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Readers

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One of the comments yesterday or the day before asked why I write murder mysteries, which is not a question I get very often.  I know that sounds odd, and I even think it’s odd.  I’m not J.K. Rowling, or John Grisham, but I do get interviewed from time to time, and for some reason that’s not a question anybody wants to ask.   And I’m not sure I know how to answer it.

What I do know is that I don’t have the faintest idea what readers want.  I’m not even entirely clear why most people read, or at least why they read fiction.  

Some people here have suggested that they read for “escape,” but I don’t know what that means.  If it means, as it seems to for some people, the desire to remove oneself from the problems of real life, then I can say with some confidence that I don’t read fiction to escape.  I really don’t read it to “relax.”  If I want to drift off into a kind of not-coping-with-the-world-haze, I have a lot of puzzle books and magazines from a small Connecticut publisher called Penny Press.   They’re the best publishers of puzzles in the country, and you can get their stuff in everything from brain-busters to “could do while comatose.”  I’m fond of the “could do while comatose” ones.  They put me right to sleep.

I have a feeling, however, that most people don’t mean this sort of complete mindlessness when they say they read for escape.  Oh, some of them do–the fan from that earlier post, the one who complained that I was actually writing about real things like politics, and she didn’t want that, because it upset her–that woman said she reads for escape, and  I believe her.  And I’ve run into people over the years, especially on  Usenet discussion boards, who declare that they don’t care about anything, it doesn’t matter if the history is all wrong or the writing is terrible, as long as it’s a “good story” they’re happy.  They read for “entertainment.” 

I once got very annoyed by a very good writer named Cynthia Ozick when she was quoted in Esquire, having been asked about detective novels, “I am not entertained by entertainment. ”  My problem wasn’t just that she was being condescending, but that she was being condescending without cause–she obviously hadn’t read enough in the field to know that there’s quite a bit published that isn’t “entertainment” as she was using the word.

But I did understand her sentiment.  I’m not entertained by entertainment, either.  Books that are the printed equivalent of Die Hard movies bore the hell out of me, and that’s in spite of the fact that I really enjoyed Live Free and Die Hard.

What most people seem to mean when they say they read for “entertainment” or for “escape” is not this, however.  They don’t want to be relieved of the real world, so much as they want to be relieved of their little part of it.  I don’t do this either, but it doesn’t make me roll my eyes the way the other thing does.  And it’s possible that I don’t do this because I’m not capable of it.  When I’m worried about something I tend to go into a state of super focus, so that there is nothing else anywhere but this one thing that worries me.   If I could manage to take my mind off it one way or the other, I’d probably love it.  It’s just that nothing I do seems to work like that for me.

But that sort of explanation leaves a lot of open ground, and to me it’s like the landscape of Mars.  I just don’t have a map to it.

I know what I want when I read.   The first thing is very, very, very good prose, and despite the complaints of some people who comment there, you can define that.  It requires decent grammar, punctuation and spelling–correct where it should be correct and suitable where it should be suitable–but beyond that I’m looking for an elegance of rhythm, a precision in vocabulary, a spareness of expression and an attention to the necessary detail.  There’s also the lack of the unnecessary detail and the absence of cliche.

If a book is very, very well written, I can often read it even if I’m completely uninterested in the content, as long as the content isn’t actually wrong.  By that I mean that it does matter to me that a writer gets his history right, at least where I know the history, and his geography right, too.  The  Da  Vinci Code is very badly written, but even if it had been perfectly written, I still would have put the thing down by page twenty-six.  Somebody needs to send Dan Brown a book explaining who and what the Merovingian Dynasty was.  

But the simple fact is that I experience very, very good prose the way I experience music–it is a kind of music, and I love it.   This has led to a number of odd experiences.  Years ago, living in Paris, I bought a copy of Norman Mailer’s one foray into the detective field, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.  Bill hated that book, because it was the typical product of a literary writer who knew nothing at all about the modern detective story:  one long hackneyed cliche about a hardboiled private detective who walks these mean streets in an alcoholic haze.

