I've recently had some experiences as a writer and as a reader that have rather strongly suggested to me that it is sometimes difficult for some of us, both readers and writers, to get out of certain types of "comfort zones". I belong to an online critique group where the writers are all writing some sort of historical stuff. It's not all straight historical, and since my Invaders trilogy (sort of) crosses genres – in a way – I call it "romantic science fiction" because to me, that's what it is, some readers who do the critiques get confused. Some of them appear to get so confused they claim they "don't know the genre" and try to bow out. Never mind that I've tried to make what I'm writing as easy as possible to understand, these readers still don't feel comfortable.
The thing is, I'm not asking for an assessment from an agent here; if it was a potential editor or agent, I would expect a much higher, and more "critical" standard. Furthermore, a cursory look through the annual Writer's Guide will give the writer a pretty good indication of who takes what kind of genre literature, or if they take it at all. This actually helps the writer, since he or she then doesn't have to send hundreds of query letters, dozens of copies of manuscripts, etc., etc., to agents, publishers, or editors who aren't prepared to read them(even then, it's a "crapshoot"; there's at least one famous agent that's very "upfront" about his "gut feelings" about whatever is sent to him, and though this agent has sold a lot of work to publishers and is an agent for a number of best-sellers, I suspect he tends to prefer a certain kind of male-oriented "adventure" or "thriller" story. It's best for a writer to know these things in advance, so as not to get too disappointed, especially if one is a novice.
But critiquers? Hmmmm. . . .I kind of wonder. If they're in a critique group, even one that has writers who are doing more or less the same kind of writing(e.g. broadly, historical fiction), shouldn't they be prepared to get out of their comfort zone? It's fairly easy for me to tell, when I'm looking at something, whether it's Young Adult, science fiction/fantasy, romance, mystery, etc., and I can pretty much "work it" from there. If the story isinteresting, I've found I'm perfectly comfortable reading it and seeing how it fits together, and how the writing and structure of the thing could be improved --- and believe me, there's always room for improvement --- somewhere. This has certainly been my experience with "live" critique groups, though I found these unsatisfactory for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability to critique. About the only thing I would be uncomfortable with trying to critique, is certain kinds of more "experimentally" oriented literary fiction I don't generally read literary fiction because the authors who write it tend to prefer "downer" endings(see my blog post on literary fiction). I don't object to literary fiction per se, I just don't want t read "downer" stories. But if it's something else, I'm willing to read just about anything.
But it seems not everybody takes the advice of writers like Stephen King or Elizabeth George, who have both informed readers of their books on writing, that they should try to read all kinds of literary outputs. I can see why. I don't usually read mysteries or Young Adult material, but recently have read quite a few of these, and am finding I'm learning a lot about how various kinds of works are put together. I feel this has helped me in my own writing, even though I'm not writing mysteries or Young Adult(although there is one work "on the shelf", that might qualify and it's also in my fictional "Neanderuniverse". But clearly there are readers who mainly read romances or mysteries or "straight" historical novels, or whatever, and just don't venture much outside these "comfort zones". Again, per se, there's nothing wrong with this per se, but a potential writer should be able – in my opinion, at least – to see if the story "works", even if they're not familiar with it. This means, also in my opinion, that there needs to be a certain amount of "commitment" on the part of the potential reader. And for some, this will mean getting out of their "comfort zone"
Again, obviously, not everybody is going to agree on this. My general rule is, If I don't know much about whatever they're writing about – for example, a historical period I'm not familiar with or interested in – then I won't critique it. I don't think that's fair. But otherwise, I'll give it my best shot.
Finally, it's also interesting that readers have their "comfort zones". I've just been having an interesting e-mail conversation who didn't like Mistress of the Art of Death, by Ariana Franklin, who also writes historical novels as Diana Norman. In the book there was a rather nasty, to this reader, description of some child's eyes being pulled out, but as I recall, it was rather brief, and served to show just how nasty the person doing it actually was. It "creeped out" that particular reader, whose apparent sensitivity level was so high that they apparently forgot they weren't watching Nightmare on Elm Street. Again, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with anything here, just acknowledging that different people, as readers, have different sensibilities, so to speak. I would be just as bothered as the reader was, if some TV newscaster described such an act. But this was on the pages of a book, and therefore provided the necessary "distance". At least that was the way I looked at it.
I guess all of this is just part of the writer's learning process. Learning how people react, and what they're comfortable with is very much , I think, part of a writer's job. It's just as much a part of a writer's job, as putting together a coherent story. Not, mind you, that this will change the way I write my own stories; it just informs me of how varied the potential audience out there actually is, and what they may or may not be comfortable with.