Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Why We Read What We Read


After my last post briefly explored the subject of why we read certain books even though they may not be written with the highest standards of writing excellence, I read Sara Walpert Foster's blog post this week and had a few more thoughts about the subject. I fear this will this raise more controversy.

First of all let me say this subject raised a lot of strong emotions on both sides of the issue—to read or not to read books by writers if said books are not written well. After reading Sara’s post, the question came up again with a few possible answers. You should read Sara’s post and then come back—or vice versa, I’m flexible.

What makes us read something we know is not the best work but feeds something in us that we crave. For every reader it will be something different, because we are all different. One person cannot dictate what another person should or shouldn’t read or not read. The gate keepers are not in control of the books out there any more, and in some ways this is a good thing. (I heard that scream, wait. . .)

Not all writers are good with craft and mechanics, but they have ideas that need to be expressed. Not all readers are willing to read those ideas unless they are packaged better (in good craft and mechanics). We are all different. Some of us want beautifully written books (the ideal).

Some of us want to explore new ideas, ideas that we might be struggling with, or have resisted and want to consider even at the expense of good quality writing. Or maybe feed the prurient side of us that we haven't fully explored. There are as many reasons for reading as there are for writing. Not all readers are good readers. Not all writers are good writers. But one thing is for sure, the doors have been thrown open for everyone to find what they need.

One thing I do believe, no one takes away from you because of what they put out. If a writer puts out a work of crapola, it doesn’t take any readers away from your well written work that you’ve lovingly labored over and perfected. I don't think it lowers the standards; it only enlarges the reader base. Something for everyone. Better a reader read crap then not read at all-my philosophy. Some will vehemently disagree. (I can already hear the rumblings and see the fists shaking.)

When I was a teenager there were confession magazines, not your top of the line reading matter, that emphasized emotional garbage. In an effort to get me to read, my mother encouraged me to read whatever I wanted--just read. She knew that I would grow tired of the emotional roller coaster of the salacious confession magazines and finally find better reading material. That advice was right for me. 

But do you think this is a good idea for everyone? I’d like to hear your opinion, you might change mine.


13 comments:

Prudence MacLeod said...

I do agree. The more readers the better. Stephen King suggests reading bad books to as a learning experience. Again, I must agree. I have waded through a few over the years, but I have bathed luxuriously in well written books, and the titles of each might surprise some folks.

Virginia Walton Pilegard said...

My mom wouldn't allow comic books in the house. My brother and I secreted away one Popeye comic and can still quote lines from it to each other. She'd be horrified to know I read lots of light, frothy mystery/romance/spy stuff and I revel in poor taste. The only downside is I find myself emulating what I read in my writing. Yuck.

Cora said...

I didn't know Stephen King said that, but when I pick up a bad book and see where the glaring problems are, it does make me more aware of avoiding those same mistakes in my own writing. Thanks for commenting.

Cora said...

Talk about comic books, I remember reading Tales of the Crypt--not your high quality read. Horror was big then with Bela Lugosi as Dracula. We laugh now, but he was scary then.

Sara Walpert Foster said...

I have such mixed feelings about this. I think it is fine if people read books that attract them, even if they are poorly written, and I don't think it interferes directly with the success of a really well written book, except in that individuals only have so much reading time so they are in essence, choosing one book over another.

It's the bigger picture that concerns me, though. Reading (fiction and non-fiction) is one way that we develop our minds, open ourselves up to new ideas or ways of living, communicate differences to other people, learn how to think. Reading fluff or badly written stuff most of the time is like eating poorly. If we fill our bellies with candy all day, we don't get the nutrients needed to function well as individuals and ultimately as a society. The sugar is addictive so unless we really work at it, we end up eating more and more sugar, and create more and more disease in our bodies and a society that doesn't have the strength to be all that it can be. I love sugar but know that when I eat less of it, I actually feel better and enjoy my days (and my spinach) more. I also get a lot more done and my mind is less foggy.

I am guilty of reading and enjoying fashion magazines and beach books (I can't get past poor grammar or sentence structure or repetitive word choice so I don't finish books of that sort), but when I read a really thoughtful book, fiction or nonfiction, something that makes me either think or feel deeply, I'm left with a sense of hope about the world, about people, about the future. I need that. And I think our world needs that too.

