Saturday, October 14, 2006

Readers and Reading

Still reposting.
A couple of interesting blog entries on the many reasons for reading, especially from a writer's perspective.

Sara Weinman posted a link to an entry on empire of dirt and her own comments on it. Along with reading from a reader's and writer's perspective, she also reads from an editor's perspective. She wonders, after considering the blog entry that inspired her post, "Am I trying to wear too many hats at once? Do I cut some writers too much slack or not enough? And is there anything at all to this "potential" business?"

It's an interesting question. I read as a reader. I don't analyze from a writer's perspective nor, despite doing editing informally, do I think of how it could be better unless something really jumps out at me. I tend to absorb things like structure and style while reading, but I'm not consciously aware of that.

The discussion boils down to how readers judge the quality of a book and what factors are taken into consideration. But for me, it's not a matter of whether or not the book is "good," because ultimately, IMO, that is a subjective quality. As a reader, I'm concerned with a more basic, personal question: "Did I enjoy reading the book?" I might, and do, like some books more than others, but the reasons vary. Some may be, IMO, better written, but some I like more might simply have characters I like more than those in another book or have a plot I find more intriquing. To me, books need to succeed on a personal level, one reader at a time. The more readers they can do that with, the greater their success. And with a Danielle Steel title enjoying a lot of popularity with readers, does that mean her books are better than those of an author critics determine is a more skilled, literary writer?

I've been in these discussions many times online, mostly on message boards and my (oh, let's call it unwillingness) to discuss books in terms of absolute goodness or awfulness has led to some unpleasant moments when nearly everyone else tears into my words. If a writer can stand the test of time, that to me is evidence of skill, but it doesn't guarantee universal appeal. There are "classic authors" I'll never enjoy (Hemingway heads the list), but I accept that many if not most readers find such books enjoyable. And I suspect Steel will be treated as well by time, though that remains to be seen. And I don't like her books, either.

If you read the articles I linked to, you'll see the discussion has an emphasis on whether the potential of a book, the ambition of the author that might've fallen short of the goal, should be a factor in assessing a book. For me, it's the bottom line, but the bottom line isn't whether or not the thing is good, but whether or not I thought so, whether I end up glad I read it.
"Toward a Reading Revival "
Publishers Weekly 7/19/04

"Although the decline in reading by adult Americans documented in the National Endowment for the Arts' "Reading at Risk" study came as no surprise to the book community, the report provides clear evidence that action is needed to ensure that the book-reading habit is not, as NEA chairman Dana Gioia suggested, an activity headed toward extinction. By quantifying the degree by which reading is fading in America, the study gives parties interested in restoring reading's place in America motive—and ammunition—to develop initiatives to reverse the troublesome trend. PW invited several industry professionals to give their observations about the study and what steps could be taken to encourage the public to return to books."

Geoff Shandler, editor-in-chief, Little, Brown, said:

"...Indeed, one conclusion easily drawn from the NEA report is that if our political elites wanted to do something about the situation they could—but they don't. Which further suggests that our political elites much prefer a passive citizenry that prefers arguments about program schedules to a reading public that engages in policy debates.

"Publishers are to blame, too. We've done very little to encourage reading, outside of showing up at big, urban book festivals, cameo appearances in communities usually already home to a great deal of book-related events throughout the year. Taking off from a suggestion bookseller and ABA president Mitch Kaplan has made: How many author tours include a visit by an author to a school? How many literary agencies have asked their clients to do some sort of educational outreach?..."

This quote, from David Thalberg, senior b-p at the public relations company Planned Television Arts:

"...Reading needs to be considered a fun activity, rather than a chore or effort. We can't tell someone to pick up a book—they have to want to do so. As advertisers and marketers have proven over the years, consumers can be influenced to buy or use a product, especially if the product is branded correctly...."

I understand his point and with all the Star Trek books and other media tie-ins, the potential to reach a younger readership is strong, but I cringe at the implications here for writers of serious, "standalone" works of literature.

Though this does resonate with me, though I read comics and books simultaneously when I was a kid:

"...Young Americans want to be ahead of the curve and not just follow along, and they also create trends as well. The comic book underground has just in the last few years been discovered by the mainstream. Moving beyond Superman, Batman and SpiderMan, graphic comics and novels are spawning an entirely new readership, now moving from the underground to the mainstream and developing into lucrative brands.

"So how do we get more Americans to read? Maybe we let them look at the pictures first."

