Three people walk into a bar: the first is carrying a book of experimental poetry, the second holds a YA vampire novel, and the last sits down and opens up a Victorian classic. Who is the “real reader”?

Writers, understandably, are always seeking advice for how to better connect to readers. And there is an abundance of advice that makes claims about what readers want: “Readers want realistic characters!” “Readers crave plot!” “Readers want emotion!” “Readers want simple stories, not complex literary gymnastics!” But, contrary to these claims, readers are not a monolithic block. Readers want different things. Some want realistic characters, others want archetypes. Some want plot-heavy books, others want essayistic musings. Some want simple language, others want complex sentences. And most, in truth, want all of those things at different times.

An appreciation of readers as diverse individuals with different tastes should be a basic tenet of criticism. Instead, it’s common for critics to imagine that their aesthetic preferences are the reflections of “readers” or a special class of readers—“serious readers,” “imaginative readers,” “brave readers,” or some other ill-defined category—whose views truly matter.

Take, for example, this painfully un-self-aware NPR review of Mark Doten’s experimental Iraq war novel, The Infernal:

[The Infernal is] a novel written not for readers but for those who love to argue about the novel-as-object more than they love the words. It’s an elbow-patch book, fodder for lit professors, likely attractive to those young enough (or cynical enough) to believe that oddness and iconoclasm equals genius, but that just ain’t me.

I don’t want to debate the merits of The Infernal here—it’s gotten mostly very positive reviews, and I, full disclosure, know Mark Doten personally—but this is the perfect example of a flaw common in today’s literary and cultural criticism. When a reviewer can’t defend their preferences through argument, they resort to a No True Scotsman fallacy and say anyone who feels differently isn’t even a reader.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that Jason Sheehan’s claim is true: The Infernal is the kind of book that can only be enjoyed by literary professors and young readers who love odd Iconoclastic work. How does that make it “not for readers”? Aren’t professors readers? When a young iconoclast reads a book, is she not really reading? Do they not “love words”? Is a book that sells 5,000 copies to literary professors less “read” than a book that sells 5,000 copies to restaurant critics who are oddly given NPR book review slots?

Perhaps a half-century ago, this kind of snobbery was restricted to Ivory Tower academics looking down on the peasants reading pulp fiction. But in the last few decades, the tables have turned. Pulp is the new prestige. Today the snobbiest critics are the anti-snobs: the ones who think that anyone who reads work that is complex or lyrical (or, god forbid, translated from another language) is an elitist fraud. You can find this mindset everywhere on the internet, but here’s one example from the Huffington Post: “Stop Lying About Your Favorite Books on Facebook.” Here, a blogger finds it “preposterous” that anyone could list Junot Diaz, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or Ernest Hemingway as authors of books that stuck with them. (Her list of “real life” favorite books, the ones people actually love, includes The Hunger Games, 50 Shades of Grey, and Harry Potter.) It’s silly enough to claim that anyone who loves dense literary fiction or “difficult books” must be lying. But what’s so striking about the HuffPo “preposterous” list is that Marquez, Hemingway, and Diaz are massively popular, best-selling authors. If they are considered too pretentious to enjoy, what books aren’t elitist?

I realize that the Huffington Post writer was attempting to approximate something akin to humor, but people argue this seriously all the time. I saw a writer friend tweet recently that she thought anyone who didn’t admit to reading YA as an adult was lying. There’s nothing wrong with reading YA as an adult, but there is something wrong with being unable to believe that there are adult readers who don’t want to read YA or who prefer Marquez to Collins.

That the language of these critics echoes Fox News hosts talking about “real Americans” is no coincidence. Both are outshoots of the anti-intellectualism that’s gripped the country since at least the 2000 election. This conservative vision of culture—where anything that tries to push boundaries is inherently “pretentious” and anyone who has tastes that differ from the masses is an “elitist”—is offensive to all sides. Not only does it off-handedly dismiss so much great art, but it rests on a presumption that people who are working-class, without college educations, or simply not from the coasts—people from the so-called “real America”—have no interest in anything but airport fiction. I have never found this to be the case, and, on the flipside, have been in the homes of overeducated lawyers and doctors whose shelves were filled with Dan Brown and Dean Koontz.

