The question I am asking myself this week is: How much do I really take readers' IQ's into account when signing and then publishing a book?
The truth is, I do, quite a bit. The average IQ is 100, and that's the level I aim for. Of course, I want the book to be well-written, with a good plot and great characters. But even though my own tastes run to the avant-garde, I rarely sign up such titles. Many, many times I've thought, "Wow, I like this. But people won't get it. It's too challenging, too demanding. That's what literary fiction is for."
Interesting, though, that so many of the most wildly successful mysteries straddle the line between genre fiction and literary fiction. Gone Girl took chances and succeeded. Those who adore Louise Penny, and they are legion, are drawn to the characters and the setting, but most often you hear them gush about her writing. Kate Atkinson, a mystery writer, moved out of the mystery genre into something more literary with Life After Life, and she hit it big (though I think her books had been trending toward more literary for several years beforehand). As I read that one, I saw all the little indicators that she'd trained in writing mysteries.
Looking at reader reviews on books that are clearly superior (if not perfect), I usually divide the 1- and 2-star reviews into two categories. About 10-20% of them are written by very good critics who found reasons to dislike the book. I'd go so far as to say valid reasons that any good critic would understand (if not agree with). For example, a key criticism of Life After Life - and one with which I happen to agree - is that the lead character, Ursula, is too blank. But I see why Atkinson did this: Ursula is in essence a canvas on which historic backdrops are painted. It didn't bother me too much, but I know a lot of very good readers who felt disconnected from her throughout the book.
The other 80-90% are by dumb people. By readers who clearly have no idea what the writer intended or accomplished. Or who have an idee fixe -- one of the characters was over the top, so the whole book's a wash. Or, literally, one sentences challenges them or their beliefs, and the entire book is dimissed because of it. A couple of years ago the members of a Stupid Persons' Book Club decided to go all over the Internet and savage a book I'd read (but did not publish). It was amazing to see how deeply they got into the Internet to bad-mouth that book. Now, the book was far from a masterpiece, but it was harmless and fun. I did pause to wonder how much those truly dumb people affected the sales or success of that book. I guess I'll never know.
Let me say that dumb people write really good reviews, too, gushing about writing that is awful; plots that are ridiculous; authors whom they have met, which permits them to use the writer's delightfulness as a reason to love a book. Combine these two phenomena -- dumb people loving bad books, and hating good ones -- and perhaps you can understand why editors and publishers make some of the decisions that they do.
If you're a writer, I think it's safe to assume a few things: (1) Dumb people will read your book, and comment accordingly; (2) Smarter people may read your book and say nothing; (3) You don't necessarily have to be a good writer to be wildly successful. That last one should be quite motivating to many; then again, nobody thinks s/he's anything other than a stellar writer.