Thursday, October 15, 2009

Looking Inside

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. :)


Pamela Cayne said...

Ooh, sticky topic. As far as rating books go, who would determine the rating system? Also how would it be determined--by number (and type) of swears, amount of blood spilled, number of sexual encounters, drugs (over the counter, illegal, prescription), etc? How would you define sex--sweet, number of partners, before marriage, after marriage, rough, erotic, fexible--you get the point. I think this is a "defining art" conundrum. (For the sake of fairness, I'll also say I'm very hard to offend or upset, so other than stinky writing, there's not a lot in a book that'll make me stop reading.)

I go into books like I go into movies--there's something that makes me think I'll like it, so I'll try it. My experiences seem to take on a bell curve--a few I hate, a few I love, and most I enjoy enough that I don't feel like I wasted time or money. I'll take the risks on the stinkers because I'm hoping the next one is not only a good read, but one I love.

Great post, Marilyn!

Maureen McGowan said...

Interesting post, and I'm going to have to go read Maria's blog, too...

If they're rated, I think it has to be the authors who do the ratings. There could be guidelines, but I think the movie world has proved that rating systems are ultimately arbitrary at best and censorship at worst. There's a great movie about the MPAA, but I can't think of the name right now. Some appalling decisions made by those people. I'd hate to see something like that happen in the literary world.

Leshia Stolt said...

Sometimes I'm "very disappointed" that a book ends.

Sometimes I'm "very disappointed" that I didn't care enough to finish it.

Sometimes I'm "very disappointed" the author can't write faster.

Sometimes I'm "very disappointed" that the hero was demanding or controlling in a way I find blechy (and, yes, that's a word, a Leshia word).

But the less I know about a book or movie before I read/watch it, the more I enjoy it. I don't like reading back cover copy (though sometimes I can't resist), and I hate seeing previews. I insist on starting any TV show from Season 1, episode 1 and NEVER watch the "Next Week on..." clips at the end. And God knows I won't read a review before I read the book. (In fact, I am "very disappointed" when I accidentally do.)

This is all because I'm okay with being disappointed if it's on the book's/TV show's/movie's terms and not the terms some third party put out there for me. And this way I get to take responsibility for that disappointment, rather than putting the blame where it doesn't belong (like being disappointed that the uber-sexy romance didn't focus on the heroine's spiritual journey ;) ).

As an author, I've always kind of appreciated the "Warnings" on Samhain's ebooks, ie "Contains naughty superhero invisi-sex" (though that's an example for my friend Lexi's book. She's not a Samhain author, but you get my gist)...As an author it's like, "Well, I warned you..." BUT as a reader, I don't want to read the warnings. I want to be surprised by the author's voice and the characters' evolution. Invisi-sex sounds really weird out of context, but maybe the author makes it work if you give the characters a chance to get there, ya know?

As a reader/viewer, it's a risk I take, yeah. But, man, more often than not, books are GOOD when experienced on their own terms. And sometimes that means reading about something I wouldn't have chosen to read about. So maybe the answer isn't a rating system but an open mind. Because there's always the risk of the story not living up to all you dreamed it would be, but in my eyes it's a risk worth taking!

cheryl c said...

I wish books came with a "sob" rating! ;-)

I absolutely hate sad books. I don't want to finish a book feeling depressed. So, if I know that a book is heart-wrenching, I simply won't read it. Unfortunately, I have had some unpleasant "surprises" in the past.

Pamala Knight said...

What an interesting concept, rating books like movies and the MPAA (who are extremely proprietary and litigious about their system, by the way) but I get the idea.

For myself, I wouldn't need the system so much, but I could see how it could be useful for say, parents trying to shield their teens from reading books that have adult themes. I've got my own imperfect system to keep me from the nightmare-inspiring books. But it doesn't work all the time and once in a while, something slips past that has me wishing I had a rewind button.

Judy Croome | @judy_croome said...

Having ratings for books is an interesting concept and one I'm ambivalent about.

Living in a country which once banned "Black Beauty" (I kid you not), but being lucky enough to have had liberal parents (I was taken across the border to Lesotho to see banned shows, buy banned books) I'm opposed to external censorship.

But, at the same time, I do feel the pendulum of violence, sex, bad language etc in both movies and books has swung too far and is too often gratuitous and excessive, which I suggest has a negative effect on the world we live in.

