Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

There has been outrage amongst my circle of writer friends about the response to E.L. James’s new contribution to literature. For those just emerging from a cave or whatever, this is Grey, the same story told in her Fifty Shades trilogy, but from Christian Grey’s point of view. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed and frustrated to learn that Grey sold in excess of one million copies in four days. The question, inevitably, is why?

It’s not JUST marketing. Whether we like it or not, James’s faux BDSM rode the crest of a popularity wave, from whence it was picked up by Random House. Despite the cries of lousy writing, lack of editing, and the depiction of an abusive relationship, the books have out-sold everything except the Bible. People queued for this latest missive.

I should be so lucky.

James hit a nerve. She excited people’s imagination – even, dare I say, the many, many people who bought the books just to see if they were really as awful as everyone said they were. I read a few excerpts online but BDSM erotica (if that’s what it is) is not my thing, so I wasn’t tempted to read any more.

And that brings me back to the real point of this post – reader expectations. If you get it right, as James clearly did, riding on the coat tails of the mystifyingly popular Twilight, you make a killing.

My very good friend, Nya Rawlyns, writes in a variety of genres but these days her books seem to be classified as gay romance. Which is sad, because often it isn’t true. Take her latest offering The Eagle and the Fox.

TEaTFJosiah Foxglove is given a second chance when he takes over his family’s spread in the shadow of the Snowy Range. A veteran of the Gulf War, he came back broken in body and spirit.

Marcus Colton buried his long-time lover and best friend three years ago. Lonely and still grieving, Marcus finds solace in keeping his business afloat but that doesn’t help him get through the long, dark nights.

Damaged souls converge as violence wracks the small community of Centurion, WY. The town protects its own so when Kit Golden Eagle shows up, it’s easy to place blame on the stranger.

Kit Golden Eagle is running. From poverty, from abuse. Forced to live by his wits, the Ojibwe teen slowly succumbs to living a life of hate and lies.

It looks open and shut, but for Josiah and Marcus the facts simply don’t add up.

Something’s rotten in Centurion, something that smacks of a hate crime…

Unfortunately, this excellent book is diminished by reader expectations. Some look at the cover and expect a paranormal with shape shifters. (The eagle and the fox, you see.) Others will read the blurb and realise Kit Golden Eagle and Josiah Foxglove might be the eagle and the fox. That, and the fact no mention is made of shape shifting and the book isn’t listed as paranormal. Heck, it’s not even listed as a romance, yet it has been judged as one.

Expectations, you see.

If it’s listed in gay literature, it has to be a romance, it has to be steamy. Except it’s not. Sure, there’s a romance arc – with sex, even. Life tends to be like that – love will find a way. But it’s a loooong way short of the whole story.

What this book is is a slice of life in a small American town, where the drought hits hard and despair hits harder. Foxglove is a war vet with PTSD. Marcus is an in-the-closet gay man who has lost his partner. Petilune is a vulnerable young girl with a learning disability and Kit Golden Eagle is an embittered Native American kid making his way in the world as best he can. And, as the blurb says, something’s rotten in Centurion which will enmesh the whole community.

I love the way Rawlyns brings the tiny town of Centurion, overshadowed by Wyoming’s Snowy Range, to life. You don’t have to be American to relate. Transfer the story to a dusty wheat belt town in Western Australia and it’ll still make sense. Because it’s about the characters, you see. It isn’t a boiler plate, paint by numbers romance, it’s a slice of life with all the complexity that involves. Nothing like the nasty, fantasy world of Christian Grey.

This book is very difficult to slot into a box. I’ve spent some time considering where I’d put it on a bookshelf. Let’s see now… a slice of life starring a range of disadvantaged, damaged people. A small town mystery, hope and despair, starting again, love and loss… <Sigh> I guess it’s just going to have to go into Literature.

Oh – and for those to whom these things matter, it’s beautifully written. Go on, give it a try. There’s a link on the cover.

4 thoughts on “Reader expectations – a mixed blessing

  1. Julia Barrett

    These themes are, unfortunately, unclassifiable. Tragic. Can’t attract the right audience. As far as E.L. James is concerned, I’ve avoided her like the plague and I plan to continue to do so.

    1. Greta Post author

      That’s it in a nutshell, Julia. Nice to see I’m not the only person who isn’t into James.

  2. MonaKarel

    Such a human need to label and categorized and put everything into a neat, tidy box. Life’s just not neat and tidy, especially not interesting life.
    As for the popularity of 50 Shades (and Twilight???) I have no clue. Not for me but obviously someone liked them

Comments are closed.