Reading to learn what people like to read

Agent Kristin Nelson has been blogging about publishing for a while now, and she is probably one of the best agent bloggers out there because she posts almost every weekday and she always has really interesting stuff to say about the business that is both informative and entertaining. Today her post was a continuation of yesterday’s, about how lots of aspiring writers like to trash popular books simply because they’re popular, and it was pretty much the most succinct argument for why you should NEVER DO THAT. Observe:

If you are smug in the excuse that the writing is average or the storyline didn’t work for you then you are missing the point. There is something about these novels that are capturing millions of readers (and the dollars in their wallets). Ultimately I refuse to believe that a million people are so “uncultured”, “stupid,” “non-discerning,” or “insert your phrase here” that they don’t get it. That’s condescending and underestimating the reading audience.

Now, I’ve been known to express all kinds of opinions on all kinds of books for all kinds of reasons. I once had an entire blog devoted to that enterprise, and I still claim that all my opinions on the books I read were honest and forthright, those being some of my best (or worst, depends on who you are) qualities. I don’t write that blog anymore, or do book reviews, because as somebody who now is pursuing publication I don’t really think it’s in anyone’s best interest to take books down just because I didn’t like them–at this point, all I want is for people to READ, for God’s sake, no matter what it is or whether I liked it. That said, if you cornered me at a party and were like, “So what did you think of The Da Vinci Code?” I’m going to tell you the truth.

Anyway, my point is, I have a lot of standards when it comes to the books I read–prose, characterization, dialogue, plot, pacing, message, etc.–that determine whether or not I think a book is well-written, but that’s not necessarily the same thing as saying I did or did not like a book. For instance, I thought Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital had some flaws (length being the primary, which is not so much of a flaw as a lack of a strength), but I LOVED IT and would laud it to anybody who is fool enough to ask me for a book recommendation. Did I think The Da Vinci Code (par example) was a major feat of literature? No. Is it wildly entertaining and provocative and worth reading? Certainly. And I’m not the only person who thinks so, obvs.

I have to admit, being a writer has ruined me as a reader to an extent. Too often now, I think, my appreciation of all those things (prose, pacing, etc.) that, when done well, make up the best novels, have turned me from someone who reads for pleasure to someone who reads to edit. NOT GOOD. Because reading has always been my greatest pleasure. I’m trying to train myself out of that, but then will my writing suffer? I’m afraid to see.

Bu the thing is, Kristin is right–millions of readers can’t be wrong. My MA thesis adviser used to pwn the Harry Potter series, his catchphrase being, “It’s about fucking MAGIC!” But people LOVE IT. That is not insignificant in any way. I actually try to read as many big ticket books as possible just to get a feel for what books are touching a wide audience, because when books sell millions of copies they’re not just preaching to the choir–they’re preaching to the world, and the world is all: “WORD.” Obviously, The Da Vinci Code is not just selling to people who enjoy thrillers, Twilight is not just selling to teens, Eragon is not just selling to fantasy fans…whether I like them or not, those books are speaking to people in some ways–indeed, in many ways, since they’re speaking to so many people. And that’s what I (or you) as a writer want to do. Touch as many people as humanly possible. If you consider yourself “literary” and you’re all, “If people don’t have a Ph.D. in 18th-century Russian literature they will SO NOT GET THIS” then guess what? Only people with a Ph.D. in 18th-century Russian literature are going to want to buy that sucker, and there are not a lot of them around, I would wager. Writing for a niche market–and yes, so-called “upscale”, “literary” writing is a niche market, to which the sales of almost any short story collection (apart from, like, Alice Munro and Jhumpa Lahiri, obvs) can surely attest–is never a solid business strategy. And book publishing is a business, of which we have daily proof.

So! This is all to say that I think people read and love books for all sorts of reasons, the same way that some people like Jasper Johns or Transformers or whatever. Art and “what is art?” are so subjective and, therefore, completely meaningless as anything other than abstract concepts disagreed upon by most people. So what? Go with the numbers–Dan Brown sells upwards of 7 million copies of his book, you may want to check it out and instead of combing for reasons why it’s not up to your standards, comb for reasons why one book can appeal to so many different kinds of people. The answers may surprise you.

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