Reader Audiences Matter Most: To whom are you appealing?

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The question in the title of this post can’t always be answered.

This is not a book review, but I am taking the liberty to use The Goldfinch to make some of my points. I’m only a little more than halfway finished with this book and I usually don’t look at other reviews until I have completed the book and written my own review when I do book reviews for indie authors. I did read some of the reviews for this book when I approached the halfway mark, because I wasn’t certain I wanted to continue. I have mixed feelings. It’s well-written, and then it’s not. I’ll try to explain.

I read across many genres, and seldom post book reviews for traditionally published books. Gone Girl, The Girl of the Train, Fifty Shades, The Fault in Our Stars and other such reads, have garnered so much attention I feel less compelled to promote them. I mostly provide reviews to promote Indies that I feel I can recommend.

I’ve brought up the issue of commercial fiction versus literary fiction before. I know there are some authors who cross-over exceptionally well and have become quite popular up-market authors.

Annie Neugebauer has a nifty article here explaining the differences and providing some examples:

http://annieneugebauer.com/2014/01/27/the-differences-between-commercial-and-literary-fiction/

Her key points (which are debatable) are as follows:

1.

The aim of commercial fiction is entertainment.

The aim of literary fiction is art.

 

2.

In commercial fiction, the protagonist does the work.

In literary fiction, the reader does the work.

  

3.

In commercial fiction, the writing style is clean and pared-down.

In literary fiction, the writing style takes more risks.

  

4.

The main character of commercial fiction aims to be likable to the reader.

The main character of literary fiction aims to reveal the human condition.

  

5.

Commercial fiction follows genre precepts.

Literary fiction toys with genre precepts.

Granted, there is commercial genre fiction that has aspects of literary fiction, and literary fiction which has aspects of commercial genre appeal, but I think Annie does well to summarize these.

A side note here from SoIReadThisBookToday : http://soireadthisbooktoday.com/2015/02/07/they-are-watching-what-you-read/ Is that much of what is marketed and sold digitally actually isn’t read in the digital form of the most popular books. “With Gone Girl, the third most purchased book at Kobo, only 46 percent of the readers who purchased the book made it to the end. Fifty Shades of Gray? Only 48 percent could stomach it all the way through. The most popular French book, in terms of sales, shows “Le Suicide Français,” may have been a runaway hit in terms of sales, but just 7 percent of Kobo’s French readers made it through the book’s conclusion.”

That tells me that just because a book is trendy, doesn’t mean it was all that well received by the audience.

This doesn’t take into account paper copies sold. I’m still not sure about reviews. Seems like people who really love a book or really hate it are most likely to leave a review. Of course the trendier books will have more positive reviews.

Which brings me back to The Goldfinch, winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

(19,812) Total reviews on Amazon

3.7 out of 5 stars

5 star

8,171

 

4 star

4,152

 

3 star

3,402

 

2 star

2,175

 

1 star

1,912

 

Now this book stayed on the Amazon Top 100 Best Sellers list for months last year. (Long before it became a Pulitzer Prize.) There are reviews posted everywhere. There are even full length books being sold that analyze this piece of work.

It does seem to be one of those books that crosses over to up-market fiction.

It’s artful.

Both the reader and the protagonist have to do some of the work.

The writing style is certainly risky.

There is a great focus on the human condition.

And it does follow genre precepts (primarily mystery novel).

Here’s the deal though: It is the very thing that editors are telling us all the time simply doesn’t work.

Apparently it does.

It is also 755 pages long.

As part of her Indie Authors Series , Jodie Renner tells us:  How to Slash Your Word Count by 20-40% – and tighten your story without losing any of the good stuff!

http://blog.janicehardy.com/2015/02/how-to-slash-your-word-count-by-20-40.html

Is your manuscript too long?

  • Do you have a meandering, overly wordy writing style? If so, you’ll need to tighten it up by cutting all unnecessary words.
  • Do you have long descriptions of the setting or characters, or lengthy character backstory?
  • Are there any scenes that drag, lack in tension and intrigue, or just don’t drive the story forward?
  • Have you or others noticed repetitions of various kinds (imagery, plot points, ideas, descriptions, phrases, words)?
  • In general, can your scenes, paragraphs and sentences be leaner?

 

She goes on to say that you have to “earn your right to write long”. I don’t necessarily agree with that statement. I think it is more a matter of style and what the reader prefers.

