Reader expectations are a blessing and a bane to both readers and authors. To authors because they can either productively constrain or unproductively overwhelm the writing process. To readers because expectations can either heighten or warp their experience of reading a book. It might be nice if they didn’t exist at all, and, of course, they vary widely across an author’s readership. Which is why authors shouldn’t worry about them at all. Except I suspect that they do even as they try not to. And the more I write fiction, the more I suspect that the worst reader expectations authors have looming over them is not the readers out there in the world, but the reader in their own head.
I suspect that even though it’d be nice for authors to not have to deal with reader expectations at all, for most of them, it’s more than just a necessary evil. For one, most authors do want a readership and understand that with readers come reader expectations. For another, expectations give authors something to tease and play with and subvert — not for capricious reasons, but because literature is a conversation and most authors — especially the four I’ll be talking about below — want to further that conversation is interesting ways.
I’ve been thinking of reader expectations quite a bit lately because of the nature of the SF&F novels I’ve read over the past couple of months. I found myself becoming more aware than normal of the expectations I had as a reader for these novels and then trying to figure out what those were, why I had them, and how they varied. I’ve come to realize that my expectations form a sort of benign tyranny that I can’t escape (although modifications may be possible).
Please note that this is not exactly a review of these books which means there are spoilers ahead, although (as often is the case with my writing on genre fiction) I won’t be spoiling the entire plots or the endings (how’s that for setting up reader expectations?).
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Like sophomore albums, sophomore novels are notoriously laden with anxiety and expectation. When your sophomore effort is the sequel to a debut novel that swept the Hugo, Nebula, BSFA, Clarke and Locus awards? Those are some heavy expectations to live up to. And yet, my perception is that reader expectations for Ancillary Sword were not miles high. I think readers knew that there was no way that the second Leckie novel could surpass or even live up to the first — not in terms of the quality of writing and plotting but in relation to the way the first swept in and dominated the conversation.
But even with those more realistic expectations, Ancillary Sword seems to have been met by many with readers with “yeah, it’s good. It’s not as good as the first.” I had absorbed a little bit of that feeling by the time I read it, but largely came in, I think, with a different set of expectations. I was not looking for epic-scale extension of the first. I had not been as disoriented by the sole use of female pronouns and so didn’t see it as much as a novelty and a gimmick. And I was more interested in the personal dynamics of the characters than the over-arching political machinations within which they collided.
Which is why I think I like the novel more than a lot of other readers. Here’s what I mean by that:
Ancillary Sword is a mystery novel where we have a fairly good sense of who did what and possibly even why. The real mystery is: how are the key characters going to react to the events and personalities set in motion by the mystery? And specifically: Breq (who is the remnants of a ship AI in its only surviving ancillary [human body]), Seivarden (who is a military officer and aristocrat who had been in cryosleep for 1,000 years), and Lieutenant Tisarwat (who had been implanted with an AI copy of Raadch emperor Anaander Mianaai and is trying to cope with the that copy being removed and who she now is). In other words, we have three characters all of whom have reasons to be considered core to the Raadch empire and its socio-political structure, but who also are all alienated from it and its technologies and all of whom have different levels of awareness of each other on both an emotional and technological level. Most specifically: because Breq had been an ancillary of a ship, when she is made captain of Mercy of Kalr she gains more access to the ship AI and through it her crew than a “normal” captain would. This means that from a narrative standpoint, we’re getting something different than in Ancillary Sword — something between the simultaneous awareness of Justice of Toren and the complete isolation of Breq. I was expecting Leckie to do something interesting with that and she did.
To put it succinctly: Leckie delivered on furthering the socio-cultural and political aspects of the situations she created in Ancillary Sword. This worked for me because that’s what I like best in her work. Readers who were more interested in the more space opera elements of the series were likely more likely to feel let down.
