I've been thinking about this post for a couple of weeks now, mostly because, when any book is released, readers have certain expectations. That's always been true for me as a reader, no matter what genre I pick up. Of course, with a "mystery," I know there will be a crime and it'll get solved somehow. With a "romance," I'm sure there will be a love story with the hero and heroine winding up together in the end. The "women's fiction" genre may leave a few additional doors open, but it's still a story about a woman's journey. What happens on that journey differs, of course--depending on the style of writing, the needs of the plot and the personal worldview of the author--but I'm not above glancing at the cover art, reading the backcover copy and making a prediction or two about how I think that particular journey will play out.
The best way I've chosen to deal with the potential dichotomy between (a) What I Expect from a Book and (b) What is Really in the Book, though, is to actually open up the book. If it's a print copy, I literally flip it open and read a few pages. Some of those pages are from the start of Chapter One, but some are just random pages from the middle of the book. If it's an ebook or a novel that hasn't been released yet, there's a really nifty feature on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble online where readers can often "Look Inside" the book. I'm then able to do in electronic form what I do when I'm holding a physical book: I get to read sample pages from various sections of the story. (Here's Amazon's Look Inside spot for my book.) And authors, myself included, frequently put scene excerpts up on their websites. (Here's mine for According to Jane.) Reading these pages or scenes gives me a strong sense of a writer's narrative style, so I'm not inclined to be "shocked" by the tone or the use of language.
None of this is to say that I haven't ever been in a situation where I thought I'd prepared myself for reading a book only to be surprised by a plot point that jarred me or a character trait that annoyed me. That stuff happens. I have not, however, encountered a book where the use of swearing, drinking or adult sexual situations "came out of absolutely nowhere."
Personally, I'm not so big into violence. While I can, on an intellectual level, understand the love some readers have for thrillers and serial killers, stories like those give me nightmares. Since I scare easily and know this about myself, I choose not to read them. One of the things I always check for when selecting a new book is the level of graphic violence. If I suspect I won't be able to read it without breaking into a cold sweat and imagining all kinds of horrific things for years to come, I DON'T READ IT. I do not, however, force myself to finish it and then go on a review site and blast the author for having dared to write so much violence in his book that the images are now burned into my brain and will never, ever go away no matter how many peace-loving, gentle-spirited novels I read later to comfort myself...
I'm just sayin'.
Fantabulous and funny women's fiction author Maria Geraci has a post up about this subject, and she suggests that books should have rating levels on them (G, PG-13, R, etc.) like we have for movies. Not a bad idea, in my opinion. What do you think?? Or how about this: a spot somewhere on the book cover where the author and/or publisher could mark off things readers might come across in the novel, like Profanity, Violence, Use of Drugs/Alcohol and Adult Sexual Content. What are the pros? Cons?
But for now, and when in doubt, please "Look Inside" the book... No author wants any reader to be "very disappointed" by something as preventable as a miscommunication of narrative style. A little initiative and curiosity about the text prior to reading can go a long way toward avoiding unmet expectations.
Today, author and reviewer Kelly Moran is featuring an interview with me about According to Jane on her blog and hosting a giveaway! If you have time, please stop by. :)