In connection with John McFetridge's excellent thread about who is reading our books, it might be interesting that GALLEY CAT today has a short report from a BEA event that involved a publisher-sponsored panel of authors discussing just this sort of thing. I take it from the brief summary that the three authors had little faith in their readership.
One of them stated, "All of us are writing for college-educated middle-aged white women." (A group that is predictably going to die out within the foreseeable future and seems to hang out in libraries anyway). Another complained that her comment about reading Hemingway and Fitzgerald caused a young woman to say, "I haven't read any of those Russian authors." And the third man on the panel enthused that authors were as inspired and brilliant as ever in spite of the declining literacy rates.

Clearly there is a problem. People don't like to read. In my experience as a teacher of literature that usually means they don't understand the vocabulary. It's a problem that writers try to overcome by appealing to the lowest common denominator (the young woman who thinks Hemingway is a Russian). The rationale seems to be: let's get the kids to read. It doesn't really matter about content and style, or anything brainy. If they're reading, that's the main thing.

Mind you, the three authors were literary fiction folk, but apparently even genre has to be dumbed down these day to sell.

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I think the old "our readership is dying out" argument is weak. Does that autor really think there will be no more college-educated middle-aged white women when the current batch dies out? There are more on the way, and there always will be. Their tastes will evolve, but they'll keep coming. Reading is likely somehting people tend to do more of as they get older. Young people tend to be more physically active; our habits become more sedentary and intellectual as we age.

I think the real problem here is the amount of energy expended in the public schools teaching kids not to want to read. The books shoved down their throats are often intended for older readers, and may have no relevance for the kids. I'm not saying they shouldn't learn the "important" pieces of literature, but that shouldn't be all they read. Too many kids come out of school thinking all fiction is like that, and nbow that they don't have to read it, they won't. I didn;t read much fiction for years after graduating college-I read a lot, but almost exclusively non-fiction-and that's part of the reason why, and I'm someone disposed to want to read.
The reason the classics are taught in school is to teach students how to analyze language. And books intended for their age group are obviously not challenging in that regard because they can already understand it. You want to expose students to things they don't know so they learn them and thereby know it. That's what education is all about, learning new things.

The importance is to teach kids more about their language so they can communicate more effectively. It's not about getting them to want to read novels. Reading novels is not a vital human endeavor, but being able to communicate well is.
This is true about the classics, but reading teaches vocabulary, and vocabulary is necessary for communication. Good novels also teach about human nature, another thing that is quite useful when interacting with people.
Dana, there is no guarantee that the non-readers will turn into readers as they age. It's more likely that they'll continue to do what they've always done.
It is a multi-layered problem.

First, there is school, where you must read Dickens and Hemingway. Great writers, but the "required" part of the reading probably causes students to associate "literature" with work, which is unfortunate. Couple it with the fact that most high school or middle school curriculum do not encourage discussion of the works - you read it, and then regurgitate facts to prove you read it. Blah! I honestly think I was the only person in my 9th grade honors English class that actually read all of Silas Marner. And I got sent to the principal for challenging our teacher on a couple points about the book. Sigh.

Then there is "reading" things such as Shakespeare. He was NOT meant to be read silently. Those are plays and meant to be acted out. I'm not even sure that poetry should be read silently by the student sitting at a desk desperately trying to earn a passing grade.

Schools take the "life" out of literature. The cause some really great works to be viewed as "work" and "drudgery" and as a result, a student does not get the chance to determine if he or she enjoys a classic author - the student is already pre-disposed to not enjoy it.

The second problem is that much of what is being published for younger audiences - such as Goosebumps, Twilight, etc., - may fail to provide one thing. Yes, they get a lot of kids reading and that is wonderful. They can be very entertaining, and that is important. And I fault no author for commercial success. But do they encourage youth to move it up a notch in their reading? To "graduate" to something more complicated? I don't know the answer to that, but I do wonder if a reader grows as a reader by reading books that pull in young readers, in part at least, because of their simplicity and formulaic approaches (again - nothing wrong with that!).

The final thing I worry about is what the impact of the internet will have on young people. Already they are growing up to not read the newspaper. What of books? Will it be the same? Or perhaps they'll get into the Kindle and other e-readers? I'm not sure the answer, but it worries me.

At the end of the day, I still have hope, though and agree with Dana. An anecdote if I may: Last summer, my parents came to visit for a week or so and brought my 13-year-old nephew with them. He had some young adult horror book he'd read on during the 16 hour drive to my place. While at my place he finished the book and began looking at my bookshelves. He pulled of The Exorcist and asked if it was good. I told him it was very good and very scary and he better NEVER tell his mom I let him read it. He read it - spent one night in my bedroom - and LOVED it.

These days, we have an agreement. I send him a book - my choice. He reads it. We chat about it. If I'm confident he actually read it, I send him another one. The books are varied in genre, complexity, etc. We have a prize in mind once he reaches 16 and enough books. But the main thing is he reads constantly now....and even is beginning to ask me critical questions about what he has to read for school - which he still hates. I gave him the name of my 9th grade honors english teacher - who is still teaching - and told him to avoid her like the plague.