 

Most genre commercial fiction and much of what I read that was written by indie authors follows Jodie’s points. These, for the most part, are easy reads. They appeal to a modern audience that wants fast everything. But if you are looking for deeply thought-provoking literature, you are probably not going to find it in a pared down version of a story.

 

The Goldfinch is reminiscent of the greatest literature I have ever read. Jodie Renner, as an editor, would have had a field day with it. And, yet, I see her points. The Goldfinch could have probably been cut of a good 250 to 300 pages and been a much tighter, more readable novel without loosing either that value of the prose or content of the story.

 I am having a Love:Hate relationship with this book. I hope I am able to finish it.

Donna Tartt is inspired by magic, beauty in the everyday, and love…no matter what. The Goldfinch is infused with adventure, love of life, and great souls. There are wonderful passages of clever, artful prose. It appeals to my heart, spirit, and mind.

However, there is stream of consciousness that meanders all over the pages, often not making any point at all relevant to the crux of the story being told. There are miles-long sentences filled with colons, semi-colons, multiple commas that drag through entire paragraphs and will make you cringe and scream. I would like to think there is some masterful symbolism here, but it’s buried deep.

I’m 100% positive that she had to have an exclusive editor that could deeply appreciate her prose.

It all boils down to what audience you are appealing to as an author.

Do you ever really know?

I’ll keep writing my genre fiction crime novel series and maintain that bare bones writing style, but I’m not giving up on my philosophical, artful prose just yet. Maybe with enough practice in both styles, I’ll someday be a popular cross over, up-market author. I won’t hold my breath, but it’s fun to dream.

I don’t envy the parts of The Goldfinch that make me cringe and want to scream, but I do admire that Donna Tartt had the guts to write until her heart was content and put it out here for a reader audience to enjoy.

35 thoughts on “Reader Audiences Matter Most: To whom are you appealing?

  1. Funny to read this now, because a few hours ago I was looking through my book shelves deciding which book to read next. I’ve just finished a couple Indie novels so it’s time for something mainstream. I had The Goldfinch in my hands, but then I put it back on the shelf and picked up a Kathy Reichs novel instead. Guess I’m in the mood for bare-bones commercial fiction right now. 🙂

    I’m not a fan of meandering passages so I’m not sure how I’ll feel about The Goldfinch. I can’t imagine trying to shop around a 755-page novel at this stage in my writing career. Editors and agents would laugh me right into their slush piles.

    • I hear ya! I can’t imagine an agent willing to take such a chance on a piece of work like this. A 755 page tome called timeless, I guess, is contemporary fiction worthy of The Pulitzer. After reading the first three paragraphs, I wondered if her editor had been; perhaps, intoxicated or half asleep during the editing process. Just read the first three paragraphs. They do pull you in, but make you wonder what the hell they were thinking. It is most beautiful and most hideous writing all at the same time. Perplexing.

    • Glad you enjoyed it. I found many of the included posts helpful, even if I didn’t totally agree with everything. I don’t think this is so very high brow. The main character, Theo, loses his mother in a terrorist explosion in a museum and the thirteen year old boy steals a famous painting that his mother had admired. The author did her research. There are parallels between Theo’s life and the original artist’s life and death. Theo basically becomes a thug in the art underworld and all his friends are motherless thugs. He’s not a likable character and neither is anyone else in the book. There is a mystery surrounding the painting and what happens to it. Adult Theo narrates the story and he obviously has issues. I’m sure there is much for me to learn and absorb by reading this book, even if it violates so much of what I have been learning about writing and appealing to your audience. Just proves it takes all kinds.

  2. I read the Gold Finch a while back and found it went on and on too long. The only reason I finished it–i put it down several times without feeling the urge to race back to the book–is I didn’t want to miss anything. Many times I found myself saying the same things as you, Susan. I wondered how she got away with breaking so many rules. Sigh.

    • Seriously!!! No rules and managed traditionally published. I am invested in seeing how things turn out for the main character. I’m also curious to know the outcome of the painting. I’ll finish it, but I’ll be asking myself what all the fuss was about for a long time. This book could have been half as long and been a very good book.

  3. I am a longtime admirer of Donna Tartt (her first book The Secret History is one of my all-time favourites) but I couldn’t finish The Goldfinch. I am the only one in my circle of friends who didn’t like it – at all. Great post Susan!

