For various book genres, what really upsets their readers?
December 6, 2021 5:43 AM   Subscribe

I'm interested in cases where bending (or breaking) a genre convention is seen as an unforgivable sin (or at least false advertising) by the intended audience. A certain segment of people who identify as sci-fi readers get very loudly upset if they're "tricked" into reading a sci-fi novel that they feel isn't science-y enough (or just too touchy-feely...). What upsets the readers of other genres?

For example I know that for a while it was the convention that murder mystery novels should be solvable ahead of time by an attentive reader. And some readers got upset when the author doesn't play fair (cf: Roger Ackroyd). And there's been much ink spilled over what a fair locked room mystery looks like.

I'd love to read some inconsequential dramas from these or other genres, about how certain books are "doing it wrong".

(inspired by a goodreads reviewer who was hurt and betrayed by a book with a spaceship on the cover.)
posted by Lorc to Media & Arts (42 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Best answer: romance: insufficient groveling/redemption by/of the hero who behaved very badly; having a good reason for why they can't be in a relationship that just disappears without anything changing (there needs to be a story arc about overcoming the obstacle)
posted by meijusa at 5:54 AM on December 6, 2021 [5 favorites]


Best answer: Genre romance that doesn’t have a happy ending/end up with the leads having their happily ever after.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 5:54 AM on December 6, 2021 [20 favorites]


Do you mean like how some military-scifi is all gritted manly teeth and adjusting their laser rifle's silencer and whatnot, and so long conversations about feeeeelings would set off most readers? The Tom Clancy-verse would qualify here, too.

The James Bond novel "Casino Royale" was made into kind of a comedy movie, and many Serious Fans got very bent out of shape. I never bothered reading the book itself, so I am not sure whether it qualifies.
posted by wenestvedt at 5:55 AM on December 6, 2021


Best answer: Do NOT fuck with the happily ever after/happy for now in romance. If it doesn't end with the main love interests together, it's not a romance -- it might have romantic elements, but it's not a romance if there's no HEA.
posted by pised at 5:59 AM on December 6, 2021 [15 favorites]


Best answer: Yeah, in romance I would say that the HEA (Happily Ever After) is generally recognized as the hallmark of the genre - if the romantically-involved people don't end up in some kind of durable committed situation, it's basically not a romance (it could be a non-romance with romantic elements).

Exactly what counts as an HEA can be a subject of debate - traditionally it was engagement or marriage, but there are plenty of romances where the couple (or throuple or whatever) comes to some other kind of arrangement. Tastes differ on what constitutes an acceptable HEA.
posted by mskyle at 6:02 AM on December 6, 2021


The James Bond novel "Casino Royale" was made into kind of a comedy movie, and many Serious Fans got very bent out of shape. I never bothered reading the book itself, so I am not sure whether it qualifies.

Book Bond (traumatised nihilistic alcoholic) is nothing like Movie Bond (confident patriotic social drinker), so it's hard to compare on that basis.
posted by pompomtom at 6:23 AM on December 6, 2021 [5 favorites]


Best answer: Among a lot of my reader friends, it's Highly Unpleasant to start reading a fantasy book (magic, dragons, adventuring) only to discover that it is actually sci-fi. Dragonriders of Pern has been contentious for us.
posted by specialagentwebb at 6:24 AM on December 6, 2021 [11 favorites]


Also in romance, Insta-Love is also frowned upon. It's lazy writing to just have people fall in love for no discernible reason.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 6:24 AM on December 6, 2021


I think that both mystery and romance involve an implied contract with the reader that there will be a satisfying resolution: the main couple will end up together in romance, and the mystery will be solved in a mystery. Readers really don't like it when authors don't hold up their end of the bargain.

I think that most other stuff in both genres tends to be more contested. There are definitely mystery readers who get really pissed off if mysteries don't provide readers with all the clues to solve the mystery (sometimes known as a "fair play mystery"), but a lot of us aren't that invested in the puzzle aspect and don't really care about fair play. That's similar to the thing in romance about what constitutes a sufficient HEA. (And there are similar things in romance about sex: I recently read a romance novel and then read reviews of it, and a lot of readers were pissed that there was no explicit sex, since the author is known for writing steamy romances. Again, they felt like there was a violation of an implied contract, because when they picked up a book by that author, they thought they were going to get well-written sex scenes. And there are definitely romance readers who want relatively non-smutty novels or who don't want depictions of sex before marriage.) And similarly, there are some sci fi fans who get really pissed off if the science is wrong: the author needs to explain how everything works with the laws of physics and whatnot. But I think some sci fi readers don't care about the science and just want depictions of cool worlds, whether the gravity makes sense or not.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:25 AM on December 6, 2021 [4 favorites]


There are the Rules of Golden Age Detective fiction. That list is one person's opinion and a product of its time, but I'm on board with them for the most part. Surprise identical twins? Bah! Oh, she took the OTHER secret passage? Pfft! And don't even get me started on psychics. Using psychic intuition to move the story forward or provide clues is straight up lazy-ass writing.

