Beyond Genre-Tone and Mood
When asked what kind of books you read, how often do you respond initially with some genre category: science fiction, fantasy, young adult, epic adventure, etc? When you do, occasionally someone might say, ah, so you must really like X (X being the best selling or most heavily marketed book in that genre at the time). If you say you didn’t much care for it, or loathed it, or aren’t interested in reading it after seeing the description in some review, you may find yourself confronting a very bewildered face, especially if the owner of said face happens to really like X.
As an example, I’m going to pick one extremely popular Young Adult (YA) fantasy series; Harry Potter. If we assume only people who like this genre will even crack open the cover, all reader reviews on Amazon.com , Goodreads, or any other site should give these books four of five stars. It may surprise you that there are actually some readers of YA fantasy who loathed these books.
The following statistics are of customer reviews on Amazon.com for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as of 3 July 2011.
5 star: 4,758 (84%)
4 star: 548 (10%)
3 star: 93 (2%)
2 star: 80 (1%)
1 star: 76 (1%)
(2% lost due to rounding)
Here is another example. These numbers are for the popular YA Soft Science Fiction book Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.
5 star: 1,906 (76%)
4 star: 373 (15%)
3 star: 106 (4%)
2 star: 50 (2%)
1 star: 49 (2%)
(1% lost due to rounding)
Okay, so there are always a few malcontents. The stats still show that most people really liked these books, right? In the case of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 94% gave it four or five stars. For Hunger Games, it was 91%.
Yes and no. There are two reasons why these figures do not necessarily represent the overall opinions of readers of those particular genres. The most obvious is that no statistics indicate how many applicable genre readers decided not to read these after seeing the description on the book jacket or on Amazon. The reader reviews only represent the opinions of people who actually thought enough of the book to pick it up and give it a shot based on the marketing and, possibly, other reviews. In other words, only those who expected to like the book before reading it were in the pool of potential reviewers. The other reason is that many people (myself included) are more likely to write a positive review for a book they liked and simply not say anything about the stinkers.
So what is it beyond genre that makes someone want to read a book and, having read it, like it? I think much of the answer to this question lies in what it is different people are looking for in their reading experience.
I have probably read thousands of fiction books. Until recently, I never really kept count or, except for a few I really liked, kept copies. These were in various genres but primarily science fiction, fantasy, epic adventure, and YA although I have also read several mysteries, and books considered literary fiction. Some I liked, some I didn’t, and I asked myself why this was. What was it about one book I really liked while another in the same genre, possibly with a similar plot left me cold? I have come to realize that, for me, the tone and mood of the novel matters more than the genre.
If you are not familiar with tone and mood as they apply to literature, here are some quick definitions.
Tone – The tone of a novel reflects the author’s attitude toward not only the characters and events he creates but toward the story itself as a whole as well as toward the reader. It is conveyed by how the author tells the story including choice of setting, vocabulary, and other details. A single book can have more than one tone simultaneously and they can be mixed in an almost infinite number of combinations.
Following are some words that can describe tone:
Amused, Angry, Cheerful, Clear, Conciliatory, Conversational, Detailed, Formal, Gloomy, Humorous, Imploring, Informal, Ironic, Lighthearted, Matter-of-fact, Neutral, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Playful, Pompous, Resigned, Sad, Satirical, Serious, Suspicious, Witty. . .
An example may help to clarify this concept. Terry Pratchett populates his immensely popular Discworld fantasy novels with likeable and believable characters and he puts them in situations that can seem very real–except he conveys through the use of a lighthearted and satirical tone that he does not take them seriously and neither should the reader. Neither they nor the world they inhabit can really exist, and yet the stories are immensely enjoyable and have important meaning and relevance. It’s not easy to do but Sir Pratchett is a master at it.
Mood – The mood of a story is the prevailing emotion the reader experiences when reading the book. Setting, plot, dialog, images, and many other factors can be used to convey mood. Sometimes the mood will remain the same from the first page of a novel to the last; other times it will change because of changes in the plot or characters. The emotion the reader feels at the end, however, is the most important for defining the overall mood of the book.
Following are some words that can describe mood:
Anxious, Cold, Disgusted, Depressed, Excited, Fanciful, Frightened, Frustrated, Gloomy, Happy, Hopeful, Idealistic, Intellectual, Joyful, Lonely, Loss, Melancholy, Mournful, Mysterious, Optimistic, Pessimistic, Realistic, Romantic, Sad, Sentimental, Sorrowful, Suspenseful, Suspicious, Tense, Thoughtful . . .
Basic emotions such as these provide the mood for the story.
A good example of tone and mood is provided here using Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as and example. http://www.online-literature.com/austen/prideprejudice/
The tone of the novel is light, satirical, and vivid. The mood is intellectual and cold. In this book, lack of strong emotion is the prevailing mood.
Notice that words that can be used to describe tone can also be used to define mood because both are dependent on feeling. You can think of mood as the overall feeling of the work in terms of the emotions felt by the reader, and tone as the way that feeling is expressed by the attitude of the author.
This blog post has already gone much longer than I had originally intended, so even though this has not been an exhaustive exploration of tone and mood, it’s time to wrap it up.
My point in this post is to point out that there are aspects of fiction beyond genre that may be better indicators of whether or not a person will like a particular book. A bit of introspection has led me to suspect that the most important–to me at least–are tone and mood. As to why that is will have to wait for another blog post though.