Sunday, May 15, 2011

Expectations in Weather and Literature

It rained last night, an infrequent but not abnormal event for Central Coastal California in May. It will most likely be the last of the season, but perhaps not. I've been dancing the dance of the weather forecast (which has been wrong twice now) all week, taking down my wooden clothes pins from the line, then putting them back up again on sunny laundry day, then taking them down. So I've been grumbling and thinking about how I had far more trouble with how much power I gave the forecast than I did with the rain itself.

It's said that expectations are premeditated resentments. In some small part of my mind, I want to grab the forecaster and scream, "How dare you tell me it would rain when it didn't? Don't you know how much time it took to take down those clothes pins twice?" Which is, of course, petty and ridiculous. But the point is -- whose problem is this? Who trotted out dutifully to grab those clothes pins without considering what the weather was actually like?

I wonder if reading is like this, too. As authors, we talk about a contract with the reader, letting the reader know right off what kind of story this is going to be -- humorous? gritty? sexy? parodic (is that the adjectival form of "parody"?) romantic? tear-inspiring? And we know we'd better keep that promise or we'll have seriously disgruntled readers. Hopefully, the art and marketing departments of our publisher are on the same page with us, although this doesn't always happen. Stories of misleading cover art and copy are numerous, as are the grim results in sales figures.

So if I pick up a book, thinking it's one thing, and find myself in the middle of something quite different (or, heaven forbid, a story that switches genres mid-stream), who's creating that jarring sense of reality being uprooted and anticipation-of-delight thwarted? The author, for violating that "contract"? Me, for my own expectations based on very little data? Those who packaged the book, thinking X would sell, even though the book was Y?

What do I as a reader need to set aside that fit of pique so that I can honestly ask myself, Is there something wonderful here, hidden beneath the packaging and the filter of my own experience and expectation? If I'm willing to hang out, to pay attention to what's really on the page -- not what I think the story ought to be -- I may find something quite different in the very best sense. It's like an exercise in meditation, in being present in the moment. To do it, I need a certain amount of trust in the writer...but also an even greater distrust of my own frenzied need to label and categorize. Not every book is worth the effort, but the effort itself is always worth it.

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