I suppose that Howard Jacobson’s recent interview with BBC Radio 3 make a change from authors lamenting the end of literature. Instead of blaming the internet, Jacobson blames readers. We just don’t have the attention for “serious literature.” Sian Cain writes:
Addressing a question from an audience member who reported feeling pressurised by publishers to write a “page-turner”, Jacobson said: “Tell them to go to hell. You describe the tragic state we are in. When someone tells me they couldn’t put my novel down, I feel they haven’t read what I’ve done. If you read me, you’re going to want to put me down … what you’ve said encapsulates the problem at the moment.
I fully realize that authors have to walk a thin line that balances their creative expression and interests and writing something that readers want. Some writers strike that balance very well. I am entertained and enlightened by writers like Barbara Kingsolver, Rachel Kushner, Daryl Gregory, Anthony Marra, Ursula Le Guin, and so many others. When I read Howard Jacobson’s Shylock is My Name, I…didn’t get either of those things. I’m sure there are readers who like Jacobson’s work. I’m not one of them. I could write a rant about Jacobson. I’m really tempted to.
What interests me (rather than insults me) is Jacobson’s comment: “Here’s the challenge: how do we educate the reader, so they don’t want to want it? I’ve never understood why anyone wants to read those books. ‘Who committed the murder?’ Who the hell cares?” To me, this is a misunderstanding of why readers read. Sure we want challenges every now and then. Some of us take on Ulysses (not me, though) because it’s the Everest of books. But what most of us want is to be transported. We read for fun. I’ve had so many people tell me they don’t read because they had books pushed on them when they were in school that they’d didn’t like, didn’t understand, and just plain didn’t work for them. They were never given a book that gave them joy.
So when I see authors say that they want readers to work, to put books down because of the sheer labor of reading the book, I’m not surprised that writers like Jacobson are seeing their numbers dwindle. Authors shouldn’t be required to write “page turners,” as Jacobson sneeringly call them. But I do think that authors should keep their audiences in mind. After all, how will they communicate their great ideas to readers if those readers are not tempted to pick up their books? Books that don’t engage readers are doomed to gather dust.