Margaret Miller said...

One of the things I think we are loosing is the notion of "mentor" or "guide". Cora had her mother - English teachers and Librarians also filled this role. Once upon a time when I was a public librarian quite often the borrower (who was holding a stack of 20 or so Mills and Boon or even the westerns) would say "I'm sick of these, I read too many of these" and I would reply "Really - would you like to try something a little different" and away they would go with a new author. More often than not they would return with the book saying "I really liked that - are there any more?" or "not quite what I wanted but can you show me something else?"
So I guess what I'm saying in an around about way is that I think we need to encourage reading in all its forms but also encourage growth for people who show signs of wanting it.

Siri Paulson said...

Thanks for the thought-provoking post! First question -- what defines crap? I'm reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies right now. It's fluffy and could definitely have been better written, but it's a decent execution of a high-concept idea, and I think that's a huge draw for readers. If the idea is good enough, does the execution become less important? Purists would say execution always matters, but that seems not to be true for (all) readers. They want the ideas.

Second question -- who's reading what? I've gone through many phases of reading crap, but in between them I've always read lots of books that aren't crap. And that's an important point -- the same person may very well read more than one kind of thing, depending on what they need at the moment. Right now I need fluffy. Later I'll want something with more meat in it. If people started to read only fluffy things, then I might worry, but I'm not sure that's true (yet).

Linda Adams said...

But what's badly written? That's where I think the definition gets very subjective because so much of it is taste. That's what makes it so hard for publishers, because they don't know either. They come put a book that looks like the greatest thing, and it flops. Harry Potter was one of the most best selling books of our time, and yet, there are people who will call it badly written and hate it.

Most readers won't notice "writing problems" in the book. They're not going to pick out something and shout "Ah ha! I caught you breaking a writing rule! (and I have seen writers post this thing to message boards). They will be disappointed the book doesn't have a satisfying ending or that the protagonist whines too much. What they won't do is try to identify why it was like this -- they just won't buy more books from that author.

Ellen Gregory said...

Ah, sacrilege! I couldn't stand P&P&Z, not because of the idea, which I thought was kind of fun and I'm looking forward to the movie, but because of the execution -- mostly because of the slight ways in which the author changed key scenes out of the original book. I didn't mind the addition of scenes, so much, but when they changed character (such as Darcy's sneering responses to Caroline Bingly) that annoyed me...

Also, like you, Siri, I read both fluffy and serious, depending on mood.

Ellen Gregory said...

This is definitely an interesting discussion, Cora. In my experience, it does tend to be ideas and story (and character) rather than execution/craft that will determine whether a book is popular or not. Most readers (who aren't also writers) can't discern the difference.

However, I don't necessarily think this is good, because the more poorly written books that are published, the more influence they will have on the general literacy of the population. (And this is where people say that English is a living language and what does it matter if the rules change permanently to something the purists would consider to be wrong?)

But I do not think there is any way of holding back the tide...

Sara Walpert Foster said...

Siri: I think for a lot of people the reading only fluffy IS true. I read a mix like you do but when all that is hyped is fluff, then the majority read fluff. Maybe not the people who really love a great story, well told but most readers, who read the way they watch TV or movies, fluff is both easy to get and easy to digest.

Cora said...

I love all your comments - pro and con. It certainly hits a nerve, doesn't it. We don't know how writing might change and where this digital book revolution will end up. And, yes, what determines a good book is subjective. Maybe we'll figure it out if we keep discussing the issue (she say's in jest!).

Thanks all for your points of view. Okay, you can keep talking now.

Didi said...

I'm a reader and I have to say reading books is like listening to music in that you pick what suits your mood at that point in time. I read fluff if I've had a mentally tiring day and just want to calm my mind before passing out. I do have to say I'm tiring of books where all the woman does is pass out due to the overwhelming presence of a guy or passing off teenagers as idiots. I was a teenager once and I know I was never that naive. Also I've never passed out in front of anyone. :D

Anyway I agree that reading is a good thing as there will always be potential growth as opposed to not reading at all.