He will grow up to be a reader. And a lot of my friends strongly encourage their kids to read.

Maybe I'm dellusional. Or maybe I'm just the world's greatest uncle. I think we'll be ok though, in terms of readers - at least I hope so. I just worry about what format they'll be reading. And will they want to read the kinds of things in the formats I like to write.
Young people read more online though. You can access a lot more news online, more varied viewpoints and sources, then just reading a couple newspapers. So the internet is actually a benefit in that regard.
Couldn't agree more.

What I'm curious about - and I truly don't know, is are they accessing viewpoints they agree with (like the conservative listening to Rush or the liberal listening to Keith Oberman).

Also, does the internet change reading habits to more of a brief, highly visual, multi-media? Would it...can it encourage book length reading?

Questions I truly don't know the answer to.
I love that story, Clay. Yes, there are still some kids who like books, and what you're doing is smart and quite brilliant. What fun he'll have.

And there's the rub: people don't know what they're missing. Neither film nor television can replace the joy of having a book you love all to yourself, to read when you want to. Neither can they take you to the faraway places you want to visit whenever you choose to do so.

I still remember the sense of absolute delight when I realized that I could read books not only in my native language, but also in English. A whole new world opened up.
Raising readers...

I've got two daughters who read constantly. It's probably because my husband and I read constantly, and our house if filled to the bursting with books, and we take them to bookstores to pick out their own books almost every week. I'm not relying on the teachers to turn them into readers--that's my job.

So Clay, I think you've got the right idea.
"Genre" crime fiction is marketed to the lowest common denominator. The problem with that, is that when it comes to mindless entertainment, novels are inferior to TV and movies and the internet. They just are. If I want action, a Schwarzenegger movie is better than the book (Such as True Lies, which I did read the tie-in book for). If the book doesn't offer anything more than the movie, no deeper insight into the character, no further introspection, then the movie is preferable. James Bond is a good example of this.

The movie Bond and Ian Fleming's literary Bond are different. The Bond movies are great action flicks, but Ian Fleming's books offer a deeper, more realistic look at the character.

It doesn't help that most crime fiction, at least that I've been exposed to, consists of flat writing completely devoid of style. What is there to latch onto? The characters are cardboard, the action is pretty mild because writers don't want to be honest about the brutality and horror of murder lest they offend their readers, they stick to common words so their reader doesn't have to look anything up in the dictionary, which means there are some depths of feeling that cannot be expressed in these novels. For example, if your character is despondent, you can't say he was sad. They don't mean the same thing. Of course, the crime writer probably wouldn't say he was despondent in the first place; he would want to show it. They want to show everything, yet they also don't want to put in too many details, just enough so the reader can fill in the rest. But no matter how visual your novel is, it will never be as visual as a movie.

Also a disadvantage to the "entertainment" novel, if you want to call it that, is that the plot has to be solid, since that's what the novel is hinged on. If there's problems with the plot, it's hard to look past it. But you can have a plot that makes little sense in movies because the visuals and sound are still there. Yeah, there's gaping plot holes, but the action is still riveting.

I.J., your problems may just be that of marketing. Every time you express your opinion I get the feeling you're out of place; maybe it's time you come over to the dark side and turn to marketing your work as a literary novel. Or you could water it down like so many others and turn your stories into guidebooks to an "exotic" culture, but I figure you're not interested in that. The fact is, and people can call me arrogant or snooty or whatever if you want, but readers of literary fiction are more discerning and more demanding than readers who just pick up a book to past the time on the beach while they get a tan. There's nothing wrong with the latter; sometimes I just want to be entertained too, but there is a huge difference in the style and content of the different genres.

I just think when it comes to the "lowest common denominator", novels are inferior in providing pure entertainment.
So, tell me, John, if you have such a dim opinion of crime fiction, why is it exactly that you joined CRIMESPACE: A Place for Readers and Writers of Crime Fiction to Meet?
To discuss crime fiction with other writers, of course. I don't have a dim opinion of crime fiction as a subject for novels, I'm just dissatisfied with most of the American crime fiction I read. I read a lot of Japanese crime fiction, but I also like other genres as well. Crimespace encourages the best discussion that I've found so far.

But your question is an attempt at misdirection. My point is that novels marketed solely for entertainment value are at a disadvantage to other media also marketed for entertainment value, and that might have something to do with the decrease in readers. Novels don't have the visual appeal of movies and TV, so they must appeal to the mind and the heart. If there's nothing there to grab onto, then what advantage does a book have over a movie or TV show in terms of pure escapist entertainment? Reading about an explosion is not as riveting as seeing one with your own eyes. If a book doesn't offer something a movie can't, then why prefer the book?

This is my opinion and I am entitled to it, so don't try to exclude me because I think differently than you. I've contributed a lot of discussion to this site, and my post certainly contributed more to the discussion than your post did.


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