Sunday, December 4, 2011


Generally I don't mention my religious or political views on this blog. I'm going to make a tiny exception today by talking about some thoughts on reader expectations that I had at church this morning...but I'm not going to preach at you, and if anyone uses the comments for preaching, they will be deleted.

All that being said, I recently started attending an Episcopalian church in my neighborhood, and I was happy to see that today's service was going to be Lessons and Carols. The year I lived in England, I went to two such services and loved them because they were a dream come true for someone like me who loves to sing and can never get enough of the traditional Christmas carols. Basically, someone would read a passage from the Christmas story, we'd sing two or three carols related to it, lather, rinse, repeat until we'd made it from the Annunciation to the Magi and sung at least a dozen carols.

So when I sat down with today's order of service, I was disappointed. There was maybe half as much congregational singing as in those English services, and none of it was Christmas classics like "Joy to the World," "Angels We Have Heard on High," or "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." It was, you see, an Advent service, with Advent music. (For those of you not versed in the liturgical-church calendar, Advent is the four weeks before Christmas, and Advent music is more about anticipating Jesus than celebrating the Nativity story. Probably the best-known Advent hymn is "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.") Now, I like Advent music fine, but I grew up in a non-liturgical church (translation: Baptist) that sang Christmas carols all December, and because of family travel I'm never at my church during Christmastide when they break out the shepherds abiding in the fields and the multitudes of the heavenly host. So there's this whole tradition of songs I grew up loving that I never get to sing anymore, and singing along with the radio or singing in the shower just aren't the same. (I know, I should probably find some carolers or something to join...but where would one find such a thing? I'm picturing the Craiglist ad: "Experienced alto seeking like-minded musicians for casual yet sophisticated and tuneful musical encounters...")

I think I spent the first third of the service feeling sad that, in fact, those Lessons and Carols services I attended back in 1997 weren't representative of the Anglican Communion as a whole--that just because two Church of England congregations in Bristol sang Christmas songs for one service in Advent did not make it required or even likely that an Episcopal one would do the same thing in Seattle in 2011. But then we sang a song that was both completely new to me and incredibly fun to sing, and the man sitting next to me, a fine baritone, started to harmonize, so I did the same. (To me, harmony is more interesting to sing and uses the richer, fuller part of my alto range--I can go as high as an E atop the treble clef, but I start sounding reedy and thin around B-natural. Still, I hesitate to harmonize when everyone else is singing melody, since it can feel conspicuous in the wrong way.) From then on, I appreciated the service for what it was instead of what I'd hoped it would be, and I'm glad I was there.

What does any of this have to do with reading? Well, it occurred to me that I was acting like someone who'd read one or two historical romances--say, a book or two by Jo Beverley--and then picked up a book by Courtney Milan or Loretta Chase and couldn't deal with the fact the voice and tone were different because all my expectations of historical romance were built on that initial sample.

I don't think I've ever been quite that picky a reader, but I've definitely had experiences where someone pushed a book on me, saying, "I know you love Author X, so I'm SURE you'll love Y, too." Once I try the book, I think the book pusher must be crazy, because X and Y are nothing alike, since Y's voice isn't as smooth or her characters aren't as vivid. Or I'll read bad reviews of books I love, and clearly the reviewer is disappointed not because the book is poorly written or offensive, but because it didn't match the expectations they had when they sat down to read.

I don't think it's possible to prevent expectations dissonance. But thinking about it makes me see the value of a well-chosen cover and title or a thoughtful review--really, anything that makes an accurate promise to the reader about what they'll find once they open my book.


  1. I tend to take books on their own terms. At least, I think so. But I've had that expectation dissonance with movies often enough to really appreciate how much work must go into creating an enjoyable trailer that accurately portrays an entire movie.

  2. I think I get expectations dissonance with books because I'm picky about voice and certain qualities of character interaction. I like prose that's sort of smooth and elegant, but in an unobtrusive way, and I like reading about communities of characters. My ideal author is pretty much Lois McMaster Bujold. So I'll get recommendations that superficially resemble my favorites, but if the voice is awkward or the main character has no connection to a community, it's not going to work for me.