Monday, August 6, 2012

Do Readers Of Different Genres Have Specific Craft Preferences?

Okay, I'm taking off my crankypants now to write a rare post about craft. Let me open by saying this post will contain some gross generalizations, and I know such blanket statements can't possibly cover all situations and will certainly be untrue in many cases. I'm only working with blanket statements here to address a larger topic, so please try to bear with me on them and focus on the larger topic.

I have a writer acquaintance who writes hard-boiled detective, murder mystery novels. He will often post excerpts from his work as a promotional gambit (as opposed to looking for feedback), and just as often will post about his disappointment with his sales. I read some of his excerpts, and concluded that to my mind, what's wrong with his work is that it's overwritten.

He seems never able to write something like, "She was exhausted," when he could write something like, "The weight of the day, the hopeless yoke of overwork, enveloped her in a fog of somnambulant fatigue." And he doesn't employ these kinds of sentences sparingly, virtually every line appears to have been laboriously massaged, tinkered with, and obsessed over.

Some people reading this will actually prefer the second, lengthier sentence to the first. Some will also think it's just fine if most of the sentences in a given book are like the second one, and will admire the craft that went into them. Other people---people like me---, not so much. It got me thinking about reader tastes, and whether it might be possible to predict them.

And here's where those gross generalizations enter the picture. It seems to me that readers who favor certain genres may also favor certain writing styles.

I am a near-textbook example of the Type A personality. I am most definitely a "bottom line it for me" type, a chronic multitasker, and a very busy person who values efficiency in most aspects of my life. It should come as no surprise that I don't have much patience for flowery prose and lengthy descriptive passages. I'm not saying that style of writing is necessarily bad, just that it's not a good fit for me, and I suspect it's not a good fit for most Type A people.

I have a friend who's much more laid-back. She can spend a half hour contemplating a painting in a gallery, and days on a road trip with no particular destination or schedule in mind; she may not even bring a map. She's the type of person who will savor every word of the kinds of passages that I find irritating.

Now, getting back to that writer acquaintance...what if *most* of his target audience shares my sensibilities? What if the type of person who's most likely to seek out a detective story is Type A? Considering that some of the defining characteristics of Type A people are that we're very goal-oriented, organized, attentive to details, and love solving puzzles, it doesn't seem like such a leap to imagine that most of us enjoy a good murder mystery; a murder mystery is essentially a written puzzle, after all. It may not be such a leap to imagine the inverse is true, too: that most people who enjoy murder mysteries are Type A.

If that's true, then my writer acquaintance is turning off the bulk of his target audience with his verbose, highly stylized prose. We Type A people only want to be given relevant, or possibly relevant, pieces of the puzzle so we can try to solve it. Anything more feels like a waste of our time and energies.

My laid-back friend has plenty of patience for stylized prose, but for her, most murder mysteries are little more than empty exercises in tricky plotting and misdirection. She wants to read books that she feels feed her soul, not just her intellect. She very well might enjoy my writer acquaintance's work, since it strives to rise high above plot mechanics and even be somewhat philosophical, but she's not likely to ever find it since she's not one to seek out murder mysteries or detective novels in the first place.

So for those who write in specific genres or combo genres (e.g., supernatural romance, supernatural thriller), and for whom maximizing sales is a priority, maybe give a thought to the most likely type of person to seek out your books in the first place, and what that person's preferences might be. I'm not trying to suggest you totally engineer your prose to match some kind of external template, just that appealing to a commercial audience is always a balancing act between pleasing the audience and pleasing yourself.

I have nothing but respect for the writer who follows his vision regardless of whether or not it will lead to commercial success, but for those like that detective novelist, who spends as much time worrying over his sales as his art, writing with the eventual reader in mind may give better results.


mactheweb said...

I think that you're on to something with your title, which seems to have been forgotten in the body of the post. The prose example you shared simply isn't the kind that is used in hard-boiled detective novels. It has nothing to do with type A or B personalities.

April L. Hamilton said...

Well Mac, that's kind of my point. This guy's style of prose isn't a fit for his chosen genre. If he wants to sell more books, I'm wondering if he A) needs to alter his style or B) try writing in a different genre.

Thanks for reading, and commenting. =')

Jamie Sedgwick said...

Nice analysis of how different writing style mesh with different genres. I think we all know this subconsciously at least, but it's something we forget when we approach the craft, especially as beginners.