But Mailer is very definitely a very, very good writer, and I sat down to read this thing one afternoon and surfaced several hours later, suddenly aware of a fact:  the entirety of the last sixteen pages I had read made no sense at all.  None.  The writing was so good, it had put me in some kind of fugue state, and it was only the intrusion of real life in the form of needing to cook dinner that brought me to my senses.   I read that book again several years later.  It did the same thing to me the second time around.

From what I can see, most readers do not respond to prose this way, and many have the same trouble hearing the difference between good and bad writing that I have hearing the difference between good and bad music.   I’m not tone deaf, so it isn’t that I have no ear at all, but maybe from lack of training, and certainly from lack of talent, I have a great deal of trouble telling the difference between great compositions and merely servicable ones.

And there’s nothing really wrong with servicable prose.  Agatha Christie wrote servicable prose.  It’s clean.  It’s unobtrusive.  It gets the job done without a lot of fuss and bother.  I’d much rather have that than the angst-ridden self important fulminations of Phillip Marlowe.  Down these mean streets, a man must go, but I don’t have to go with him.

The impression  I get, however, is that most readers respond to prose the way I respond to  Gustav Leonhardt playing the Goldberg Variations.  Leonhardt is the greatest harpsichordist in history.  I  can tell that he’s better than most of the other harpsichordists I’ve heard.  The fine distinctions escape me, however, and I can listen to lesser lights playing Scarlatti and  Bach without feeling any sense of loss.  

All of this is a very good thing, because I’m hardly the  Gustav Leonhardt of prose fictoin, and if everybody had a perfect ear, nobody would read anything I wrote.  I’m aware, however, that many readers seem to be the prose equivalent of tone deaf.  They can read even really bad prose, hackneyed, cliched, ungrammatical and leaden, and it doesn’t bother them at all.

The rule of thumb in publishing is that the quality of the writing bears no relation at all to the sales of the book–not that bad writing sells, but that bad writing sells no better than good writing, and vice versa.   The quality of the writing is just not something most readers care about.

And it won’t work to say that if you just have a book where the protagonist takes charge and fights a conflict and good triumphs over evil, the book will sell, because an awful lot of books that fit that description don’t sell, and an awful lot that don’t fit that description do. 

What’s more, the same writer writing on the same subject can “work” with readers one year and not the next.  The Godfather sold like crazy, but none of Puzo’s other novels ever did.  Sue Miller had a smash with The Good Mother.  Four books later, she’s just one more “literary” novelist on the writer-in-residence circuit.

Then there’s the phenomenon called “finding and audience,” which really mystifies me.  P.D. James’s first books sold badly, so badly that it was a struggle for her editors to keep her in print in the United States.  Then came Innocent Blood, and suddenly she was being reviewed in The New York Review of  Books and splashed all over everybody’s best seller lists.  This might have made some sense if the books that followed Innocent Blood had been significantly different from the books that preceeded it, but they weren’t.  For some reason nobody understands, people who were completely uninterested in Year 1 were  passionately interested in Year 10. 

But what really mystifies me is why so many people seem not to read at all.   There are twice as many people in the United States now as there were in the year I was born, but the numbers for hardcovers (except for the few superwriters, like Rowling and King) are no better, and the numbers for mass market paperback are demonstrably worse.  Never mind finding 100,000 buyers for a paperback edition of Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagaination.  You’d be hard pressed to find 100,000 readers for any novel at all, even the ones that are supposed to be “popular.”  And nobody bothers to write, or to publish, the kind of old-fashioned bestseller that used to be churned out by Irving Wallace or Leon Uris or John O’Hara.

So I have no idea what readers want, but I’m pretty sure I know this:  you don’t know what you want either.

Written by janeh

January 8th, 2009 at 6:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Readers'

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  1. Okay, here’s the thing.

    I’ve never left anything on the comments board before, since I get enough time to say what I want otherwise.

    But this morning, after I’d published this post, I got the following comment on it from a friend of mine.

    This friend–we’ll call her FE–cannot post herself, because she works in the business (one of the oddities of having graduated from a Seven Sisters college is that you know a lot of people in publishing) and this isn’t the kind of thing she could say in public with impunity.

    So I’m posting it here to see what you wall think of it.

