I take issue · opinions

Readers Read For Joy; Or, In Which I Take Issue with Howard Jacobsen

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.

Tullia Socin

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.

I take issue · opinions

Curb Your Characters; Or, I Take Issue with Truman Capote

An author I follow on Twitter posted the following quote and I immediately wanted to argue back:


My first thought was, “Of course you can! They’re characters you created!” My second thought was pretty much the same, but more elaborate.

There’s an image of writers as channels between the page and the land of imagination. My favorite version of this was created by Jasper Fforde for his Thursday Next series. The Well of Lost Plots is where characters, plot devices, and settings hang out before they’re put in a story. The problem with the notion of channeling writers is it’s not true; it’s a simplification of the writing process.

Characters, no matter how fully formed they seem when the author starts writing about them, spring from that author’s brain. The author can do whatever they like to that character and put whatever words they like into that character’s mouth and brain. This is why we keep running into preachy characters (I’m looking at you, Michael Crichton) or characters who aren’t plausible for a variety of reasons.

I don’t think my argument takes away from writers’ magic. Instead of some kind of writerly séance, I imagine writers’ subconsciousness as a real version of the Well of Lost Plots, where ideas, facts, memories, and thoughts swim around until the writer’s brain connects them into a coherent story. When a character starts preaching or falls flat, it’s not because the writer lost “control” of the characters. That’s not possible. It’s because the author didn’t spend enough time creating a fully realized character.

Here are some of my favorite characters I’ve read in the last year or so: