Disappointing Reader Expectations and Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’

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Most books about successful novel writing emphasize that above everything, the writer who wants to sell well and avoid bad reviews must at all costs respect the  tropes of a genre, and particularly avoid ‘disappointing reader expectations’.

In fact, Chris Fox in his well argued and generally witty book  ‘Write to Market’ emphasizes this to the point of going into the specifics of market research,  cover design and plot details including even the sex of a spaceship’s pilot.

Besides this, genres are not at all costs to be mixed. He gives some brisk advice in a chapter headed ‘Don’t Get Cute’, citing his own experience.

Market research had already told him that Super Heroes and Alien Conspiracy stories were popular around 2016, and he had the idea of combining features of his two favourite television series, ‘The X Files’ and ‘Heroes’. He joined the themes of alien conspiracy and superheroes in the first novel for a projected series called ‘Project Solaris’, ‘Hero Born’.  As both of these are popular sub genres of fantasy, he hoped to draw in readers of both and market a best seller (his first novel had in fact been a best seller, though he modestly ascribes this to a stroke of luck) .

He claims that as it turned out, ‘Hero Born’  failed to attract readers from both genres because the expectations of each group were different and even conflicting.  For instance, market research advised him that readers of superhero stories tend to be in their teens and indulging a fantasy of being suddenly special. By contrast, readers of alien conspiracy themes are interested in reading about uncovering a deeper truth, solving a mystery, and putting right an injustice. He argues that the two themes  of his novel clashed.

The result was, that his book sold hundreds rather than thousands of copies. His current fans loved it, but it attracted no new ones.

Write to Market

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For me, and for many other writers, selling in hundreds is fine – it is selling in dribs and drabs of a couple a month that is soul destroying.  Chris Fox however, aims to sell thousands in weeks, and disappointing reader expectations is not the way to do that.

All this made me think enviously of writers in previous ages, who may not have had the advantages of internet publishing, but who seemingly did not have to adhere to such rigid demands from readers.

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When I recently re-read the collection of Pushkin’s prose in the book ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’  (also In this collection is to be found my favourite robber novel, ‘Dubrovsky’ but that is irrelevant here), it occurred to me that this story, phenomenally successful in its day and now of course a renowned classic, almost seems to be designed to wrong foot the reader.

‘The Queen of Spades’ is of course, Pushkin’s most famous piece of prose writing and was the equivalent of a best seller in his own time. Obviously, with so small a reading public, the numbers sold would be insignificant compared to internet sales in the modern age, but not in his. It was an overnight sensation, and the talk of fashionable society – and possibly of unfashionable society as well.

I first read it at twelve – my father had an old edition of this book – and was struck even then by the concise, dry style, even in translation. For instance, there is the famous beginning of the story: –

There was a card party at the rooms of Naramov, an officer of the guards. The long winter night had passed unnoticed and it was after four in the morning when the company sat down to supper’.

Apparently, Pushkin used the concise style of the old French masters to perfection.

However, it is not about his style that I want to write in this post – though reading it makes me reflect how I must write more concisely myself – but about how in this classic story  Pushkin in fact seems to delight in disappointing those dreaded reader expectations.

For those who haven’t read it, it is about a secret gambling formula which gives inevitable success at cards. It was given to a spoilt young noblewoman by the mysterious Saint- Germain in the 1770’s. She at that time faced the threat of ruin, having lost a massive sum at faro at Versailles. Through using it, she recouped her losses, winning spectacularly, but never played again.

She refused to give the secret to her sons – all determined gamblers – but did once reveal it to another man in desperate circumstances, who also recouped his losses and ceased play from then on.

This story is told at the card party by Tomsky, her grandson, and is overheard by a German officer of the Engineers, Hermann. This man is remarkably careful of his money, having been left only ‘a small independence’ . He does not even touch the interest on his capital, living on his pay. However, so fascinated by cards is he, that he sits up watching others play until the small hours.

Pushkin says of him: – ‘He had strong passions and an ardent imagination, but strength of character preserved him from the customary mistakes of youth’.

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That he is a very odd character is surely shown by this. This is further reinforced by his obsessive thinking over the story as he wanders about Petersburg the next evening, musing on finding a way of getting the Countess X to reveal her secret to him.

As he sees it, winning her favour and perhaps posing as an admirer might compel her to do so. However, he dismisses this idea on the grounds that ‘She is eighty-seven. She might be dead next week, or the day after tomorrow, even.’

The callousness of this calculation made me start on first reading it, and then laugh at the grim depiction of his coldness.

His wanderings take him to a great house outside which a great many carriages are arriving for some social occasion, which he learns belongs to the Countess X.  Dreaming that night of winning enormous wealth through gambling, he returns to patrol outside the Countess’ house, and sees the Countess’ lovely young companion, the unfortunate Lizaveta Ivanovna, whom the Countess  has raised as an orphan and treats as a drudge. He looks up at the windows.

In one of them he saw a dark head bent over a book or some needlework. The head was raised. Hermann caught sight of a rosy face and a pair of black eyes. The moment decided his fate.’

At twelve, I had read a fair amount of romances and novels of other genres with romantic sub plots, and I knew that men more callous than Hermann were often destined to cast aside their wicked plans as they fell in love with the heroine. This is what I naively assumed would happen here. After all, I knew nothing about Pushkin save that it seemed that he had died young in a duel over his wife, which seemed to me romantic indeed.

I was startled and dismayed when far from falling in love, Hermann remains cold and calculating. He writes Lizaveta love letters (copied, so Pushkin tells us, from a German novel) and gradually persuades her to agree to an assignation with him. She tells him how to get into the house.

Hermann waits for this ‘like a tiger trembling for its prey’.  He waits until the staff have retired and the Countess is left alone in her room, and then approaches her.  At first, he begs her to reveal her secret to him. When she refuses, he threatens her with a pistol. She dies of fright.

He goes to confess to the horrified Lizaveta.

So those passionate letters, those ardent pleas, the bold, determined pursuit had not been inspired by love…It was not she who could satisfy his desires and make him happy! Poor child, she had been nothing but the blind tool of a thief, of the murderer of her aged benefactress! …She wept bitterly in a vain agony of repentance…’

The most sinister developments of the story are yet to come, but I will write no more spoilers, having made the point that this tale does not follow a conventional pattern. The anti-hero remains cold and callous, indifferent to Lizaveta’s appeal:

‘…Neither the poor girl’s tears nor her indescribable charm in her grief touched his hardened soul.’ 

Reading this at twelve, I was dismayed by the sheer unpleasantness of the anti-hero, who incidentally, is described facetiously by Tomsky to Lizaveta Ivanovna as having ‘the profile of Napolean and the soul of Mephistopheles’. I recall my reader expectations were disappointed in a big way. I did read to the end, and found it a fascinating tale, but at this age found the cynicism in the story rather too much for me, so that it was many years before I read any more Pushkin.

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Though I was very young when I read the story, I tend to think my expectations of it were typical. I seem to remember reading  somewhere that in this story, Pushkin deliberately upends expected tropes, and that most readers would expect some sort of love story between Hermann and Livaveta Ivanovna, even if it was not the main focus of the plot. How far Pushkin deliberately toyed with disappointing these dreaded tropes and reader expectations, it is hard to say. Pushkin was fascinated by innovation in writing, and Hermann has also been described as a character of a new type for Pushkin’s age.

There are all sorts of levels of  irony in this story, of course. One is that while it might ostensibly be called a story with a moral that points against becoming obsessed with making easy money through games of chance, Pushkin himself was dangerously drawn by gambling himself. On his death in that infamous duel, the Tsar paid off gambling debts for him amounting to hundreds of thousands of rubles.

Pushkin was, of course, a writer of literary fiction, not genre fiction, though this story might be defined as belonging to the genre of horror, or as a ghost story. By the time he wrote ‘The Queen of Spades’ of course, he was so renowned that he could afford to ignore such incidentals as readers’ tastes.

Have specific requirements for genres become more of a requirement in the current era? I do think readers make more demands for specific tropes for genre fiction, and in pointing this out, Chris Fox is doing a great favour to the writer who aspires to sell more.

But it is surely a hindrance on innovative sorts of writing, and I also wonder; isn’t it by breaking out of the demands of a genre, perhaps creating a new one in the process, that a writer often obtains the greatest success?

Interstingly, various highly successful writers have achieved this in the past, Mary Renault for one, and Anne Rice for another. Perhaps I should not try and speak for advocates of sticking  to the tropes of a genre. Still, I suppose they might say that yes, that is true, but those are the ones in several thousand who became world famous, and that perhaps it is best to build a firm readership base before starting to tamper with the boundaries of a genre.

There are, to sum up on a tediously neutral note, there must be arguments either way.  Finally, I supose it must depend upon how well you can write for the market (and I would like to emphasize that Chris Fox in no way advocates selling out and writing about what you hate). Some can do it brilliantly; others, I suspect, less so.

 

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Originality and Breaking the Rules in Writing

grey outcastWhen I first started writing, it was in the days before the internet. The aspiring writer had to seek out and buy a ‘How To’ book, or borrow it from the library.

The first of these that I read contained this helpful piece of advice from the male author, very successful, but you might say, ‘one of the old school’. I have never forgotten his words, either: ‘If you can’t think of anything else to write about, write about your dog, or your wife.’ Seriously, in that order.

But I digress…

For many years now, for excellent writing advice, you can go online and in a few keystrokes, locate many websites full of suggestions and guidance for aspiring and already published (self and traditional) writers about the technical issues of writing and the latest market trends in publishing.

It invaluable to have so many sources giving varied advice regarding such key matters as the issues surrounding the need to have a clearly defined protagonist, point of view, how to create believable and interesting characters, the perils of having a Mary Sue or Marty Stu main character, and all the rest of it.

220px-Renoir23If one is interested in following market trends in publishing, and the latest rumoured top hates of agents, then one can find all sorts of discussions about those.

Writing from the second person point of view is, I think, the only one that strikes a chord with me.

It seems that the current pet hates among literary agents and publishers also include a prologue, a story starting with the main character starting awake from a dream which indicates psychic communication, plus – bizarrely – large blocks of italics. I must say that I consider that last to be unreasonable, as it is a convention that letters etc should be depicted in italics. If we have a long letter in the story, are we then supposed not to put it in italic form?

And finally on these hates of agents and publishers, it seems that they hate brackets, too.

And that isn’t even starting on the ways they hate various themes, ie, hate children’s stories about discovering hidden treasure in a sinister secret passage in a castle (rather strange: I never met a child under nine who didn’t emjoy a story about that).

Rinaldo looking poshQuite honestly, it does seem to be getting to the point where agents should state what they don’t hate, rather than what they do, because it would surely be briefer.

But it also seems to me, with all this talk and advice about writing styles and what agents and publishers find desirable, what is currently fashionable among readers, and all the rest of it, that something important is being neglected.

Originality in writing means breaking the rules.

Originality means thinking outside the box, and writing the story the way it flowed from your fingers during one of those wonderful times when the story seems to write itself.

We all are all – hopefully- inspired by great writers. To name just a few who have personally inspired me, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen, Alexander Pushkin, Turgenev, Elizabeth Gaskell, all the Bronte sisters, George Elliot,  Balzac, Zola, Joseph Conrad, Bram Stoker, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H G Wells, George Orwell, Irwin Shaw, Patrick Hamilton, Harlan Ellison, Susan Hill, Stephen King and Margaret Attwood…

Of course, that’s failing to mention of my many talented indie author associates. I’ll spare their blushes, but several have inspired me.

But the main thing is, we mustn’t write like those writers we admire.

We can hopefully learn many things from them about structure, plot, characters, and all the rest of it. To name just one instance, when I read Harlan Ellison’s ‘Repent Harlequin Said The Ticktockman’ at fourteen, I saw a demonstration of how writing about a dystopia doesn’t have to mean writing a story without absurdity. Absurdity and horror so often go hand in hand.

But finally, if we want to try and write something original, something memorable, we must strike out on our own, like youngsters breaking away from parental control. That is what the writers we admire did. Their writing would not stand out if they hadn’t. We don’t want to write a second rate version of what someone has already done.

That – and I know I have said it before – is why finally we should go with our instincts  about  writing, even if it sometimes means going against the flow.

Because – and again, I know I have said much the same in a previous post – we may shelve an idea we love, because it breaks some rule or other. And who knows but some other writer may not produce a book which becomes all the rage, and which breaks exactly those rules to which we kowtowed.

mrx%2BnecronomiconI’m not saying that it’s a good idea to send out manuscripts which, just for the sake of it, begin with a prologue in dream form, are written from the second person point of view, crammed full of italics and brackets, and feature treasure hidden in secret passages.

Well, come to think of it, maybe it is. It would be funny to see those agents and publishers’ faces…

Leaving that wonderful vision aside,  I do think if we keep too closely to the rules, we risk sacrificing our own individual style.

Rules Writers Must Not Break and What Do J S Bach, Margaret Mitchell, Zane Grey and Louis L’amour Have in Common?

grey outcastThere’s a few things I’ve been wanting to say as part of some post, but I can’t think of any suitable one, so I’ll just mix them together in a miscellaneous post about market trends and rejections.

The first thing is a story to encourage those who are trying to create something special, and meet with incomprehension/dismissal/harsh criticism.

It’s about the baroque composer, J S Bach himself and ‘The Brandenburg Concertos’ (well, they weren’t known as that at the time). They’re regarded as masterpieces today, of course. They’re among the pieces I play for inspiration –  on the off-chance that anyone’s interested – ( the sixth is particularly good for inspiring a high minded sort of detachment) but I don’t think that latter recommendation would particularly impress Bach.