We all - as both artists and readers/viewers - have free will to choose what we read and see. In an ideal world, I would like to see all humans use that free will to choose *for themselves* an *appropriate* level of sex, violence etc. In other words, censorship should be self-chosen (that is, I will not write vivid descriptions of violence), rather than externally imposed (a rating V for violence). Okay. I'll get of my soapbox and stop the rant now!! :):)

Marilyn Brant said...

Pamela and Maureen, you both make such excellent points about who would determine the ratings and how it could verge too close to censorship...and of course I wouldn't want that either. As a reader--and I know this is true of both of you--I'm very comfortable taking risks with books. Really, aside from super-violent things, not a lot bothers me. But, I consider it my responsibility to figure out if a book fits my reading preferences or doesn't. I'm not sure that sense of duty is universal... I keep wondering why people who are "sensitive" in some way blame the writer or the publisher instead of just reading some of the text in advance. It mystifies me!

Leshia, you really touched on this idea of personal responsibility--thank you. It would be ideal if everyone were openminded and willing to embrace new reading experiences. Or, if not openminded, at least willing to accept that not everything any one person loves or hates should be considered gospel by the rest of the world. I love how you're completely open to whatever the book or tv show brings your way! But, for those people who obsessively read backcover copy and feel led astray by it, I'm still not sure what can be done...

This idea of trying to manage expectations keeps plaguing me. I wish I could figure out how to provide some greater insight into the story (for those readers who want it) without it leading to more problems, like censorship. But, as you all have said--who could do this job consistently enough? Fairly?

And, Cheryl, you make a great point, too--I've read some very sad books and they haunted me for years (some still do!)--and a few of those I wished I could un-read. But I've been noticing that one person's description of a novel as "slyly comical" is another person's "achingly bittersweet." I think it would be just as hard to rate Degree of Sadness as it would Level of Sensuality. (sigh)

Pamala~LOL about the parental aspect of this! You're so right. My son is even *more* affected by violent mental images than I am so, when there's any doubt, I have to read his books in advance or I'll be dealing with trouble for months! As moms, I guess we *do* have a rating system, don't we? Either: Yes, the kid can read this one without nightmares. Or, No Freakin' Way!! :)

Marilyn Brant said...

Oh, Ann, I *love* your rants!! Don't stop. And I really appreciate what you said about believing censorship should be self-chosen... To me that rings true--on both the reader and the writer side.

There are things I'm aware of yet choose very consciously not to write about. I don't feel it's necessary to bring into my books *every* ugly thing about the world I've ever noticed...and I also believe that being honest means writing openly about some of the good things as well as the troubling ones. There are *lots* of problems in life and relationships, yes--but isn't it great when things finally go right for a change?! Sometimes they really DO (!!), and that's *also* real life... I guess as artists we're always struggling to find just the right balance, huh?

So interesting hearing everyone's viewpoints! Thank you all for thinking about this and talking it out with me :).

Maria Geraci said...

Fabulous post, Marilyn! Especially the part where you call me fantabulous and funny:) All joking aside, the more I've thought about this topic, I like your suggestion about simpling posting a "warning" label so that no one's sensibilities get twisted up in a wad. A simple: adult language, sexual situations, graphic violence... label would do nicely.

Like you, I'm a fraidy cat and anything too scary gives me the creeps for weeks. I saw "30 Days of Night" on cable last year and still have nightmares! (these are so NOT sexy vampires!) However, 30 minutes into the movie, I knew exactly what I was watching and even though I was creeped out, I chose to watch it anyway b/c I have to find out what happened.

Vesper said...

Marilyn, I've read the excerpt from your book on Amazon. It completely hooked me! The book is in my shopping cart now, just waiting for a few more others to make the 39$ CDN necessary to get free shipping... :-)

I have pretty much the same method as you for choosing a book. However, anything that reminds me of censorship scares me more than anything unpleasant that I could unexpectedly find in a book.

Marilyn Brant said...

You *are* fantabulous and funny, Maria! And, yes, I still watch and read things that I know are going to creep me out, too. Actually, I'm in awe of Harlan Coben's talent and, even though his books scare me so much (psychological thrillers not graphic violence), I'll still read him. In the DAYTIME--LOL!

Vesper, thank you so much! I truly hope you'll like 'Jane'... And I'm with you on this--censorship is far worse than accidentally seeing something I'd rather not.

Hope you all have a wonderful weekend!!