“Ask no questions, and you’ll be told no lies.”
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
I have a thing that I do. Whenever I visit an independent bookstore, I try to pick out a book or two with no preconceptions. That is, a book whose cover I haven’t seen, containing a story I haven’t read a review about, and preferably, written by an author whose name isn’t familiar. Because I read books and read about books so much, this takes a little bit of effort, but really, it’s not terribly difficult. Most bookstores will have a section for Staff Picks, titles recommended by the bookish employees who love them. Often, I’ll find something unexpected there.
Why do I do this, you ask? I’m one of those people who will not read what the critics have to say about movies I really want to see. I’m often frustrated when trailers show too much, or when the back cover or inside flaps of a book seem to tell the whole story contained within. Of course, it’s impossible to come to a reading experience without some preconceived notions. We have our impressions of the cover; perhaps we’ve read other books by the same author. Maybe there were aspects of this author’s last book—a shocking ending, a quick-witted prose style—that you’re hoping to find in this new work. These associations are normal and in most cases, won’t be disappointed. But I’ve noticed a disturbing trend lately, which treats books as products and generates responses not unlike what you’d find in a consumer review discussing a new car, or a cleaning product. It’s all about expectations.
Certainly, authors have always had brands, even before they were called that, and publishers have always contemplated cover designs in terms of placing books in the marketplace. In recent times, however, the sheer quantity of books published has increased dramatically, in parallel growth, it would seem, with our increased consumption of, well, just about everything. Alongside this growth, the internet provides a universal pulpit where everyone is invited to speak. The commodification of books has encouraged a legion of entrepreneurs to enter the business, in all facets of book publishing. This includes the people who write the books, design, sell and review them. Obviously, we expect that a new car we buy will run. But if the commercial shows an attractive guest in the passenger seat, along for a breezy day at the beach, do we really expect these things to happen once we sign the loan papers? Does a book cover with a vibrant and striking font over a dark city scene guarantee a fast-paced thriller? If the author of a best-selling romance blurbs a new author, should we expect both authors to have a similar, clever style? These aspects of book-selling—the cover, the genre, the placement—are all helpful tools, all attempts by the business folks to find readers for a story they believe in. But shouldn’t we, the readers, keep books at an elevated level, not just as some new product vying for our attention among countless others on the shelf?
I went looking for examples of the type of response I’m talking about. Emily St. John Mandel’s new novel, Station Eleven, seems to be quite different from her last, The Lola Quartet, which I enjoyed very much. I don’t think she’ll mind my pointing out a few snippets from dissenting reviews of the book, given that the overwhelming response has been enthusiastically positive. Here are a few quotes from readers’ comments on Goodreads and Amazon:
“I found there were too many different genres fighting for attention.”
“I adore post-apoc and dystopia. This, unfortunately, doesn’t qualify.”
And even from good reviews:
“It was exactly what I was looking for.”
“The genre is sci-fi, I guess, but it’s really a mystery carefully crafted.”
This discussion of which genre the book is, of what the reader expected and whether those expectations were met—is this a review of a work of art? I mean, it’s wonderful that we have intelligent, well-read readers who are willing to put up their opinions to help other readers. I love the online feedback, good and bad, and I use it myself sometimes when deciding on a book. But if your expectations prior to seeing page one are coloring your overall reaction to a book, maybe that’s your problem? If an author is not doing what you thought he’d do by the tenth page, maybe you need to take a deep breath and try to find out what he IS doing. Because he’s given it some thought, I can assure you.
I guess I’m hearkening back to my early years in college. A book would be assigned in a class and I’d have absolutely no idea what to expect. I miss that discovery, that willingness to follow the author along on whatever journey they’d planned, and I love when I have an opportunity to have that feeling now. I sometimes think it would be great to do an experiment where books are presented with plain covers, without the titles and authors noted, to readers who are on hiatus from whatever competes for their attention on a regular basis—family, jobs, responsibilities—and we’d give them the leisure to read without expectation, without rush, without the necessity of generating a response for public consumption. This may be unrealistic, a pipe dream. It’s a busy world and we’d all rather spend our hard-earned cash on books we’re going to like. In the very least, I’d hope that readers would, once in a while, crowd out the voices they’ve created over many years of reading and reading about books. Upend your expectations. Think outside of your reading box. There will still be books you like and books you don’t like as well. The last time I made two choices from a staff-recommended shelf at a local store, I didn’t care for either one. In fact, I really disliked one of them. But that’s okay. I had no expectations, and it was an exciting reading experience, opening that first page to a vast unknown, with only the author for a guide.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.