you suck" type comments. I've had my own (non-fiction) work criticized in the same unsolicited manner, and it's demoralizing and disheartening. But at the same time, I'd never once consider equating someone whose expectations weren't met, or who were hoping for a different angle or focus, with behavior of a threatening nature. 

When it comes down to it, I'm concerned that influential authors seem to believe that authorial intent trumps the reader experience and by equating disappointed readers with extreme behavior, they're attempting to shut down dialog about their work. 

I'd expect that out of literary fiction because those dudes' trademark is arrogance, but out of genre fiction and YA? Nope. I expected better. Clearly, I was wrong.


*This was a point I made in my Tumblr post on this subject, which Gayle seems to have responded to (without referencing my post) in her first point in this Tumblr post. I have feelings about this trend of authors responding to readers without referencing the content to which they're referring (it's not the first time it's happened to myself or Laura), but that's a subject for another day.

(Just to reiterate for the TL;DR crowd: People who are unhappy because their expectations were unmet are not the same as people engaging in antisocial, threatening behavior that should be reported to law enforcement.)

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