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How Hard Should We Make Our Readers Work?

Ask ten different authors the difference between literary fiction and commercial fiction and you’ll get 10 different answers. When there is consensus, it’s usually that literary fiction is more about the writing than the story, while commercial fiction is more about the story than the writing. Graham Greene simply made the distinction between what he called “novels” and “entertainments.”

When I first began shopping my book, I was told to avoid the term “literary.” “In today’s market,” they said, “literary is a death sentence.” Okay, that’s a bit extreme. Nevertheless, today’s readers do seem less concerned about the writing than the entertainment. Tempo has replaced density as the mark of good books; we’d rather be pulled along than have to hunker down. Which may illuminate the biggest distinction between literary and commercial fiction: Literary fiction requires more work on the part of the reader than commercial fiction does.

Author Zadie Smith has put it this way:

...the problem with readers, the idea we’re given of reading is that the model of a reader is the person watching a film, or watching television. So the greatest principle is, “I should sit here and I should be entertained.” And the more classical model, which has been completely taken away, is the idea of a reader as an amateur musician. An amateur musician who sits at the piano, has a piece of music, which is the work, made by somebody they don’t know, who they probably couldn’t comprehend entirely, and they have to use their skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift that you give the artist and that the artist gives you. That’s the incredibly unfashionable idea of reading. And yet when you practice reading, and you work at a text, it can only give you what you put into it. It’s an old moral, but it’s completely true. (emphasis mine)

It’s interesting that “the more classical model” of reading, the one that requires “work,” has become “unfashionable.” As Ms. Smith suggests, nowadays we tend to approach books as we do movies — we want to be acted upon, rather than act. Among other things, the electronic age has heightened our expectations of a given media and lowered the requirements of participation. Rather than having to sit down and “work at a text,” we approach reading as a “spectator sport.”

This is not meant to suggest that all “entertainments” are necessarily bad or poorly-written. Commercial fiction can be expertly done. And thought-provoking. What should concern us is the fact that “the more classical model” of reading, the one that places demands upon the readers, has become “unfashionable.”

At one time there was an unspoken vow between reader and writer wherein the reader pledged to work hard and the writer guaranteed to make her. Such is no longer the case. Not only do most readers not want to work harder, many writers make sure they don’t have to. I mean, why demand attention when we can offer adrenaline injections?

And isn’t that what publishers are looking for?

Our dilemma is double-edged. For the writer, the drive to be published can tempt us to short-cut literary depth in exchange for formulaic “entertainments.” If the kids want mac and cheese, we’ll forgo the vegetables just to shut them up. Of course, owning stocks in the “mac and cheese” industry may fuel our disregard. Who cares that later on down the road their dietary deficiencies become evident — they are satisfied and we get a paycheck. (Which could explain why there are far less readers than movie-goers, and theaters outnumber bookstores — we weren’t made to eat our Lima beans.) Good writing need not be a chore to read. Still, at some point, the maturing adult must learn to use her literary molars.

And that’s the opposite edge. After all, I’m trying to sell books not raise your literary IQ. But doesn’t the “call to write” come with a “sacred obligation” to respect your literary IQ? However, if today’s readers want “entertainments,” what is the harm in giving it to them? People can survive on fast food, right?

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Question: Do you think good writing necessarily demands more from a reader? How obligated should authors be to make their readers “work”? And is there any real harm in writing “entertainments”?

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{ 20 comments… add one }
  • Jessica Thomas June 16, 2010, 8:08 AM

    Interesting question. When I’m writing poetry, yes, I expect readers to work to understand what I’m trying to get across. When I’m writing fiction, no, I don’t want my readers to feel like they are “working”. I want to paint a scene, create an atmosphere or mood that draws them in, where the words are just a catalyst. If my reader has to stop, reread, piece things together, etc. I feel I’ve failed in my task.

    Literary fiction can easily deliver the experience I just described. In fact, I might say it often does a better job of it. The scene shifts tend to be more subtle, characterization tends to happen more slowly and incrementally. Whereas commercial fiction more often tries to evoke strong emotions, create surges of adrenaline, etc. (Of course, I’m overgeneralizing here.) It’s like floating down the lazy river on an inner tube versus riding a roller coaster. I personally find the rollar coaster to be more work…I’m more worn out when the ride is over.