    >>>>Usuallly, the people who I hear go on about how all they want is a “good story” are lying – they want the anti-thesis of a good story, they want a very trite, unchallenging and cliche-ridden story. One reader once cited a truly awful book as being his favorite of all time to me and asked why they don’t publish books like that anymore. To which I responded that publishing standards had improved since then and it was harder to get crap like that published these days.

    Our conversation didn’t improve from there.

    But, my point is that whenever readers start talking about this “good story” they want, they almost always start citing some really lame and mediocre authors. Rarely do they come back and mention, say, Joseph Conrad or Per Wahloo/Maj Sjowall (I’ve been re-reading their books lately…). No, it’s usually someone brimming with adequacy.
    >>>>

    Jane

    janeh

    8 Jan 09 at 7:36 am

  2. I like the comparison between books and music. I love music. I have very distinct likes and dislikes, which vary somewhat over time. I don’t have the ear to distinguish easily among different performances, and quite often even when I do hear differences, I don’t have the vocabulary to describe what I’m hearing or why I do or don’t like it. This can get as simple and commonplace as someone saying ‘I don’t think we’re hitting the B flat’, and me either vaguely aware that something doesn’t sound right, or not noticing the problem at all!

    I can spot what I think is bad writing. Some errors in mechanics and clumsy sentence structure drive me crazy and spoil a book for me. I was considering attending a book discussion group, and when I read the book, I wondered why on earth it had been chosen. It just isn’t a well-written book.

    I don’t really get the feeling you describe from the quality of the writing itself. Once the prose is good enough that any problems with it don’t jar me, I don’t seem to notice it much. That is, unless it’s written in some wierd and irritating style. Some writing styles are just plain annoying however well they are done. I particularly don’t like jerky sentences and sentence fragments. See, I don’t have the right vocabulary to describe it! I’m sure there’s a proper literary term for that sort of thing.

    As for FE – is it possible she’s using ‘good’ where I’d use ‘excellent’? When I want a ‘good story’, I probably don’t want an excellent one, particularly one that leaves me with a lot of new ideas or disturbing impressions. I want something that’s good enough, not good in an absolute sense. I want something that flows smoothly, has reasonably interesting characters, probably something that’s fairly predictable actually.

    It’s a matter of definition, really. What’s good for entertainment or escape may actually be trite and unchallenging. Good literature is something else again.

    This is beginning to feel a bit circular, like we’re coming back to the question of how we know something is good again.

    Oh, and before I forget – the no books thing may well be increasing; I don’t know the stats. But when I was a child, we always noticed that some homes, like ours, had books and magazines piled up everywhere. Some had maybe a small bookcase with some school books, a Bible or perhaps some Readers’ Digest Condensed Books. And a lot had nothing to read at all, except possibly a TV guide. There have always been non-readers, who are just as astonished about the time and money we wasted on reading as we were at their peculiar lack of books.

    I even knew someone in my class at school whose mother wouldn’t allow her to borrow books – she might catch a disease from them!

    cperkins

    8 Jan 09 at 8:15 am

  3. Actually, I DO think I know what I want. I think most readers do. But we don’t all want the same thing. Are fewer books being printed each year, or just fewer copies of each of an increasing number of titles? It makes a difference.

    As for the “lame and mediocre writers” the saying in some quarters is “if it’s stupid but it works, it isn’t stupid.” Perhaps if a writer entertains and inspires large numbers of people, that writer is not “lame and mediocre” in some fashion that eludes FE. This may also be true of “unchallenging and cliche-ridden,” or at least that may also be a matter of one’s starting point and assumptions. Some of the books pushed by the literary establishment seem to me to be exactly that–they contain nothing which will shake a liberal academic out of his or her torpor–certainly nothing to question their fundamental beliefs.

    But they’d all like the rest of us to be “challenged.”

    My attitude toward literary style is like Beau Brummel on men’s clothing: if you notice how the author is writing, that author is not writing well. There are exceptions, and I do enjoy good dialogue, which seems almost a separate art, but if the story is inadequate, nothing else is likely to get me through the book.