I think a sidenote on the use of gender pronouns is also in order: whereas I wondered at the outset if it was going to become annoying, I found Leckie’s insistence on using only (what is in English) the female pronoun even more effective in this novel because of the sexual and social dynamics that explode. It made even more of a feminist statement in that the sexual power dynamics resisted what normally would have made for the most lazy of gender stereotyping. For me, it underlined the strength of that initial decision.
Hawk by Steven Brust
Now that we’re 13 novels into the Vlad Taltos series, what does a reader expect from the fourteenth novel Hawk? I think we expect:
- That it will be witty and amusing.
That it will relate to the house that the novel is named after.
That it will offer something clever in terms of narrative and/or plot structure — something clever in the telling.
That the overall storyline will be furthered.
And I think we have now come to be rather confident that Brust is going to deliver on all four of those expectations. But I think for readers of the series, myself included, something more specific was expected of Hawk: it’s time for Vlad’s situation to change. That Brust knew this as well shows how good he is and how in tune he is with his core readership. Even more lovely is that he uses techniques 1-4 above to make it all happen. And in doing so he squeezes out extra dread and pathos. It’s not easy to bring deftness of prose and structure and humor and even odd whimsy to a story and still bring the sense of danger and the underlying, well, sadness and sense of loss.
And that’s why this is such a Hawk Hawk. Why it’s such a Daymar novel even if, though he is crucial to the plot, he doesn’t pop up all that much in the story. I’ve always found Daymar to be a fascinating character — perverse not in a perverted way. Capricious and oblivious but also knowing and because of that knowing tinged with darkness. So it’s fitting that this be the book where Vlad takes on the fact that the price the criminal organization the Jhereg has put on his head has for much too long ruled his life and his relationships. And it’s fitting that Daymar be the mechanism by which he attempts to do so.
This many novels into a series, the expectations are that Brust give us what we want but also give us something new. He does that with Hawk. Just like he has in the past. There’s a level of trust Brust has developed with his readers that goes beyond simply expectations. It’s a beautiful thing and even more beautiful when it’s used in such an interesting, renewing way.
The Peripheral by William Gibson
What expectations to have for the latest Gibson novel The Peripheral? I know that I’m not the only fan who enjoyed the Bigend novels but hoped that he would return to work that was more science fictional. What messed me up is that somewhere in something I read the term “time travel” got attached to the book. I hate time travel. Compounding that fact, Gibson is at his most spare, most techno self which means readers are thrown into the thick of it without much scaffolding at all, which meant I started to get impatient a few chapters in. My expectations were both too high and too low. I was prepared for disappointment. And yet there’s also a respect there that no matter what it’s worth sticking with just to see if he delivers and so in spite of my wariness and my confusion about the settings as the novel beings what kept me going is the prose is just so good. Smooth and buttery with just the right hints and weird details to show that this isn’t the present. It’s the future. Or futures. And so when we hit page 68 in Chapter 18 and the alternating POVs we’ve been tracking get explained in relation to each other, I was hooked (sidenote: the chapter titles are a spec-fic story in and of themselves, a little added pleasure to the reading experience).
This, perhaps, has led me to overvalue the novel. Twisting expectations can do that if the ways in which they get twisted are effective and pleasurable. It’s nice when an author delivers when, at first, you think they aren’t. And this really shows why authors are so at the mercy of reader expectations: there’s no reason why Gibson deserved my wariness. Or at least no good reasons.
