March 25, 2013

Bad Form: 5 Reading Habits We Need To Kick

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What is the issue?
How consumer culture, identity politics and a narrowing class of readers are changing how we approach novels.
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America doesn’t place much emphasis on reading. We sell a lot of books, but study after study shows that regardless of genre or format, the same people are buying most of them. It’s never been easier to isolate America’s reading demographic: recent studies show most of our bookworms were born either during the Baby Boomer or Y generations, they come from households earning at least $50K a year, and there’s a 25% better chance that they’re female. That’s a lot of people, but it’s a far cry from what reading audiences looked like sixty years ago. Readers are becoming an increasingly identifiable, increasingly tight-knit sect. We’re basically one giant book club.

Reading is hardly a national pastime. A growing percentage of us — about a fourth of all Americans age 16 and older — didn’t read any books at all last year. The good news is that younger people are reading more than ever, and not surprising, an increased amount of their reading now occurs on e-books, the use of which doubled last year, and tripled the year before. Recent studies show most e-book readers come from households earning more than $75K a year, so again, an identifiable segment is emerging from this data. Taken together, we’re seeing a sort of literary disparity in this country, where a new crop of educated, increasingly affluent readers are turning more pages than ever, while the rest of us seem to have grown proudly disenchanted with books.

This is a problem. The question isn’t whether the act of reading will survive in America — it will — but rather, what it will become as our book club grows increasingly cloistered. My worry is that, as reading becomes less of a populist endeavor — as it becomes an activity attributed to an increasingly hermitic group — our concerns and conversations about reading may grow increasingly germane to the consumer demands of that group. You can already see signs of this happening.

I’ll be specific. Too many of us are more interested in a book’s intended audience than what the author is trying to say. We’re more interested in treating novels as indictments of the author’s worldview or as primers to reinforce our own, instead of seeing them as investigations into the human experience. We’re increasingly wary of what sort of figurative “hats” we get to wear by dint of reading novels, and less interested in what happens when we read novels.

We’ve gotten lazy. We’ve picked up some bad habits from advertising, our cultural text de rigueur, which has trained generations of readers to look at the arts the same way we would shop for a brand of jeans or a used car. We’re obsessed with identity over meaning, label over substance; we’ve followed our universities’ creed of critical discourse by focusing on social protocol and identity politics over craft. For some of us, it seems, the idea of enjoying a good story is the last thing we look for in a story anymore.

Below are five common bad reading habits to show you exactly what I mean.

Expressing frustration that the characters don’t “represent” you.

We live in an identity-obsessed world. It was hardly insightful when author and commentator Touré recently derided the television show Girls because puzzlingly, a show about white trust fund brats living in Greenpoint features no black characters. This dime-store dialectic is inescapable nowadays; we’ve moved beyond calls for racial or gender equality in the arts and now ask that our stories serve as a sort of Where’s Waldo of gesturing representation, even in cases where it would reveal the narrator’s hand for making them.

When discussing works of fiction, it’s increasingly common to hear some variation of the following: “As an x, I feel that y character represents me.” Or conversely: “As an x, I feel that y book doesn’t represent me.”

Here’s the problem: characters aren’t supposed to “represent” you. Novels aren’t census reports or marketing campaigns; a story’s characters are supposed to be individuals, not types. Characters exist to subvert reader expectations; they should always appear as if they exist on their own terms, not serve as an ambassador for some pre-existing sect outside the book. The only people they have the duty to represent are themselves.

Any time readers find themselves being clued in on what “types” the story’s characters are, it’s because the writer has delivered tropes with whom the reader can easily identify. In other words, the worst part about readers who fall for representative fiction is that they’re rewarding cliché. Once a character becomes a stand-in for a preexisting demographic, that character has failed to do his/her job.

Confusing the writer for the narrator, or one of the characters.

Ask anyone who’s taught a fiction workshop and they’ll tell you: sooner or later the instructor is forced to explain that the beliefs or attitudes expressed in a story — as revealed by its narrator or cast of characters — are not revelations of a writer’s personal agenda.