    As for “escape” obviously many escapes are possible, and Tolkien was right to distinguish the flight of the deserter from the escape of the prisoner. But I suspect many of us go to fiction to remind us of the proper moral ordering of the universe. My favorites–the books I return to again and again–are set in may worlds and times, and some of the characters, could they meet, would have little to say to one another. But they are all within my understanding of what it is possible for a human being to be, and they all set a standard for cleverness, wisdom, integrity and courage which I wish I met. A measuring system generally as a “standard” or “official” meter, bushel or whatever, to which one repairs from time to time to ensure that minor deviations do not multiply. Those books are mine.

    Perhaps that’s what FE means by “unchallenging and cliche-ridden?”

    robert_piepenbrink

    8 Jan 09 at 5:59 pm

  4. Long time reader, first time commenter…

    I wasn’t going to comment because I didn’t want to sound snarky but since FE started I’ll just go on ahead:

    I find that “escape” is one of those excuses people use when they do something superficial or pointless and don’t really have a good reason for doing it.

    -Why read that silly book when there are so many better ones available? Oh, it’s just for escape.
    -What’s the purpose of smoking that/drinking all that alcohol? Oh, it’s just an escape from the troubles of the world.
    -Why are you playing that excessively violent video game? It’s an escape!

    Everyone needs something to help them relax, especially when life gets too stressful. But when one says they need an “escape”, I find that more often than not they just don’t want anyone to take them out of their comfort zone.

    Raphael

    8 Jan 09 at 6:49 pm

  5. Okay, I’m back again.

    Last night, after Robert posted his response above, he sent me more in e-mail. And since he’s said before that I can post anything he sends me, I’m going to do it, because I find this one of the most astonishing comments on why readers read–or at least, why they read genre fiction–that I’ve ever seen.

    So go ahead, and I’ll publish a new post in response, sort of, in a couple of hours:

    Robert said:

    >>>OK, the comment was already too long. But the problem is this: I can describe the TYPE of thing I want, but I need a writer who is one step ahead of me. For a good book, I need a romance where I can believe on some level that the couple will not be together at the end, even though I wouldn’t buy a book in which they weren’t, and the equivalents for the novels of suspense and detection. Thus it has to be a matter of the author’s tone and my temperment, and even the authors I find most congenial don’t hit the sweet spot every time. At some point I’m going to give up attempting Sabatini’s THE SEA HAWK and go find another copy of MISTRESS WILDING for instance. For that matter, I’ve never gotten very far in SCARAMOUCHE.

    The perfect book–the perfect mystery is a sub-set–has an inevitable ending I didn’t see coming.That’s the big payoff, but it’s very tricky, If I get ahead of the auther, I’m likely to regard my intelligence as insulted and abandon the project. (Mystery writers are subject to the variant of this in which they flub some simple irrelevant or atmospheric fact, and I seize on it as a clue. The result isn’t pretty.) So they have to be ahead of me to the finish line, but I have to be able to catch up. If I read the resolution and don’t believe it, it really doesn’t matter from a practical point of view whether thr author doesn’t have a logical ending, or he has a perfectly logical one but I can’t grasp the facts without more unpacking than I’m given. Either way, I leave the novel unsatisfied.

    So putting story, tone and ending together, maybe it’s not too surprising that I reread a lot more than I read, and that hardcover sales aren’t stronger. I suspect a best-seller emerges when a novel appeals to scores of different little groups of readers with similar tastes, so instead of 7,000 people with tastes just like mine buying one book and another 7,000 a different one, 20 such groups all found something pleasing–and probably not the same thing–in one novel. After a certain point the publicity ensures that (a) anyone remotely susceptible takes a look at the book, and (b) copies are bought for gifts, book clubs, reading groups and what have you. My guess is that half the copies of a phenomenal best-seller aren’t bought with any intention of being read.

