#45: Setting Reader Expectations

Dear Story Nurse,

I’m reading yet another Irish lit fic where characters are implausibly rich and how they can afford stuff is handwaved. How do you feel about working financial realities into fiction?

—Susan Lanigan (she/her)

Dear Susan,

As with many questions about genre and characterization, I think the answer is “that depends.” Some readers care a lot about financial matters making sense in fiction; others love reading about the supposed lifestyles of the rich and famous, with little interest in realism; and many just don’t care one way or another. Some authors do the research and plotting necessary to get everything accurate and plausible down to the tiniest detail, and others don’t.

There are plenty of reasons that a reader might want to read about rich people without caring too much about how they got their money, and there are plenty of reasons that an author might want to write those stories. I don’t think anyone has a moral obligation to write or read stories about people who don’t have much or any money. (I do think that there is something approaching a moral obligation to take more care with depictions of poverty, because there you get into concerns about sensationalizing the plight of the marginalized for the enjoyment of the privileged, but there’s a whole separate post to be written about that. Fortunately, I wrote one.) What matters is whether the reader and the book are a good match. I think of books about ultra-rich people as belonging to a genre called wealth porn, and—as in most erotic work—realism is dispensed with because it would interfere with the fantasy, and fantasy is what the reader is there for.

You wrote in as a reader, but this is a writing advice blog, so I’ll stick to advising writers. The author’s surest path to reader satisfaction is deliberately picking an approach and then flagging it early on so readers know what to expect.

There’s nothing wrong with being a nitpicky reader; I’m one myself. I like to count bullets and reloads in thrillers, inquire about the economic underpinnings of fantasy kingdoms, and complain about the enormous New York apartments so often shown in film and television. As a nitpicker, I always appreciate when an author—and a publisher—signals right up front whether I will get satisfactory realism from the details of a book or need to suspend my disbelief with a block and tackle. For example, if the cover art of a Regency romance depicts a woman in what appears to be a repurposed 1980s prom dress, I’m not going to expect the gowns described in the text to be any more authentic to the 1810s; if the first chapter has a young woman showing a diamond ring to a friend who exclaims “He proposed?!”, I can let go of any hope that the author has done a moment’s research into the customs of the era. Sometimes that’s my cue to put down a book, and other times I’ll enjoy it as a fantasy of glitz and glamour. The important thing to me, as a reader, is that I get to make an informed choice.

So you started reading a literary novel expecting it to include plausibility, and instead got fantasy; since the fantastical aspects weren’t adequately flagged on the cover or early on in the text, you felt disappointed. I think this is because literary, a genre term, is associated with realism, a style of writing. But literary is no more a guarantee of realism than Regency is a guarantee of historical accuracy. It’s still up to the author and the publisher to make it clear what kind of literary work this is, so that readers can go in with eyes wide open.

As one reader to another, I hope your next book gives you better information up front so you can enjoy it properly!

Cheers,

Story Nurse

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