A colleague here at Amazing Stories, Chris Gerwel, recently wrote an essay where he mentioned Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go as an example of lit-fic with speculative elements.
That it is, and one of the best novels I’ve ever read. I recommend it to everyone. But if you haven’t read it yet, I feel for you, because you probably know the novel’s big secret, now that it’s become a movie and all. You’ve been deprived of the experience of going into it blind, thinking it is another amusing literary novel from Ishiguro, and then … wham. The big revelation hits you between the eyes like the corner of a cupboard door when you stand up without looking, and you’re never quite the same again.
Some novels work best when you have no idea what’s in store, or are actively misled by the packaging to think they’re something else.
Another example off my current reading list: Dostoevsky’s The Devils. You’re led by the presentation to think that this is a Russian classic. Well it is, but don’t the words “Russian classic” make you think of histrionic women flinging themselves in front of trains, serfs getting ridden down by droshkys, army officers in the Crimea fussing over their wardrobes, drunken intellectuals driving themselves mad over slights to their honor, and other sordid hugger-muggery? All set to a score by Prokofiev. Surprise! The Devils is a knockabout comedy. If it were televised it would be the 19th century’s answer to Monty Python.
I gave that away because I hope it’ll make you want to read it.
But I’m not giving away the reason you should read another of my mismarketed favorites, Under the Skin by Michel Faber. It’s just a literary novel. Y’know, angsty proles being sadistic to each other, garlanded with high praise from the Wall Street Journal. Just your bog-standard lit-fic debut. Just … get it.
The joy of the unexpected is a rarer reading experience than it used to be. Have you taken a dekko at the Amazon bestseller lists recently? Indie authors in particular have taken to describing their novels in parentheses after the title, e.g. Sparkles, Sparkles Everywhere (A Paranormal Romance) or Kleptomania (A Political Thriller), just so readers cannot possibly be left in any doubt as to what they’ll be getting. Do the authors then use these parenthetical descriptions as a clever metafictional tool to subvert their chosen sub-subgenres? They do not. They know quite well that would be marketing suicide.
And of course they’re right: Readers hate to feel cheated. But these parenthetical descriptions could be used as clever metafictional tools to extend the reading experience into the search page, which is traditional marketing territory.
Bear in mind that great reading experiences often begin with no expectations at all.
Remember those scuffed-up textbooks full of bits and pieces of great literature that we had to read in English class? (We did in Ireland, anyway. The same type of books are used in Japan to teach Japanese literature. Other countries may proceed differently.) Those were brilliant! James Joyce next to Dylan Thomas next to Dickens next to Edgar Allan Poe. Being the annoying little bookworm I was, I read the whole textbook during class on the first couple of days and spent the rest of the year drawing sailboats in the margins. But I digress. That textbook was like a Pass the Parcel, full of surprises, some as boring as boiled sweets and some really good.
Indie authors could work the allure of unexpected surprises into their marketing toolkit. I’m directing these ideas at indie authors because they have control over their marketing, unlike tradtionally published authors. And big traditional publishers don’t do marketing anymore, anyway (ha ha; OK, I know that was a bit unfair, but also not untrue).
A lot of books could conceivably be sold without announcing their genre. “Frustrated writer accepts caretaker job at a hotel for the winter. Family tensions intersect with the hotel’s mysterious history.” Wouldn’t The Shining hit even harder if you didn’t know up front that you were getting a horror novel with supernatural elements? There’d need to be a teaser line in the blurb announcing that there is a surprise ahead, something like “See how long it takes you to guess what genre this book is.” The guess-the-genre trick could be applied to lit-fic novels that turn out to have supernatural elements, apparently supernatural thrillers that have mundane explanations, most fiction that flies under the flag of weird, and everything ever written by Christopher Priest. You could use a parenthetical title tag such as “(A Secret-Genre Novel).”
This might well spark a lot of curiosity buys. Readers might be annoyed when they worked out the genre if it wasn’t what they hoped for, but if you didn’t mislead them up front, their annoyance would not escalate into the uniquely choleric rage of the ripped-off consumer. And other readers would be delighted.
“Secret-Genre” could open up a whole new reading experience: book as guessing game. Readers would become keenly attentive parsers of tropes and cliches, on the lookout for genre giveaways. Every line would get heightened scrutiny. A layer of metafictional suspense would reinforce–but sometimes, perhaps, cut across the grain of–narrative suspense. Writers would have to get cleverer at deploying their tropes if they could not rely on the safety net of genre-determined reader expectations!
Covers have a huge role to play in marketing, and crafting covers that do not telegraph genre would be a big challenge, especially amidst the current trend for covers to scream the book’s genre at 100 decibels. The covers of Never Let Me Go, Under the Skin, and The Prestige, above, indicate a few ways cover artists can deliberately misdirect expectations.
Secret-Genre books have always existed. It’s just that no one has really known how to market them, so they’ve been shoehorned willy-nilly into one genre or another. Now that writers control their own marketing, it’s time for Secret Genre to take its place as an actual marketing category–and trigger reader engagement right there on the search page. Marketing is a neglected aspect of the reading experience. It need not be pedestrian. It could add to the fun, just like all those layers of colorful tissue paper(1) on a Pass-the-Parcel that half-hide the surprises within!
1. Fine. When I were a young ‘un Pass-the-Parcels were not wrapped in colorful tissue paper but pages of the Glasgow Herald, which would leave ink all over your hands and clothes. But a writer never lets the truth get in the way of a good metaphor!
It’s always particularly rewarding to read a great book or see a great film without knowing anything about it before hand. Marketing now gives away so much before hand – especially regarding films – that so much is spoilt in the desperate attempt to attract our attention. Once I know I want to read or watch something I go out of my way not to find out anything more about it. The trick is gaining that desire to read or watch without giving anything away.
Even film ratings now act as spoilers. It would be great to be able to see something without any idea of what might be coming. Unfortunately originality and surprise appear to be terrifying both to marketing departments and readers and audiences.