    As for finding a readership, it’s as I said earlier about the “Republic of Letters” vs the “story flea market.” All of us have to sort and short-list tens of thousands of titles down to the vastly smaller number we’ll actually read. We do this by genre and sub-genre, author title and, yes, sometimes cover. Someone who punches the right buttons gets presumptive sales of “X” which rise or fall a little as the initial readers pass the good (or bad) news on to friends. In my more social days, I knew which of my friends would be glad to hear there was a new Poul Anderson coming, or an especially clever STAR TREK novel, come to that. And those with similar tastes passed the word around . But if someone doesn’t fit the normal categories–a genre creator, say, like Tolkien, or someone with appeal beyond the normal readership for a “cozy”–basically, a new grouping has to form. The small number of people who for some reason bought the book right off and the favorable reviewers have to find the people who will like that particular book or author. When the second book comes out, the group is already networked, so initial sales are higher. This I think accounts for the authors who seem to have much bettter sales for later works generally felt to be inferior than for the early “classic” novels. Word about the good stuff was still spreading. Thus the common appearance of a personal library with the classic first works of an author in reprints, library discards and dog-eared paperbacks and the later inferior volumes in first edition hardcovers with dustjackets–each read once.

    But it’s the basic phenomenon–word spreading slowly through friends of related tastes, like some multi-dimensional game of dominos–which accounts for what I call the “swimming upstream” phenomenon–the story from the pulps or the paperback original novel which later comes out in hard covers and in a critical edition.

    Which is why I keep pushing Hambly’s BRIDE OF THE RAT GOD, Tyler’s GARDEN OF CUCUMBERS and Kreb’s EL CID on all who will listen. If enough people read and appreciated those books, I could buy nice signature sewn hardcover copies on acid-free paper. Selfish of me, but there it is.

    janeh

    9 Jan 09 at 5:36 am

  6. “But when one says they need an “escape”, I find that more often than not they just don’t want anyone to take them out of their comfort zone.”

    My experience is quite different. People I know (including me) who read for escape usually spend time out of their ‘comfort zone’ during busy varied lives involving work, friends/social groups/volunteer work and at least one but more often two or three levels of family responsibility (spouse, child, parent). I defy anyone to live this sort of life *without* being shaken out of their comfortable ideas about what should happen and how they should respond to what actually happened on a regular basis.

    So they find a quiet corner and escape to another life – Gregor’s, perhaps, or Cadfael’s or VI’s for an hour or two before returning to the fray. It’s superficial and pointless because it doesn’t solve the problems, but it’s none the worse for that since it gives the reader a breather before plunging back into the fray.

    cperkins

    9 Jan 09 at 7:56 am

  7. Thank you, cperkins. I’m one who said I read for escape, and that’s exactly what I meant. I’m choosey about what I read (as I am about the music I listen to). As for people not buying books, I quit doing that severals years ago. I use the library extensively. Cuts my costs and saves space in the house.

    I do make exceptions . . . I have every Gregor book safely tucked away!

    sarahartburn

    9 Jan 09 at 4:50 pm

  8. I’m new on this site (and ‘blogging’ has always been somewhat of a mystery to me, so forgive me my cyberspace errors.

    I’ve read the responses as to why people read and it seems to me that various answers reveal more about the personalities of the readers than about the quality of the ‘read’. For example, I was once convinced by a tenet of Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance that most people recognize good writing when they see it. So I printed out two pages from someone I consider a terrible writer (Clive Clustes) and one who I think is pretty good (Jonathon Kellerman)and asked my freshman writing class to choose between them. They overwhelmingly chose CC. They LOVED the purple prose.

    So when I think about why I read, or about what I like to read, in some ways a public (honest) answer is threatening. You may think I’m superficial, or stupid or something, but hell, that’s your choice so here goes.

    I read because it’s plain fun. It’s my chance to meet new people (a pretty safe way to do so, no?) and there have been so many characters that I have formed attachments to to the extent that I didn’t want the book to end. I don’t have to agree with the characters politically (Alex Delware pisses me off royally there) or religously (ala Virgil Flowers of John Sanford’s writing), but I have to be able to enjoy being in their heads or in their lives. Sometimes when I read some of the really good Stephen King books I feel like he (or his character) and I have done a Spockian mind meld.

    Occasionally I will read because of the sheer quality of the writing, but I rarely finish a book just to find out ‘what happened’ (although Dick Francis can do that to me).

    this is way simplistic given the level of sophistication of some of the posts I’ve read, but heck, I’m just learning the language.

    Janet Lewis

    12 Jan 09 at 12:14 pm

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