Anyway, when he  sent them off to the Margrave Christian Ludwig of Brandenburg, along with a fashionable French dedication in 1721, the Margrave neither acknowledged their receipt, nor ever had them played.

It seems that there is some excuse to be made for this lack of appreciation of this presentation with such exceptional pieces of music. Bach had promised to give him a piece of music demonstrating his talent when they met two years previously, and had taken long enough to get round to it. He may even have sent the pieces as a sort of eighteenth century CV, as he was looking for another post at the time.

Another reason for the lack of appreciation may have been that these pieces were designed to suit the versatility of the orchestra which Bach had in Clothen rather than that of the Margrave. It seems the pieces were unusually diverse for the orchestras of those times.

However, for anyone who has had the deflating experience of having that cherished creation dismissed or frankly ignored, that is an encouraging story.

Has anyone heard of J S Bach and his ‘Brandenburg Concertos’?

Has anyone heard of the Margrave of Brandenburg or does anyone now care two hoots about his view of the worth of what are now called as the Brandenburg Concertos? (here’s a picture of him, anyway).

The other story must have been incredibly deflating for the author in the receiving end, but is horribly funny.

A publisher wrote in response to Zane Grey: ‘You have no business in trying to write and should give up’.

Almost as discouraging must have been Margaret Mitchell’s 38 rejection letters for ‘Gone With the Wind’…

But that is not quite as bad for the 200 received by Louis l’Amour (I didn’t know there were that many publishing houses even in the US, and decades ago; but perhaps they were for several different books).

I personally  am not a great admirer of westerns, or for that matter, of ‘Gone With the Wind’, which was one of the many novels I found on that Aladdin’s cave of a maze of bookshelves back in that great isolated house in the Clwyd Valley, into which I used to delve on winter’s evenings. But the point I am making here is that a lot of people do admire the work of these writers; they may not be comparable to the great JS Bach as regards originality or mastery of their craft; but they had a vision and they stuck to it in the face of all discouragement; and that takes commitment.

I have said before that too many author’s websites seem to give facile, bland advice: anodyne advice, in fact. Do your market research, and write for a particular type of ‘average’ reader (ie, six foot, hairs on the back of his hands, reclusive castle dweller in Transylvania; likes stories about his ancestors) and write accordingly.

Above all, do not break the rules.

It’s these supposedly hard and fast rules that I object to (and yes, I did write a post on this very point not so long ago). The supreme irony is, that the successful authors you are advised to imitate on these How To sites, DID break the rules (and I’ve just broken one myself; never write in capital letters to emphasize a point; people will think that you are semi literate).

Nobody wrote about dystopias when George Orwell wrote ‘1984”; nobody wrote about boarding schools when a certain best-selling children’s writer decided to give a new slant on one; vampires were old hat when Anne Rice decided to write a new take on them.

If they had ‘properly researched the market’ they wouldn’t have written what they did (and so set new trends) at all; they would have played safe, and possibly lost their vision and written something derivative.

Someone in the writing business warned me some time ago on the hazards of having multiple points of view (as I tend to in my novels), let alone having more than one ‘main character’ on the grounds that ‘these days, people only want limited points of view and they want to know who the main character is, and who to root for, early on’.

This advice was constructive, and based on her best information; but I disagree with it. I think it is too restrictive. And given those writers who broke certain hard and fast rules and so set new trends, isn’t it quite likely that someone will come along and flout those particular rules and write something original that also sells well, so that suddenly everyone will be breaking them?

Suddenly, having a restricted point of view may be ‘totally outmoded’.

I came across a How To book on writing recently, published in the eighties. It fell open at this page. ‘Please don’t give your characters names that reveal something of their characters; that’s pathetically old-fashioned.’

And so it was, back in 1985. That was another trend overthrown by that nameless writer of children’s fantasy.

In case any regulars get a feeling of déjà vu, yes, some months ago, I did publish two posts that touched on different points covered in this one, but I wanted to approach the topic from a slightly different angle.

Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.
Dracula climbing down the wall of his castle, from a 1916 edition of the work.

Got to go now. I’ve just got a communication from that lonely soul in Transylvania, saying he offers residential courses for writers. He says that ‘Time wasters need not apply. Must be free of blood disease; testing obligatory’. He offers spectacular views and the course is for health fanatics, and culminates in an exciting climbing excursion, of the sort pioneered, he says, by Jonathan Harker. He promises: ‘This is not just another writing course; this one will transform your whole existence and view of life’.

Hmm. I had glandular fever as a youngster; would that disqualify me? He says I can have a discount. Should I apply?

I have always wanted to go to Transylvania….