Let’s also dispense with the idea that our aesthetic preferences are more “true” or “honest” or “brave.” Let me circle back to Sheehan’s review of The Infernal:

Oftentimes being straight and forthright in the face of a difficult topic is the bravest of all possible options, and one which Doten doesn’t for a moment consider.

If we are not discussing an author who risks injury, imprisonment, or death for their fiction writing, as many writers do, let’s leave “bravery” off the table. Hemingway is not “braver” than Faulkner because he is more straightforward. They wrote different kinds of fiction that, due to their aesthetic ideals, each achieved things that the other could not achieve.

I want to make it clear here that I think intelligent arts criticism is important and valuable. I want critics, writers, and readers to stake out their aesthetic ground and defend it. But your arguments should make us think deeper and harder about books. Criticism should complicate, not simplify.

If you think the above is true, but not worth fretting over, here is why I disagree: lazy stereotypes about reader preferences absolutely contribute to problems in the publishing industry. I know writers of color who’ve been rejected because their writing “isn’t black enough for black readers,” or is “too black for white readers.” It leads publishers to reject manuscripts because “readers won’t read translated fiction” or “don’t want more [insert ethnicity] immigrant fiction this year.” (Then, of course, those same publishers scramble after that same fiction as soon as one book sells well.) It’s part of the reason that women writers are pressured into flowery uplifting covers even if their fiction is dark and gritty. And, more generally, it’s part of why tons of great books that push boundaries and do new, exciting things get passed over, and literature, and readers, suffer for it.

20 Responses

  1. Bill Peschel

    So, wait, you’re bashing conservatives’ view of culture as being narrow-minded, yet your buddy’s book is being bashed on an NPR site. Are you implying that liberals can be just as narrow-minded about literature? Or are you unfairly slotting conservatives by ascribing to them, as a whole, a single cultural belief?

    Reply
  2. Andrew Rhomberg

    This is why it’s so much fun to look at the actual reading data and understand what type of users gets hooked on a book versus who gets stuck or gives up. Not every reader is the same. Each book has its audience, but it’s not always clear WHAT audience.

    How do we obtain that reading data at Jellybooks. We wrote a bit of code that can be embedded into an ebook. We then distribute by email those ebooks to focus group members, who read the ebook on their favourite ebook reading app (iBooks, Kobo, etc.) and with a single tap/click of a button they upload the reading data that has been recorded to Jellybooks (data in exchange for a free galley/ARC/book).

    Its observational data rather than a subjective review…

    It can also show if there are sections where even an avid or passionate reader gets stuck in the book. Even greta books can have weak sections…

    Reply
  3. Yellow Buick Review

    This is some seriously good writing, dude. There is, one hopes, a basic “Gentleman’s C” floor beneath anything selected for a review, in that truly banal/dreadful work doesn’t even merit a put-down. So the NPR reviewer may have been, inelegantly, letting most listeners know that the book in question might not be for them. The inelegance stems more from lazy projections onto the listening audience than from any wrong instincts on the reviewer’s part.

    Reply
  4. Bret McCormick

    There are more readers out there than writers, so we should certainly acknowledge and expect diversity of appetites. There are more writers than there are publishers and agents. I think its time we stopped letting the tail wag the dog. The audience may be fragmenting, but there are more ways to get your writing out there than ever before! Write for yourself and like-minded others. Build community.

    Reply
  5. Charlotte

    Thank you! I wish all my students’ parents and teachers would think like this. I also wish they all would read so my students would see them reading! I think I will keep a copy of this on hand for the next adult who tells me my students need to be reading the classics (some do) so I can ask them to read this and not be tempted to ask them which classics they actually read.

    Reply
  6. Quote of the Day: What Readers Want | The Power of Narrative

    […] Writers, understandably, are always seeking advice for how to better connect to readers. And there is an abundance of advice that makes claims about what readers want: “Readers want realistic characters!” “Readers crave plot!” “Readers want emotion!” “Readers want simple stories, not complex literary gymnastics!” But, contrary to these claims, readers are not a monolithic block. Readers want different things. Some want realistic characters, others want archetypes. Some want plot-heavy books, others want essayistic musings. Some want simple language, others want complex sentences. And most, in truth, want all of those things at different times.-Lincoln Micheal, “There’s No Such Thing as a Fake Reader“ […]

    Reply

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