Of course, rules are meant to be broken....but takes real skill to break a rule and still have an excellent story in front of you afterward. Agatha Christie famously broke just about all of these rules (I count three in the novel I most recently finished) but she's kind of on another level.
posted by Gray Duck at 7:02 AM on December 6, 2021 [6 favorites]


...they felt like there was a violation of an implied contract...

This seems like the core of the question: what are the genre "standards" for each kind of book? And what genre don't have HEA (besides maybe history)??

For example, a WWII book should describe individual heroics even if the group loses an engagement. (We all know how the war turned out, and by now most readers are showing up for a good story set among established facts. WWII titles that reveal new information are a whole 'nother kettle of fish.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:04 AM on December 6, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: In Romance, (especially Clean Romance either of the two main romantic partners being unfaithful, either to their main love interest, or often at all, to anyone, even in past relationships.
posted by Zumbador at 7:05 AM on December 6, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: Seconding the mysteries-should-be-solved convention, which led to, for example, some readers getting very cranky about Tana French's first book.

Some readers in any "realistic" genre (including general fiction) will likely be a little put out by unexpected magic/supernatural forces appearing partway through the book, especially if it smacks of deus ex machina.
posted by eponym at 7:11 AM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: One opinion that I came across was that fantasy should have magic in it, otherwise it's historical fiction - even if it's second world fantasy. (As someone who also enjoys historical fiction, I would have said that historical fiction should be based in the actual world, with real countries etc., but what do I know?)
posted by scorbet at 7:14 AM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


And what genre don't have HEA (besides maybe history)??

Science fiction can generally end on "everything's awful (and your love interest is dead forever)" without it being a betrayal, though that becomes less the case as story/series length increases unless the cold and uncaring nature of the universe has been adequately foreshadowed.
posted by teremala at 7:19 AM on December 6, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: There's a fairly strong expectation that people in heist novels will get away with it. This is more contested in heist films, and of course true-crime nonfiction is its own kettle of fish.
posted by praemunire at 7:21 AM on December 6, 2021 [4 favorites]


Best answer: A structural example: in fiction when there are two parallel story lines which are implied to impact each other somehow but They. Never. Meet. Up. or influence each other in any way. I'm not sure I've ever thrown a book across the room, but reader, I did that recently with a book whose author committed this flagrant violation of my time.
posted by cocoagirl at 7:22 AM on December 6, 2021 [16 favorites]


Best answer: Oh, the man in a romance novel can be a cad, just not with a lady. The woman generally cannot be unfaithful, though, as she is either a virgin, a widow, or at the most the divorcee of an utter jerk. No idea how it works outside the traditional one male/one female structure, though.
posted by kingdead at 7:37 AM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


At first I thought this only applied to movies, but I've since learned that there's also a segment of book readers who feel very strongly that in fantasy novels with a setting inspired by pre-industrial Europe, everybody should be white. Even though that was not even the case in REAL pre-industrial Europe. I don't know if this falls under the topic of your question or just general racism, but it's probably a little of both.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:40 AM on December 6, 2021 [6 favorites]


Best answer: I was interested to learn from a recent episode of a baseball podcast that romance cover art has signifiers that communicate what a reader can expect from the book, content wise (e.g. no shirt/the model taking off their shirt: explicit sex). With SF/fantasy, particularly older covers, you are pleasantly surprised when the cover art has any relation at all to something that happens in the book.
posted by zamboni at 8:09 AM on December 6, 2021 [14 favorites]


Best answer: If I'm reading something billed as magical realism there better be some actual weird shit in there eventually or else it's just wankery.
posted by SaltySalticid at 8:27 AM on December 6, 2021 [9 favorites]


I'd say the "mystery should be solved" part applies to some SF as well. In that a lot of the readership expects anything strange or unknown to have at least some level of explanation. Stuff like Lem's work, or VanderMeer's Annihilation really piss those people off.
posted by Jobst at 9:32 AM on December 6, 2021 [4 favorites]


Paranormal Romance can skirt around the HEA requirement of regular romance, especially if the lovers are doomed because of Dark Forces at Work™

In an ongoing paranormal romance series, the tragic death of a partner is okay if the next book in the series supplies True Love #n+1.
posted by indexy at 9:41 AM on December 6, 2021


Best answer: I don't know how standard this is among the majority of readers of the genre, but for me personally as a horror reader: if you present your story as being supernatural (for want of a better word) horror and then later reveal that everything has a completely mundane non-supernatural explanation, I'm going to be very upset. Mundane horror can be fine, but I like to know that's what I'm reading, and I hate a Scooby Doo ending ("the ghost was old man Jenkins all along!).