    • I would like to read something else she has written. I appreciate what you have to say, and I hate to judge an author based on one piece of work. I’ll pull down The Secret History and give it a try. I think much of her prose is delightful, but I honestly don’t believe she was in her right mind when she wrote this and I know that sounds critical, but it’s more an observation than a criticism. I have a thought process disorder and this writing seems a lot like my thinking when I have an episode…just disorganized. I’m serious about that. It’s very creative and I have wondered if my creativity would be enhanced if I took a medication holiday, but I’m wary to try…it can be so horrible to be over the edge and wondering if you’ll ever get back to stable ground.

      • Agreed she is an exceptional talent but something was ‘off’. The few chapters I managed to slog through I found very repetitive and drawn out. Her writing in The Secret History is pristine. Just awe-inspiring. Re: medication for your disorder, sometimes Susan it is best to try something than to go through life wondering.

        • I have ambivalencies because I have been on both sides of that fence before. I was highly creative off meds, but later crashed in a downward spiral that was almost impossible to crawl out of. I may chance it some day. Thanks for you recommendation, Yolanda. I would like to see her other work.

  4. Thanks for the big picture here, Susan – it has sealed my decision about whether or not to read your featured book. I have SO much reading to do in my jobs, that when I read for fun I want it to be just that – FUN. Entertainment. I don’t want to spend time on symbolism, verbose descriptions, and prose that “must be savored” – I want to read a good story.

  5. I was surprised to read that so many people don’t finish a book. I probably finish 99% of the books I start. I have a hard time quitting. That’s why I read reviews and choose my books carefully. I like to read a book that has everything: an engaging plot; interesting, complex characters; and artful prose.

    • This book has all of the above. You may be like one of the 15,000 who actually wrote positive reviews for this book. I’m certain thousands more read it and liked it and didn’t write reviews. I can’t say I don’t like the book. It makes me think and I like books that do…but it is a long one.

  6. I read The Goldfinch a while ago. I remember really loving the first half of the book, and I was completely caught up in the story.I did not think the writing meandered. Then I got bogged down in the second half. I think I was simply more interested in the young boy’s story than I was once he was grown. I was also caught up in work while I was reading the book, so I didn’t have the time to read it as quickly as I would have liked, and which it probably deserved.

    I am not someone who likes “easy reads,” but I like don’t think a reader should have to work either. (Well, perhaps in reading an author from a previous century, where it might take some work to understand outdated language or archaic words.) There are some very popular books that I think are so badly written that I just can’t read them. I guess that’s just me. Then again, I don’t like fast food either. 🙂

  7. Very timely post, Susan! I have an audio version of the Goldfinch but have yet to listen to it. A friend is urging me to do, saying she really enjoyed the novel in audio form. Still, with an audiobook, I have a harder time being patient with meandering and the like. I did like The Secret History and recommend it, although I think Tartt could have ended it a chapter or two sooner. I generally agree with the differences between commercial and literary fiction. Literary fiction is more about pushing boundaries and breaking rules, but these still need to done well, with a command of the language and structure lying underneath. If you feel an author is being sloppy or lazy, then they probably are.

    • It is interesting. I think it is one I would like to reread…except that it is so long and there is a lot of repetition. Maybe I’ll have a verdict after I get through the whole thing. Someone else recommended The Secret History as a better example of her work. I think I’ll try that one, if I ever get through this one.

  8. I haven’t read The Goldfinch, but your article brings up a great point–the difference between literary and commercial fiction.

    As an inexperienced writer, I think I’m writing something of a commercial fiction story, but I like to write artful prose and explore philosophical themes too. I can’t help it! Unfortunately, I don’t think an agent will touch it. I don’t even plan to query.

    Thank god for self-publishing. I’m hoping I can find an audience who likes an edgy romance with literary elements.

    I get bored with the bland sentences in commercial fiction, but then I’m sometimes overwhelmed with waiting for the payoff of literary fiction (those huge bricks like The Goldfinch). This may sound naive, but why can’t we have both?

    • Your last paragraph pretty much sums it up for me, too. I like elements of both so the upmarket authors really appeal to me. I love to read Anne Rice, and she was one of the upmarket authors listed in the original article who cross over. That’s really the best of both worlds. 🙂

    • Thanks. I know. You’ve got to have an “in”. A long-time relationship with an editor and an agent who truly believe in the artistic aspect of writing and have faith in Picasso and Jackson Pollack.

  9. This was a very thought-provoking blog! Thanks so much for reposting it or I’d have missed it. I’d seen the stats in the NYT article last week, but this was very well presented.

  10. Pingback: Well Read? Or Not Well Read? #MondayBlogs | 1WriteWay

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