Judging a book by its audience

I recently read a book that many people have been claiming in reviews to be a YA fantasy novel, when in actuality it’s not. This isn’t a judgment against reviewers making that mistake. In all honesty, I can see where they were coming from in that assumption, and it took me double-checking my info from the publisher to confirm that indeed it wasn’t intended to be for younger audiences.

But what really struck me while I was trying to write my review is that I realized that I would have rated the book differently depending on whether or not it was intended as a YA novel or not.

It may seem odd to some people to hold different genres to different standards. After all, good is good, right? If I liked it, or didn’t like it, it ought to be for the same reasons as I’d like or dislike any other book.

But much in the way that you can’t compare Baby’s First Book of Colours to The Shining (to use two random examples), the same applies between other more similar genres. What might be tolerable in one looks ridiculous in another. Characters who act immaturely in adult novels might get a bit of a pass if they were in YA novels, because those characters are typically intended to be read by and as those who aren’t as mature as fully-grown adults. You’ll notice that often when I review YA novels, I make mention of the romantic subplot, but don’t often do that for more adult books. YA novels nearly always contain romance, usually as a fairly major plot point, where often adult novels may contain romance but often there’s less of an emphasis on it. At least in the books I tend to read.

This is just one way in which I look at YA novels differently than adult novels. Certain genres are more likely to contain some things or not contain others, and they bear mentioning. Likewise, different intended audiences affect how I judge a book. As I said earlier, some things are more permissible in fiction intended for younger audiences than for older audiences. A less complex and detailed writing style, for example, is often present in YA fiction far more than in adult fiction.

The book that prompted me to write this was rated 3 stars. Had it been intended as a YA novel, I think one of the things that brought the book down in my eyes (a less refined writing style) wouldn’t have made as big an impact on me, and I would have rated the book higher. Imagine if N K Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was told in the style of Green Eggs and Ham. The story it told could have been the same, but except as a writing experiment, the style of writing really wouldn’t have worked.

($10 to the person who rewrites that book in the style of Dr. Seuss. Seriously. I will pay real money to see this!)

There are some things that we expect in the types of books that we read.  A lot of that depends on individual taste. Some people would be annoyed with the presence of elves in their horror novels, other people would view it as an interesting twist. Some people enjoy insta-love, other people find it distasteful. And some people will enjoy one thing in a certain genre but not in another. Example there, I tend to enjoy YA dystopian novels more than adult dystopian novels. The atmosphere of the story tends to be different in YA novels, and I feel a greater connection to the oppressive environment showcased in most YA books than the planned obsolescence or gritty chaos of more adult-oriented dystopian material. (Probably says a lot about my upbringing, right there…)

Perhaps the problem isn’t the material, or the writing style. Perhaps the problem is marketing. A book could be an amazing piece of YA fiction, but be lackluster or standard as a piece of adult fiction, and the marketing of that book affects how I see it. I get my mind in a certain mode, look for certain things in the book based on the pre-conceptions and expectations I’ve already set out for myself based upon what somebody else tells me the book will contain.

Unfair? Does it punish the book and the author for somebody’s advertising blunder? Maybe. I don’t review the advertising campaign for a book, but self-reflection tells me that it does affect what I read and what I think. As much as I tell myself that I’m reviewing a book as objectively as I can, clearly this incident has shown me that what I write is far more subjective than I gave myself credit for. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it means that my reviews are being shaped and coloured before I even really open the book, and in ways that I find difficult to notice and take into account. On the other hand, reviewing a book with respect to its genre and intended audience, as well as with a comparison to many tropes common to the genre, give people a better idea of how the book might be received by fans of those genres or tropes. I wouldn’t review contemporary fiction or nonfiction with the same criteria as fantasy (where are all the unicorns in Japanese political history texts, anyway?), therefore it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise – or such a sin – to apply that same tactic to the particular genres I do review. Even when that applies to the perceived quality of what I’m reading.

My eyes have been opened, at any rate, and I’m certainly going to be paying more attention to my perceptions of my perceptions, if that makes any sense.

Do you review different genres differently depending on what they are? Have you come across any books that you think you may have received better had they been marketed differently, or had you viewed them as a different genre? Let me know in the comments.

5 comments on “Judging a book by its audience

  1. That’s a very complicated subject you analysed. I want to give my opinion but I realize I still don’t really know where I stand on this so I will wait for a while and put my thoughts in order while other people write theirs. As in most cases where there’s a “problem”, I think everything becomes clearer when one defines the various elements of the question. One such may be what you want your reviews to be, who they are intended for (yourself? others? the book itself?). Another might be what we perceive with the current (marketed) classifications of books (YA, adult, fantasy, sci-fi and so on). I won’t write more for now but I think a key factor is where you wrote:
    “I get my mind in a certain mode, look for certain things in the book based on the pre-conceptions and expectations I’ve already set out for myself based upon what somebody else tells me the book will contain.”
    Want it or not, this factors greatly when judgind a book and it’s extremely hard to avoid.

  2. I absolutely, positively, most definitely review books in different genres against different criteria, and I do it very conscientiously. Part of this is that my niche is fantasy, and if I’m reviewing a book that’s not fantasy, I feel the need to step back a little more so that I don’t find myself writing a review that includes something like “But it didn’t have any magic …” That’s actually how I first noticed that bias, and I’ve tried to stay pretty aware of it. And if I’m reading realistic fiction of any kind, I really don’t want to have to feel the need to suspend my disbelief almost as much as I do when I read fantasy—if the world doesn’t feel quite right in fantasy… well, I’m reading fantasy. If it doesn’t feel quite right in a contemporary novel, something is wrong (unless it’s very clearly intentional and serves a clear purpose).

    I think for me that the biggest YA vs Adult problem I had was with Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha series, which is mostly a YA book that could have been so much better if it had been written for adults. I actually rated the books lower because the restrictions of the YA audience just made it not work as well. The story/characters should determine who your audience is more than anything else. It’s kind of a tangential discussion to yours, but one that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about. I have a post on that floating around … Ah, there it is. http://classycatbooks.wordpress.com/2013/09/05/young-adult-adult-and-new-adult/

    I love the comparison of Baby’s First Book of Colors to The Shining, by the way. That’s a very extreme example of having different expectations across target audiences, but it effectively drives the point home.

  3. This kind of thoughtful, thorough writing is one of the many reasons I love coming to this blog. :)

    I do find myself in agreement that marketing/prior expectations absolutely inform my interpretation of a book’s fault or merits. If I know I’m reading an author’s first novel, I tend to be more forgiving of faults in plot or style unless they’re really annoying or egregious. When I first read through the Harry Potter series, as Rowling’s authorial voice became stronger and more confident, I became disappointed more because of the chances she didn’t take rather than because of the formulaic plot devices (since they are, ostensibly, books intended for a younger audience).

    One YA novel which I recently finished is Blackout (by Robison Wells), which has an interesting slant on the dystopian-YA market and, best of all, no love triangle or insta-love. There is some romance, but it’s organic to the characters, and that’s a welcome breath of fresh air to me. The fewer tiresome “Which boy will she choose?” questions that I have to deal with, the better.

  4. Pingback: October in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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