This message brought to you by: a) the time teenaged!me picked up Cujo because the blurb on the back cover promised that the titular dog had "awakened a sleeping evil greater than death itself" when in fact the dog just has rabies and is very large, and b) the novel I read a few months ago that promised me a haunting that turned out to be not a ghost but a crazy lady who lived in the walls of a grocery store.
posted by darchildre at 10:50 AM on December 6, 2021 [6 favorites]


There were complaints when Ancillary Justice came out that the scene in a tavern was clearly signaling fantasy and the book is science fiction. (This was a Sad Puppy complaint, so take it as seriously as you feel this deserves.)

Many people have mentioned that a romance novel needs a HEA, or possibly a HFN (happy for now). As AaC says, the level of smut in romance is entirely reader-dependent, though some subgenres will always fade to black.

A domestic suspense thriller ought to have a big twist that is clued on some level (this is hard to do well); a cosy mystery can't have explicit violence or sexual violence. Some readers expect justice to be served (within or perhaps without the bounds of the justice system) in mystery books.

Re Tana French I was ok that one of the two mysteries was unsolved but WOW is that divisive; OTOH I almost burned the book that had surprise! magic-like stuff! in her entirely non supernatural series.

When genres interact it's really interesting -- urban/paranormal romance seems to be a thing of its own, but periodically they will release regular SFF books that they call romances because there is also romance in the book and twitter HOWLS in complaint (because, eg, one person dies, or they break up, etc). Similar complaints can appear when a litfic author writes something speculative.
posted by jeather at 10:58 AM on December 6, 2021


General fiction needs to care for its characters. Does the heroine of the story get into a car crash and end up in a wheel chair for life? That better drive the plot somehow and not just end up being a “thing” that happened that doesn’t change anyone’s psyche or behavior
posted by SLC Mom at 11:00 AM on December 6, 2021


Romance novels where the hero and heroine meet twice then are separated for some reason are disappointing. After months or years of separate troubles successfully overcome, they meet again and fall into each other's arms. Blah.
That's no way to build a relationship, and is very unsatisfying. There must be interpersonal conflict, falling out, reconciling, personal changes that contribute positively to the relationship. Separate hardships don't build togetherness.
posted by Enid Lareg at 11:48 AM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


Among a lot of my reader friends, it's Highly Unpleasant to start reading a fantasy book (magic, dragons, adventuring) only to discover that it is actually sci-fi.

I'm not sure I'd put it at the level I think this post is talking about, but I am so extremely bored with "fantasy" books which turn into Surprise! Everyone was descendants of a Generation Ship all along! It's come up surprisingly often in books I've read in the last few years.

I also don't touch Magical Realism now. My unfairly disparaging view is that it's authors who think they're too literary for fantasy but want to attract some of that crowd and also get to put in mysteries they don't have to bother explaining. (See for example "The Miniaturist", which I hated so much.)
posted by Cheerwell Maker at 12:21 PM on December 6, 2021 [4 favorites]


Best answer: “Literary” books that have too many genre elements (often SFF, sometimes romance) definitely piss people off, although it’s becoming more widely accepted. Klara and the Sun is a recent title that brought out some of this.
posted by momus_window at 12:30 PM on December 6, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: Literary fiction where halfway through you find out there are vampires. I have literally thrown a book across the room. I’d also say sometimes what elevates a book from genre to literary is breaking the rules.

I love this question!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 12:44 PM on December 6, 2021


As a big fantasy reader, I find there's a fine line between creative world building and pushing things so far they veer into the ridiculous. I'm thinking of a book I read this summer with a dragon who was the Dragon of War and his scales were made of swords and also he breathed swords*. When the author makes me feel like I'm leafing through my own 12-year old self's drawings in the margins of my school notebooks, I start looking at them askance.