I won’t spoil the ending. But what’s fascinating about The Peripheral in relation to our (my) expectations of Gibson’s fiction is that he lets go of some of the cool-ness we had come to, ahem, expect from him. There’s a strange tenderness to how he seems to feel about the characters (or at least how the implied author feels). I’m not sure if I completely buy it. I’m not sure if Gibson has changed those things that drive his authorial persona. Or to put it more grandiose: is he really that optimistic? I don’t know. Part of me doesn’t trust that ending. But it has changed how I view the author quite a bit. Whatever the ultimate success of The Peripheral (and I’m still ruminating on that point) it completely, successfully messed with my readerly expectations but all in ways that are, if not old-Gibsonesque, are quite possibly new-Gibsonesque. It’s also messed quite a bit with my expectations for his next book. He’s added a new dimension to his conversation, and it’s one I want to continue.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss
If Leckie gets allowances, Brust trust, and Gibson a measured respect, then what of my readerly expectations for Rothfuss? Wary is perhaps too mild but it’s the most complete single adjective. Look, I enjoyed Rothfuss’s prose in the first two titles in The Kingkiller Chronicle and some of the characterization, but there were episodes in both books that annoyed me. So why bother with The Slow Regard of Silent Things? Because I enjoyed the Bast story in Rogues and because I’m curious about Auri and because I do like his prose style. So there’s wariness and curiosity and then Rothfuss has to go and directly address reader expectations in a foreword to the novel. It’s not so much the “You might not want to buy this book” that annoyed me. It’s the “it’s only fair to warn you that this is a bit of a strange story” and “it doesn’t do a lot of things a classic story is supposed to do”. It gets exactly why I’m frustrated with him as an author because I see so much promise in his literariness but have been burned by those elements that play to whoever he’s warning in this foreword (or even worse explaining to in the endnote) or perhaps to those aspects of how he relates to his authorial self that require those additions.
This makes me a snob. But I think it’s clear from his front and back matter that Rothfuss is one. And here’s the deal: we meet in our snobbery in this story. Which is a good thing and I wish he’d indulge this snobbery more often and without the self-consciousness. And his prose is the best it’s ever been and the strangeness (which shouldn’t be warned against) is quite lovely. Expectations exceeded. I’m totally sucked into Auri’s world and the voice Rothfuss has developed for her. Except the wariness is still there. And it was right to be. Because, although subtle, the story still ties into some of the key issues that disrupt my experience of reading his work. Nicolette Stewart explains it at Book Punks better than I can, but as the story progresses, I find myself foundering on the fact that Auri can’t just be Auri, she has to be herself in relation to Kvothe and she can’t just be who she is because of who she is but it has to be because of what was done to her. And it makes me gnash my teeth because if Rothfuss can’t let go of those things that make me wary with a book like this then what hope do we have of meeting each other’s expectations in the final novel of the trilogy? And it makes me sad because it seems like I should be one of his readers — that there’s room for a reader like me in his work. But we can’t quite seem to meet up. And that messes with how I approach each new story of his because each time I go in, I go in expecting that divide to be there. That’s not fair to me or Rothfuss. Which means that someone is going to need to get me to completely rethink my reader expectations before I will feel like it’s wise to pick up his next book. In retrospect, I should have seen Rothfuss’s attempt to set reader expectations as a sign that as much as it seemed that he was playing to me, he couldn’t quite let go of the expectations of his larger readership.
The Benign Tyranny of Reader Expectations
We all have our unique set of reader expectations that vary by author and work. Those can establish a benign tyranny in a reader that shade how we experience what we read in ways that aren’t necessarily under our conscious control. But those are also why the conversation can be so interesting. They lead to a variety of experiences and hearing each other’s experiences can help us re-visit our own and influence our reading experiences yet to come. What bothers me in Rothfuss may not bother other readers. What delights me in Brust may not seem quite as delightful to other readers. How I approached Ancillary Sword is clearly not how some other readers approached it. And I really have no idea what expectations other readers have of Gibson (talk to me about it in the comments even if you haven’t yet read The Peripheral).
What gets us in trouble is when we don’t examine our expectations and don’t articulate those when we make claims about the merits of individual novels and other works of narrative art. This doesn’t mean that we should self-consciously lay those out every time we talk about a novel. That could get quite annoying. Rather, it means that as we enter the conversation we should realize that literature is not a game of like or dislike, on an author’s side or not, and let that knowledge of the tyranny of our own readerly expectations not cause us to attempt to foist that tyranny upon others both in how we articulate our own experience and how we react to what others have to say about their own reading experiences.