Like all writers I love to read. Like all writers I read a lot. In fact it would be fair to say I would probably get a lot more writing done if I read a lot less (and stayed away from all forms of social media but hey – a girl has to get a life where she can right?)
There has always been a lot of discussion around what makes a book/story good and whether a lot of popular fiction really deserves the attention it receives. Even the best of friends can be brought to blows over the likes of Harry Potter, Twilight, and anything published by a company specializing in Romance (complete with capital R).
I recently read an article by James Hall in which Hall talks about how he used to avoid popular fiction, deeming it not good enough to waste time on. Now, he teaches a class in why we should read popular fiction. I posted the link to my Facebook page, knowing full well it would trigger some debate (it did, though not as much as I expected) and was fascinated to see how passionate (gosh how tactful was that?) people get about the subject.
I have read several classics, that, had an unknown writer today pitched them to a critique group, let alone a publisher, would be rejected for too many adverbs, incorrect sentence construction, messing with convention in literature, defying popular or accepted theory behind a particular story line. Chances are, when they were first published, they were chastised. But somebody thought the story was worthwhile…and now with hindsight, they are applauded.
It is interesting to note that a lot of the arguments against popular fiction are also used against independent and self published fiction – and I do find that worrying.
There seems to be a trend toward deciding that just because something is not literary or is not published by a mainstream publisher, it will either be dreadful writing (otherwise a mainstream author would have published it right?) or it will be pulp nonsense.
As a reviewer and an editor, I read a lot of fiction and non fiction. Some of it is bad. Some of it is Very Bad. A lot of it, however, is good. And some of it is Extremely Good.
Popular fiction is not always good writing. Good writing is not always popular. That is a given. Some classics – and I know I am going to have a price on my head for saying this out loud – for want of a better word, suck.
Good writing does not a good story make; a good story does not good writing make. That’s a given. And you can enjoy one and not the other. Also a given. But to assume that a good story or a modern story or a best selling story – or an independently published story – is automatically badly written is an unfair judgement.
And while we are at it – if you are going to critique, judge, and/or condemn a book, please at least read it first. Don’t just assume, that because you do not like the genre or would not read it, that the author is a bad writer.
One genre that gets a really hard time of it by people who don’t even read it is romance. Yes, there are some awful romance novels out there. There are some shocking writers. But there are also a lot of brilliant books, beautifully written, by excellent writers.
There are also many, many great stories with moderate to good writing – that bring a lot of joy to a lot of people. There is nothing wrong with that.
Twilight springs to mind. Many, many, many of my writer friends loathe Twilight with a passion normally reserved for dictators and torturers. A lot of their arguments are sound – I don’t think the books are particularly well written, although I enjoyed the first one. I spent a lot of time mentally editing it, but I did like the story.
I didn’t enjoy the sequels because I didn’t feel the storytelling made up for the awful writing.
As to the sparkle of Edward and his family – it didn’t bother me in the slightest. Nor did it bother me that the vampire story line didn’t follow the traditional rules – and I’ve been reading horror since I was 12. You see, I never thought of Twilight as being a horror story or even a paranormal story. It was always, for me, a teenage love story, so I didn’t care about the rest.
Sue me. Take away my membership to the Stephen King fan club.
If writers (and song writers and painters and poets and architects and…well you get my point) always did what everybody did because that was the rule, there would be no evolution within the craft. No invention, no advance.
Many people worry that books like Twilight will lower the standards and tastes of our young people and that it’s better they read nothing than read this type of book. I disagree. I actually would prefer they read Twilight or Harry Potter or Mickey Mouse comics than not read.
I don’t care if they read on a Kindle, from a borrowed library book, or online. I care that they read. Once you have a child reading, it is up to adults to then provide the variety and the alternatives and the education so children can begin to make a critical choice. And to accept they may not ever like anything more than Mickey Mouse comics. So what?
My daughter was not interested in reading, in part because she is dyslexic, until she discovered Twilight. She was captivated by it and found that reading was worth the hassle. Reading the series improved her general reading so much, she went from being in the lower portion of the class to the upper portion. Was it the sparkly vampires? Of course not – it was the realisation not only that she could read, but it could be enjoyable. Suddenly, she liked school and reading. In fact she liked reading so much she began looking around for other books to read. Today she loves YA novels like Twilight- but she’s also tackled, among others, Jane Eyre and adored it – whereas I loathed the thing.
Would she have found Bronte of her own accord? Probably not. I made it available (and this is where I should point out, she read it on my eReader, which probably makes me a complete heathen for many)for her and encouraged her to read it. It’s up to me to give her a variety to choose from, teach her the tools to decide what is good or bad writing, and the confidence to decide what she thinks is a good or bad story.
If nobody teaches kids these, we can’t blame them if they don’t learn how to do it.
One very dear friend of mine – a talented writer – did make the following comment: ”read what you like and screw other people but don’t try to elevate poor writing because you feel guilty about reading trash.”
Now this is interesting for two reasons. Firstly because she’s right. Absolutely right. I read what I want to read and I don’t care if anyone else likes it, approves of it, or agrees with it. The second reason it interests me though is because I have never felt guilty about reading popular fiction. I loved Harry Potter for example. I didn’t find it great writing but I loved the story; I believe Rowling is a much better story teller than she is a writer (mind you what would I know – she’s the one with the millions….) and I never felt guilty about liking it. I’ve never felt guilty about loving romance. I can read King over and over and over and still love it.
I have often had to defend myself – never to Shoshana who isn’t the kind of person to judge you based on what you read, write, or judge but she raised the point so I’d like to answer it – to many people who have felt I shouldn’t read this stuff because “you shouldn’t read bad writing.”
A friend of my mother’s love bodice rippers. They are the only kind of book she reads. And when I say bodice rippers, I do mean the variety that receives prizes for ‘purple prose’. She’s an intelligent, successful business woman and she says when she reads, she simply wants to get lost in the story and not think – and this type of book does that for her. She has tried other “better written, more acceptable genres” and gets no joy from them. Not once have I ever heard her suggest to anybody they should join her and read what she reads. Nor does she judge what others read. Yet, over and over I hear her friends tell her to ‘stop reading that rubbish’.
She never feels guilty but she does have to defend her choice.
It’s a bit like tattoos - people without tattoos are often very vocal about why one would have one, the type of person who gets them, what will happen later. People with tattoos don’t care if you have one or not.
So I’m with Shoshana on this – read what you want and never mind other people. Don’t try to defend yourself. Just say “I read it because I like it”. It’s their problem if they have a problem with what you read.
As a writer, I would love to write something that has the mass appeal of a Twilight, Hunger Games, or Harry Potter. Not because of the money (okay not only because of the money) but because I would love to think my work might bring pleasure to that many people. I would like to hope I can write well enough to be considered a good writer – but the truth is if I had to choose between being a great story teller and a good writer – I’d rather be a great story teller.
And that’s my two cents worth…..