    As for your final question, absolutely not. There’s no harm in writing fiction purely for entertainment. Variety is the spice of life. 🙂

  • Jeanne Damoff June 16, 2010, 8:16 AM

    Good thoughts and questions, Mike. Rather than get into the “shoulds” of the writer’s calling, I’ll just say that, as a reader, I prefer books that challenge my mind. Others may prefer books that let their minds off the hook. Either way, people are reading, and that’s a lot better than people NOT reading.

    If some folks don’t want to get their mental health food from books, that’s certainly their prerogative, but I do hope they’re getting it somewhere. Junk food beats starvation, but wouldn’t you rather thrive than survive?

  • xdpaul June 16, 2010, 8:32 AM

    You are asking the wrong fella.

    I have mistaken Foucault’s Pendulum, Borges’ Ficciones, Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy, Good Omens, Secret History, the Illuminatis Trilogy, Foundation, That Hideous Strength, A Colour Out of Space, Summa Elvetica, The Violent Bear It Away, The Name of the Wind and American Gods _as_ entertainments.

    The word is an echo of the Word. If it doesn’t engage, confound, demand things of, challenge and grow the reader, it might be someone’s idea of a good time, but not mine!

    Having said that, entertainments that are more proscriptive may not be any fun for me, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them for people who do enjoy them.

    I do think that there may be a problem in the publishing industry if there is a virus afflicting some within it that leads them to believe that because books provide branches to great “straightline, handholding” entertainments (movies, t.v. and video games) that books should therefore be compeletely “cinematic” (i.e. straightline and handholding).

    That mistaken belief (and I have no idea how widespread it might be) is a little like mistaking a coal mine for an electric outlet. You can’t have the latter without the first, but you can’t make the first work like the latter and get the desired result.

  • Nicole June 16, 2010, 8:48 AM

    The thing for me is it shouldn’t be an “either or” question but rather both. Some readers will not “work” at a novel. Some will thrive on it. There should be both, not the “literary means death” approach. The problem as I see it is the publishers haven’t figured out how to sell niche novels–or they don’t want to be bothered with figuring it out. I suspect the classics were always niche novels because the average reader back then hasn’t changed that much from the average reader now. They’re the blue collar readers. And they should have books to read–which they do in abundance.

    In CBA the white collar readers can be fundamentally ignored or not marketed to in some cases. And some white collar writers can have universal appeal if they’re known such as Tosca Lee and Chris Fabry to name a couple. Most people here have heard about and/or read Tosca Lee but how about Chris Fabry?

  • Jay June 16, 2010, 8:50 AM

    Not to be “that guy” in the thread, but all fiction is entertaining. There difference is the nature of the “reward” and where it lies. The shallower the fiction the more immediate the gratification, whereas “better” (my opinion) fiction is delayed/nuanced/complex/intellectual gratification — which is anathema to the market as it is now.

    Can a book have both kinds of entertainment? Heck if I know. Another question to ask is, do we really need more of the shallower form of entertainment?

  • Mike Duran June 16, 2010, 9:30 AM

    Thank you all for commenting! There’s some really great thoughts here. Like Jeanne, “I prefer books that challenge my mind,” fiction that offers “delayed/nuanced/complex/intellectual gratification” (Jay). As a result, I tend to get bored easily with much commercial stuff. The flipside is, as an author, I want to reach the broadest audience possible and don’t feel I can do so by trying to write the same stuff I like to read. In other words, it’s better for a writer like me, in general, to aim lower (and I don’t mean that derogatorily). Still, not challenging my readers seems like I’m denying something intrinsic to my calling. Thanks for your comments!

  • Jill June 16, 2010, 9:49 AM

    As you try to reach a broad category of readers, please don’t forget about those who want the depth and challenge. That’s all I ask. You can do both, right?

  • Mark June 16, 2010, 10:50 AM

    Most of what I read are popular entertainment books by authors you’ve never heard of and probably won’t hear of apart from me.

    But I am reading for pleasure. I have a job, and I work at that. When I sit down to read, I am looking to relax and have fun. And I will not apologize for that.

    That’s not to say I don’t appreciate a book with literary merrit or one that makes me work a little harder to read. One author I love is very evocative in her writing. But she also has good characters and plots. If you don’t have those, I don’t care how well you write.

    And I will not apologize for why I read. I know my admission is frowned down in many circles, but it is why I read.

    So the secret is to make your work both. It takes more work to craft an entertaining story with deeper literary merrit, but those are also the books that are truly great.

