Friday, February 26, 2010

Readers and Writers and Fads

A discussion that's been going around lately is about what writers like in fiction, and what writers think readers like versus what readers actually like. The latest post on the topic was by Charles Gramlich. He's specifically talking about infodumps here, but I extrapolated a bit and my comment got way too long to be a comment, so I'm posting separately.

I think what readers look for in fiction is very different from what writers look for, and from what writers think readers should look for. The fact that so many writers whom other writers consider to be hacks with no skill or craftsmanship are nonetheless runaway bestsellers pretty much proves it.

If you think about it, this is true in every field of endeavor; the aficionados are always blathering away about details and fine points of their favorite topic which the rest of the population doesn't know anything about and doesn't want to know anything about, no matter how strongly the dedicated few think they should.

Wander around the internet and lurk in any specialty blog or forum where there's a lot of discussion between people who are intensely interested in the subject. Audiophiles flame each other over tiny variables your average person can't even hear and doesn't want to learn to hear. The deeply religious throw around shorthand notations for scriptural texts and everyone nods, while quoting theologians from Augustine on. Hardcore gamers will shred a new game for a dozen reasons, usually couched in acronyms and shorthand and in-references, while someone who only plays games a dozen hours a month might just shrug and think, Well, I liked it. People discussing any of the social justice -isms throw around arguments and principles and debate in terms more usually heard in graduate seminars on race theory or feminist theory or queer theory, to the bewilderment of anyone who's not up to speed. People who are intensely interested in something study it, debate it, work out definitions and principles so they can communicate with one another without reinventing all the wheels and redefining all their terms every time.

The trick here is that someone with a casual, shallow interest doesn't want to learn all the esoterica. Someone who just likes listening to the radio sometimes doesn't want to take five years of music appreciation and theory; they already know what they like and that's enough for them. Someone who already knows what their favorite dishes are and how to prepare them doesn't know or care what the nation's top foodies think is good or bad or fabulous, and doesn't want to hear about why their favorite mac and cheese out of a box is really horrible stuff. People with only a casual interest, people who want to consume and enjoy, don't care and don't want to learn all the graduate-level theories and arguments and trends.

It's like the difference between a connoisseur critiquing a piece of art, maybe getting a whole article out of why it's an inferior, derivative example of the Whatever School of Yadda, and someone else looking for a painting for the living room and liking that same piece because it has her favorite flowers and the colors match the couch. She doesn't care what the critics think, or what other artists think, and doesn't want to hear why it's such an awful painting. She likes it and that's all that matters.

I think most readers are the same way -- they know what they like and don't care to hear about why they shouldn't. As writers, we've spent some significant chunk of our lives studying "writing appreciation and theory," essentially, and we've learned to pick up on dozens of fine points and subtle features someone who reads for pleasure has never heard of and doesn't want to bother with. New theories ebb and flow through the writing community -- frex. always use "said," use any speaking verb but said, don't use any speaking verbs at all, now we're back to using "said" again -- and there are people willing to post (or publish) many thousands of words explaining why this iteration is the one real and true one that every writer should follow. It's all faddy, though, whether we want to admit it or not.

It's like the old chestnut about some smart-ass journalist or unpublished writer who types up some literary classic and submits it to fifty agents or publishers, then crows in public when it's rejected by all. Even assuming nobody recognized the text and just refused to play the game, literary tastes and fads change, and most classics from fifty or a hundred or two hundred years ago would be unpublishable today, because they were written to meet different rules, different expectations, to follow different fads.

So no, I'm not terribly surprised by Charles's observation that there are a lot of readers around who like reading interesting infodumps, despite infodumps being anathema to the current cutting-edge writing world. There've been times when they were in, there'll be more times when they're out, and they'll never be either complete must-haves or complete must-avoids, no matter what the writing pundits of any given year or decade or century might say. It all comes down to writing an interesting story which carries the reader along. If your infodumps are interesting and carry the readers along -- ignoring the fact that every other writer out there is most likely sneering at them -- then readers will probably like them, and the book they're in, and won't want to hear about why they shouldn't.

And the infodump author (like Dan Brown) can laugh all the way to the bank.

Which isn't to say that I'm going to stop trying to write stories I personally think are good, by my own standards. I've been hanging around with other writers long enough now that I'm firmly immersed in the whole Writing Appreciation and Theory environment, and unfortunately that's not something you can just walk away from. You can't erase stuff like that from your brain once you've learned it, or at least I can't; I'll always see the things I've been taught are rough spots and jagged edges and dangling threads and weak foundations. I might scoff at some things (like that stupid dialogue tag debate, which cycles through pretty regularly) but I have no doubt I'm firmly stapled to other vital points of minutiae which are just as arbitrary and just as faddy. I'm the product of my experiences, what I've heard and read, what I've been taught and what I've figured out, and that's the only frame of reference I have to work with.

I think it's worthwhile, though, to keep in mind that everyone who makes an intense study of anything is an aficionado, and we as writers do have a viewpoint skewed by our years (or decades) of study and debate and development of ever more finely detailed theory. We're all grognards, to use a gaming term, and no matter how firmly we believe in what we know, our POV and standards and opinions don't reflect those of the reading population in general. Keeping that in mind just might prevent us from trapping ourselves in ever-tinier boxes bounded by ever-tighter rules, which no one cares about but us.



Charles Gramlich said...

Good thoughts. I'm glad you posted it on your blog where it can be more widely seen. Those book authors point out that info dumps, or what they call narrative summary, used to be much more common than it is now. So you're right, it comes in and out of trendiness. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about this topic of what writers and readers want, and I have another post I'll put up on this in a few days. Good to see it discussed.

Angie said...

Charles -- thanks. :) I'm looking forward to seeing your further thoughts.

We all work hard at our craft, but I think it's good to take a step back every now and then and do a reality check, you know?