And from James Lichtenberg, a consultant:

"...Right or wrong, the real focus of the industry's collective efforts has been on protecting copyright. And much of that is posturing and overkill on the part of lawyers and lawmakers. But even if every copyright protection effort were justified, and successful to boot, so what? What's the use of a pickproof door if no one cares what's in the store?... "

This is an issue I'm divided about. As a writer, I want to protect copyright of material, though I suppose beyond my lifetime is unnecessary. But as a librarian, I'm in favor of an extension of fair use, especially to allow info to flow more freely online. It's a dilemma not easily resolved and made more difficult when the problems of a dwindling readership are taken into consideration.
He goes on to differentiate the collective failure of publishing vs the efforts of individual publishers that have succeeded. He brought up the electronic distractions that interfere with reading and the battle of giant retailer Barnes & Noble vs giant publisher Random House, with everyone else caught in between.

Along with advocating the need to put "collective energies toward" a "well-funded reading campaign," he said,

"Additionally, the industry needs to support new technologies and creative business models that encourage the consumer to acquire reading materials in new and old ways."

Interesting thoughts here, and clearly, the debate has just begun. I hope it doesn't die out or get mired in endless discussions with nothing being done.
I'm always falling behind, usually in my reading, including newspapers and Newsweek, which means when I find something to blog about in the news, just about everyone else has already blogged about it. So I usually don't bother, unless I find an angle that suits me. This item needs me to say something. And while I'd normally blog about this in Occasional Blog, I think it fits here.

By now everyone knows about the National Endowment of the Arts report that less than half the adults in America, based on data from the Census Bureau, reports reading literature. Any kind of literature. Romance novel kind. Poetry. The latest Stephen King novel. Any kind of literature.

As a librarian, I'm disturbed by this. But I also have known for a long time that libraries can't survive by just circulating books. Non-print media has become an important fixture in library collections: cassettes (music and audiobooks), CDs (music and audiobooks), videos, DVDs, even software. And by offering free internet access.

A couple of quotes in the Newsweek article (July 19 issue) struck me as significant and worth commenting on.

"One of the most troubling things uncovered by the NEA poll is that people who read are also more likely to do volunteer work or attend plays or ball games. 'This study suggests that there are two groups of Americans emerging in this electronic age," says [Dana] Gioia [NEA chairman]. 'The first group takes a very active and engaged attitude toward information and society. The other group are increasingly passive consumers of electronic entertainment. Unfortunately, one group is growing--and it's not the readers.'"

Aside from the mismatch of noun and verb (other group/are), I find it disturbing how passive people are becoming. Sure, playing video games is active but watching vids isn't. And neither is as active as blogging or reading online or interacting with people in chatrooms or on message boards. A study that breaks down the activities of people online, looking for percentages and overlap could yield interesting results.

But what really disturbed me on a couple of levels and has impact for writers is this:

"Oddly, publishers have responded to this decline in readers by publishing far more titles for people not to read. Two decades ago the number of new books published annually hovered around 60,000, then climbed more than 100,000 in the early '90s. Lst year saw a record 164,609 new titles. 'Forty years ago you used to worry that a good book would not be published,' says Dan Frank, editor-in-chief of Pantheon Books. 'Now everything is being published, and a lot of good books are being overlooked."

I don't know if self-published (through vanity and POD publishers) is included in that count. As a reader and a librarian, I find it hard to keep up and I know I miss reading good books because I read only 20 or so books a year and have to make hard choices when choosing reading material. I love what I do choose, mostly, but I regret I'll never get to all the books I own now, let alone haven't bought yet.

As a writer, I worry. It's hard enough to get published as it is now; if the publishers wise up and lower the total number of titles they put out each year, will that hurt my chances even more once I finish my WIP and send it off to one slush pile after another. The solution, I guess, is to get more people reading. A daunting task, to be sure.

Electronic books are one way to try to win the hearts of the younger generation, the 18-24 age bracket that, according to the article, was the traditional heavy reader group. But the boomers are aging and many of us are not inclined to move in that direction and a lot of us are readers, so print needs to remain viable, along with increasing the number of titles that come out in audio and in large print. It may be time for the publishing industry to rethink its mission and its methods. The web and desktop publishing have made it easy for people to bring their writing to the world at large, on their own, though how successful they are in reaching an audience, and how much the poorly written online books will hurt the good ones, remains to be seen. But as with the sharing of photos online and of home made videos thanks to Flash and other software applications, books on personal websites are probably here to stay.

So what does that mean for those of us trying to break in the traditional way? I wish I knew, because in 1-2 years, I think I'll be ready to test those waters and I am concerned.

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