  • Kaci June 16, 2010, 1:16 PM

    I don’t know that I have a straight answer. For me, most YA is pure candy for the brain–and I read it the way I eat chocolate: For sheer pleasure. (Some YA writers are much more substantial, but that middle school reading level I read, as a twentysomething, strictly when my brain is tired and I just want to enjoy something.)

    I liked Chinua Achebe, but despised Joseph Conrad. I liked Philip Roth’s short stories, but didn’t care for the novel of his I read (it was mostly that I couldn’t stand the characters). Most British lit I’m not a massive fan of.

    On the flipside, I read National Geographics and the Children’s Encyclopedia for fun as a child. I liked To Kill a Mockingbird, but A Time to Stand just irritated me.

    I think I could appreciate Red Badge of Courage more now than as an 8th grader, and possibly April Morning also.

    I didn’t like The Chronicles of Narnia, though, until junior high.

    It’s rare I meet a book I don’t like, and even more rare I read one I can’t finish. There were many things I read for class that, honestly, I just didn’t like. And it usually had more to do with the characters than the pacing. Pacing…honey, some people just have a slow “warm-up round.” Stephen Lawhead took half a book one time. So did Tolkien. (“Warm-up round = the time it takes to get the story really moving.)

    Sometimes, I don’t like contemporary fiction. I do like to chew my food, after all. And sometimes, I don’t like ‘literary fiction’ – Usually when I can’t find the plot, or when the characters read like flannel graphs.

    Question: Do you think good writing necessarily demands more from a reader? How obligated should authors be to make their readers “work”? And is there any real harm in writing “entertainments”?

    I think the best writing is like swimming in the ocean: Deep, a bit dangerous, much territory left to explore, but not obviously so while playing in it.

    In other words, the ones that stick, at least for me, have a depth that resonates – and keeps doing so – long, long, long after I read the book. Work that doesn’t feel like work, in some sense.

    • Mike Duran June 16, 2010, 4:29 PM

      That’s a great way to put it, Kaci, defining “depth” in terms of how the story “sticks,” not just literary technique.

  • Tim George June 16, 2010, 1:18 PM

    Great thoughts Mike! I guess this is the thin line every writer worth his or salt has always walked. The moment we use the term literary some will think we mean “for smart people” and if your use the term popular others will thing we mean “for not-so-smart people”. Of course, neither is the case.

    I have the same choice you do. Personally, I lean toward writers like Athol Dickson and Sibella Giorello who are wordsmiths but can also write a tight suspenseful plot. Athol wins one Christy after another and is nominated every year but his sales come no where close to writers like Brandilyn Collins. Both write good suspense but I am afraid many people think Athol tries to make you think too much (in River Rising and Lost Mission in particular).

    I guess, in the end. we just have to write what we write and leave the results to God.

  • Kat Heckenbach June 16, 2010, 1:35 PM

    I once heard that the difference between literary fiction and commercial is that at the end of a commercial novel the character has changed, but at the end of a literary novel the reader has changed.

    But I don’t see what depth and meaning have to do with difficulty to read. The Giver by Lois Lowry is not a hard read–but it’s deep. Books can be rich and meaningful, and completely heady, and still read smoothly so that the reader is captured by the story.

    What I don’t like is the idea of a book being “literary” because it’s dry or takes seventeen paragraphs to say what could have been said in one. That’s what makes a book hard to read to me. And a book like that can be completely meaningless. Beautiful and flowery writing that is tedious doesn’t impress me. Nor does writing that seems to be there simply to show me how clever and innovative the writer is (or thinks he is).

    On the flip side, some books are so simply written and so fast paced and have stories that are all surface. Books like that don’t attract me. I may read a book like that for fun every now and then, just to give my brain a break, but I won’t spend money on it, nor waste space on my bookshelf with it even if I got it for free.

    What I spend money on, and what earns a place on my bookshelf, are books that suck me into the story, make me fall in love with the characters, and make me think about the different levels of the story when I’ve finished–something that makes me want to go back and read it again so I can experience it all over.

    • Mike Duran June 16, 2010, 4:49 PM

      Kat said, “I don’t see what depth and meaning have to do with difficulty to read.” Perhaps nothing. Dense, meaningful books can be easy to read. I think what Zadie Smith is saying is that our approach to books is changing. Nowadays, we seek works that present less a personal challenge, whether it is through simplified prose or simplified storytelling. It’s been said that every day we should do something hard, just because it is hard. Maybe the same should be true of our reading. Thanks for commenting, Kat!