*This critter appears well into a series I'm really enjoying so actually I'm okay with the sword dragon in this particular instance, but it's definitely something I had to share with my wife in a "get a load of this" manner.
posted by DingoMutt at 1:13 PM on December 6, 2021 [4 favorites]


I remember that back when genre covers had to have a painting of all the main characters on it, there would be Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth when the hair/eye colors of a character did not match the written description (and you know all those books go on and on about hair and eye colors.)
posted by Hypatia at 1:25 PM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


(MetaFilter: just has rabies and is very large.)
posted by wenestvedt at 1:43 PM on December 6, 2021 [9 favorites]


I don't know if it's a popular opinion but I can't stand mysteries where the elements of the solution were never presented to the reader so there's no way we could have figured it out. Like all of a sudden the bad guy pops up and it's someone you've never heard of.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:38 PM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


I don't know that this is a dealbreaker for quite so many people, but I'm always hugely turned off in sci-fi books that use the "calling a rabbit a smeerp" trope, where there's something that's clearly just a normal thing, but they give it a sci-fi coat of paint and pretend it's new. This bothered me in "The Wind-Up Girl," where among other things no one has guns but everyone has some kind of spring-powered handheld weapon that loads tiny blade projectiles from a magazine.... it's just a gun. That imaginative work could be put to good use elsewhere!
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 5:38 PM on December 6, 2021 [7 favorites]


I’ve heard people disparage fantasy in the tradition of Alice In Wonderland - where the wild adventures of the protagonist are all explained when they wake up from a dream - with the phrase, “it was all just a pack of cards”. I’ve had similar feelings about tv shows where wild, fun stuff is down to Being Dead or In A Coma or similar. Bah, humbug!
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 6:37 PM on December 6, 2021 [2 favorites]


I'm thinking of a book I read this summer with a dragon who was the Dragon of War and his scales were made of swords and also he breathed swords*.

All I could think of was, “You'll release the dogs, or the bees? Or the dogs with bees in their mouths and when they bark, they shoot bees at you? Well, go ahead! Do your worst!”
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:00 PM on December 6, 2021 [1 favorite]


In cozy mysteries specifically, deaths should happen politely offstage or at most be recounted with a minimum of gruesome details. Ideally, most victims should also be unlikeable enough to blunt the emotional impact of their demise.
posted by eponym at 7:07 PM on December 6, 2021 [5 favorites]


Serious literature readers will become loudly scathing if there is a happy ending. They are intelligent people reading about reality and the pain of the human condition and they do not read wish fulfillment fantasy. The happiest acceptable ending is if the main character can look back on someone or something that is now lost and reflect that they did once know love, or they were once successful, or they did once have a home.

Mind you, it is perfectly okay to have characters that are almost supernaturally gifted with money, or intelligence, or luck at the beginning of the story, as long as they are deeply tormented to the point of being suicidal. They don't have to start as suicidal, if they start so introspective that it are utterly alienated because then the author can write about how everything goes downhill for them. Prodigies as improbable as a Tom Clancy protagonist are fine- they just have to have given up on life and make no use of their talents or insight because they are paralyzed from either past trauma or the insight granted by their abilities that life is hopeless.

It is also unacceptable if events are logically linked. The author needs to demonstrate that they understand that blind forces make life futile, not bad life choices. The plot has to be weak, so unrelated events can be strung together.

If there is a child or a dog in the story they have to either die, or become orphaned and traumatized. Characters of the type that lesser people would feel sentimental about must not escape unscathed, they must be annihilated.

Prose should be dense and descriptive. Sentence length should vary over a wide range from one word to over a hundred, or stick entirely to complex, compound sentences with multiple dependent clauses. It's got to feel literary.
posted by Jane the Brown at 12:45 AM on December 7, 2021 [9 favorites]


Building on what momus_window said, something that's more about framing/marketing — literary novels whose authors borrow genre elements but then insist that it's not merely science fiction or fantasy, it "transcends" genre! The implication being that science fiction or fantasy novels can't possibly be as good as literary fiction. Margaret Atwood has definitely been guilty of this.

(Ironically, I find that "literary" writers who are trying their hand at a genre for the first time often commit basic mistakes of being too tropey and predictable, mistakes that experienced genre writers got out of their systems a long time ago!)
posted by fire, water, earth, air at 3:53 AM on December 7, 2021 [7 favorites]


> Ironically, I find that "literary" writers who are trying their hand at a genre for the first time often commit basic mistakes of being too tropey and predictable, mistakes that experienced genre writers got out of their systems a long time ago!

And then, "literary" critics read those genre books and find their assumptions about genre fiction confirmed?
posted by vincebowdren at 7:11 AM on December 7, 2021 [2 favorites]


I don't know about other readers of science fiction, but I am so tired of the "hacker as magician/wizard" character. True hacking is pretty hard, and takes a significant amount of time to scope things out, probe for weaknesses, develop exploits that might not be known, and carefully mount an attack so as not to be caught. Too many authors use the "Joe Hacker breaks into a system and retrieves triply-classified and doubly-encrypted documents from Bad Company's (or Bad Government Entity's) super-secret air-gapped server in half an hour, thereby saving the day or finding the essential clue" story path.
posted by TimHare at 4:01 PM on December 7, 2021 [4 favorites]


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