A friend of mine was complaining just yesterday about a book she was reading: a first person narrative in which the protagonist became strangely articulate every few pages. My friend was frustrated because the character was supposed to be a rugged, rebellious type and it was clear that the author was slipping into his own voice rather than the character's. That's a jarring mistake in third person but devastating in first person.

Bridget McKenna said...

I think a lot of the apparent dichotomy of styles dates back to another dichotomy, that between "writing that matters"--Littrachure--and "writing that doesn't"--genre. Genre writing was once widely defined as trash by those who neither wrote nor read it, and is still looked down on from many ivory towers. It's also true that lots and lots of genre writing puts less emphasis on a nice turn of phrase, and more on plot--to some the genetic marker of fiction that doesn't matter--while writing generally seen as literary often does the opposite.

I think good writing belongs everywhere, and writing without plot bores me silly, but then I am a genre writer (so was Edgar Allan Poe, but if you don't tell, I won't). That said, there are conventions to mystery prose probably best absorbed by reading a lot of it and writing a lot of it (perhaps badly, at first). Even mystery-writing prose artists like James Lee Burke don't torture their words. Raymond Chandler was a poet on the page, but he wrote his hard-boiled poetry as clear, lucid prose. I think it's possible to write mystery beautifully, and with attention to beautiful language where that's appropriate, and still make it read like a mystery. The fact that your friend's writing stuck out for you as it did probably means he hasn't quite found the balance.

BHJ said...

Remember, a major goal of any writer (fiction or non-fiction) is to communicate with the reader. If that isn't a goal, the writer shouldn't bother trying to publish; just read it to the grandkids to put them to sleep.

If the genre audience is a middle-class American female with a job/career, she uses quite a different knowledge and background in reading than a trailer-trash redneck guy (generalization).

Know your audience as best you can. If your goal is to tell a ripping good story which gives an emotional response, think of that one person while you're doing your work.

Go write something great.

Lillian Archer said...

Know your audience, and know your goals. It all boils down to this dictum for writers who want to be commercially successful.

Patrick Dugan said...

Very interesting. Dan Simmons, the bestselling author Dan Simmons, has a series of essays on his website about writing well. In one of the essays, he talks about literary ambiguity, how Shakespeare used it, and how some other great poets used it, as a tool to make their poems last a long time. He went on to talk about how literary ambiguity is an important quality of "littrachure", as someone else put it, is not tolerated by audiences in the romance, crime, SF genres, and he goes on to say if you're interested in applying ambiguity the only place you have a chance is the literary genre. This sounds kinda like what you're talking about.

I would add that most people want to make sense of the world or have someone else make sense of the world for them, or even to have the sense they've made of the world reinforced by someone else, either through opinion, film, novel, music. Most people do not seem to LIKE ambiguity, but rather clarity, and will seek clarity out, even if the clarity is only one iteration of the truth, one viewpoint of a huge picture.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons genre writing is popular and tends to be WYSIWYG (giving precise answers to questions) while "littrachure" tries to be a house of mirrors, and more reflective of the world's ability to be more than one thing at one time.

In any event, I definitely think you're on to something with your premise here.

AD said...

Ok - I read 'True Grit' in July. Great book. I don't read many westerns so I don't know what readers of westerns look for. But it is still a great book. I think what you are saying holds some merit and that readers dislike books in a given genre that don't behave the way they want them too. But a great book is a great book and they cut across the lines.

bethy ::--++ said...

Maybe it's not about changing his style, as much as changing how he markets it? If the primary audience of his genre isn't drawn to his style, but he's happy both with his style and his genre, I would try to find who IS drawn to his style, and market the genre to them.
This problem is something that interests me quite a bit, as I try to market my client's novel. It is a mix of genres, almost excessively so. So I'm focusing on his particular style as the selling point.

Harambee Grey-Sun said...

Bethy makes a very good point. Even if you are a genre writer and are well-versed in that genre, you may feel the undying urge to break genre conventions. I feel writers of this sort (and I'm one of them) should think twice before toning down their style and maybe hone in on what makes their work different and market it that way. If your book mixes two or more genres that have rarely been mixed before, either focus on the style or coin a term for a new subgenre.

Of course, no matter what, you run the risk of having readers being bitterly disappointed in finding something new and different in what they assumed/hoped was a run-of-the-mill genre novel. Over at Diverse Pages, I just blogged about the reactions to literary writer Colson Whitehead's zombie novel, Zone One. Genre fans seemed to loathe it while more literary readers praised it for--you know--its more "literary" qualities.

brik said...

Why not point your 2nd(Type B) friend at your 1st("Verbose") friend's work and see what her opinion of his writing style is?