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 16, 2010, 2:03 PM

    Books can be rich and meaningful, and completely heady, and still read smoothly so that the reader is captured by the story. Thanks, Kat. That’s what I was thinking as I read the other comments.

    I enjoy being lost in the “fictive dream.” I also enjoy mulling over the meaning of life and what moves and motivates a character. I like thinking about a story long after I’m through.

    However I don’t enjoy fighting my way through verbiage to figure out what’s happening. There are a couple acclaimed writers of Christian fiction who I don’t read because of this or because their “deep” subject matter is not something I care for.

    There are also a couple acclaimed writers of Christian fiction who I don’t read because their stories are nothing but “adrenaline injections.”

    I don’t see why we can’t make a story easy to enjoy and thought-provoking in its depth. Whether or not I pull it off, that’s what I’m aiming for.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 16, 2010, 2:12 PM

    Let me add one thing. As I’m sure you’ve heard me say, Mike, writing is communication. Writing fiction should not be an exception. What good is a work that is too dense for readers to want to read? On the other hand, what good is a story that communicates nothing new? Balance. That’s what I believe great fiction has.

    And the classics—some were very popular in their day, others were neglected and only became classic in retrospect. So looking to them to answer whether we should write for the masses or not doesn’t really help, I don’t think.


  • A. J. Walker June 16, 2010, 6:31 PM

    “…takes seventeen paragraphs to say what could have been said in one.”
    Kate Heckenbach

    According to your loose definition, I fall very definitely in what would be called “entertainment” reader. Not that I don’t want the book to say something, having deep meanings, a great theme and what not, my problem is I have very little patience for an author who needs 17 paragraphs to say what could have been said in one.

    I will concede it is probably from my journalism background but a good story told as simply as possible is what I like to read and seek to write.

    I know people who love literary fiction and read nothing else while looking down their noses at those who don’t. That’s not me. I don’t pick up a book to “wrestle” with it and I don’t suffer an author long to get to the point. (I can’t tell you the number of books I’ve never read past the first 10 pages after getting suckered by the flap jacket synopsis.)

    To me, the skill of a writer is how economically can they tell their story? Was it a story worth telling? Was it done in a compelling way? I really don’t care how fancy pants or “high-brow” their writing; that usually turns me off from a book pretty quickly. I don’t like too much style that seems to be there to show how clever the author is, give me substance any day.

    A good story told as simply as possible makes me a happy reader.

  • Mark June 16, 2010, 10:17 PM

    Something struck me coming back to this discussion tonight. And I’m going to use a TV Network as an example.

    I am addicted to the original shows on the USA Network. I love all of them. But it took me a while to warm up to In Plain Sight. Part of that is because the main character can be a bit too sharp at times. But part of that is because it is more serious than the other shows. But it is also the show that leaves you with something to think about each week when it is over. Now that I have the rhythm of the show and a true appreciation for the characters, I can’t wait to watch it each week. It always tells a compelling story with real people, but that added depth gives it just a bit more than the other shows (which I also love).

    Good writing can be the same way. It can entertain us while leaving us with something to mull over when it’s all done. If a writer does that, he’s done his job well. But if she misses that mark, she’s done a disservice to herself and her reader.

  • Mark H. June 17, 2010, 6:36 AM

    I read an interview with secular best-selling author Joseph Finder and took note of this Q & A:

    LBL: Since your precocious debut with the nonfiction Red Carpet, you’ve gone on to pen ten novels, all of which are either spy thrillers or just plain thrillers. (I confess to loving Paranoia. So sue me.) Are you ever planning on writing a real book, you know, one that could be classified as literary?

    JF: If by “literary” you mean “read only by people who want to feel superior,” um, no. I plan to continue writing fake books.

    One of my pet phrases is that the answer is usually somewhere in the middle. If an author writing entertainment continues to only serve up fast, easily disposable junk food, the reader might keep coming back for more, but only becomes fat and lazy. If a literary author refuses to parcel any enjoyment to the reader, the books become nothing but drudgery and work, and the reader eventually gives up (much like me with jogging regularly).

    I think it’s possible to combine the two worlds of thought. I think it’s possible to provide a fun, exciting entertainment without insulting the reader’s intelligence. And I think it’s possible to write a great artistic masterpiece that achieves profundity yet remembers to include an interesting plot to keep the pages turning.

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