Seems like an easy concept, but you hear it all the time: Houellebecq and Hemmingway promote misogyny, Nabokov condones pedophilia. These charges aren’t levied against the authors for anything they’ve done in their personal lives, mind you, but as a result of the themes they’ve broached in their narratives.

On one hand it’s an understandable position: you read a story where one of the characters possesses some abhorrent view, and you can’t help but wonder if the author is expressing it by proxy. However, to believe this would miss entirely the point of what characters are. Characters in stories — good ones, anyway — exist because they embody ideas. Unlike people in the “real world,” characters exist necessarily; they’re dictated by a single, identifiable motivation and equally specific characterizations. Most of us, I’m sorry to say, are documented by a confused flotsam of middle-of-the-road goals and unexceptional accomplishments. Yet thankfully, almost none of us can be reduced to a single, one-track motivation. We don’t possess those on-the-mark characteristics we find in fictional characters, in part because we’re not fashioned as a performance to be viewed by others.

Claiming that a profession, trade, industry or subculture featured in the book isn’t “really like that” in real life.

Narrative authority is a funny thing. In order for the “spell” of fiction to work, writers need to convince readers that what’s happening on the page is something that could happen, that the story accounts for a reasonably realistic experience, at least enough to suspend reader disbelief.

However, there’s also an undeniable performance aspect to fiction. For example, sometimes a writer defamiliarizes an industry or trade for the purpose of making a comment about it, or to bridge some thematic connection in the work. I doubt most professors offer lectures like the ones found in White Noise, I doubt paint factories are similar to “Liberty Paints” in Invisible Man, and I doubt most ramshackle hotdog cart operations would hire Ignatius Reilly. None of this matters, because the trades discussed in these works are used to turn the plot, evolve our understanding of the characters and raise the stakes of the story, not to document the world outside the book.

The only truth a writer owes is to his/her characters and the logical framework of the narrative, not to ascend to some unimpeachable state of verisimilitude. It behooves a writer to research, but if only to preserve that illusion of believability so the reader can better fall under a story’s spell.

Expressing that you feel morally “conflicted” about a character.

If you need proof that America is still a puritanical society, look no further than the fact that we tend to grade characters in books, films and TV shows primarily on a moral scale: “good” people on one end, “bad” people on the other.

Needless to say, a well-dramatized “good” character is always a little bad, and a well-dramatized “bad” character is always a little good. It’s incredibly common to hear someone express frustration that they’re “conflicted” about a character, that they can’t decide if he/she is a “good” person, in other words. They say it like it’s a bad thing, as though a character is a product they’ve taken home and are now forced to wrangle over with buyer’s remorse.

Here’s the thing: you’re supposed to feel conflicted about a character. As I said earlier, characters work best when they’re subverting the expectations of the reader, when they confront — even confuse — a reader’s proclivity to judge them. After all, a story that simply sets up a character and then spends the remainder of the narrative reaffirming our initial impressions sounds awfully boring, doesn’t it?

Being afraid to step outside your comfort zone.

One of the problems with MFA programs and writing workshops is precisely why they’re so successful to begin with: they offer middle-of-the-road advice for middle-of-the-road narratives.  Anytime they encounter something different the machine goes off the rails. If Faulkner had showed up at a workshop with Sound and the Fury, he’d be laughed out the door.

Here’s a tip from Captain Obvious: not all books are the same. Different authors tackle different subject matters differently, with different voices, different characters, and different narrative strategies to elicit different responses. Of course, readers are different too. Some of us want nothing but Nicholas Sparks-grade pillow talk, and others think anything less florid than Flaubert is tripe.

My point is this: try diversifying your reading habits. You’re going to get more joy out of reading if you stop looking for the same qualities in every book. Writing off all works with dense language as pretentious is as misguided as assuming all works that employ simple, journalistic sentences are poorly written. Widen your perimeters; stop reading works that merely feedback your worldview. Don’t complain that a writer is making you work. Take the time to think about what the writer is doing; ask yourself why he/she made use of a certain element and what effect it has on the story. Read slowly. Listen to the language. Try to think not only about what happens, but how something feels. There’s a big difference between bad language and new language. TC mark

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