I worked in a bookstore for a number of years and during that time I wondered what people bought books for. The conclusion I have drawn over all this time is that people read books for three reasons. The first is that they don’t want to miss out on what’s popular (a condition my wife lovingly calls a FOMO…fear of missing out. This is an oversimplification of the category, but I think you understand the meaning.), this is how such shlocky writing such as 50 Shades of Gray came into popularity. It wasn’t that it was original, nor was it good (or even OK writing, frankly the chapter I read was just plain, bad. Poor character construction, poor grammar, poor sentence construction, etc, etc.), but it was brought up on a morning talk show and it blew up in popularity.
The second reason people pick up books is the travel read. Though i call this the travel read, it’s real range is much farther. This is the book that people pick up to read on the airplane yes, but it’s also the book that people pick up as mindless entertainment (as much as reading can be mindless). This is the category for such authors as James Patterson. People pick him up because it’s easy to read, with super short chapters and simple language. This is the largest reading group, because it’s about simple entertainment. This is the reality TV category of reading. When you want to read, but you don’t want to think and just want the story to be laid out for you in a simple and entertaining fashion. Most times these books are flat but accessible. The characters are one note tropes (the detective that just has one last case before retiring, the ambitious journalist who just needs to get that story, etc.), and the dialog is trite and simple, but they hit all the right notes that the readers want. These are the definition of cookie cutter.
The last group is the serious reader. This is cut up into two categories. The first is the “Librarian reader” and the second is the “Academia reader”.
The Librarian reader is the reader who just loves to read. This is the person who prefers reading to watching TV. This is a person who is an indiscriminate reader. This person will read anything from the Twilight Series to “Huckleberry Finn”. From “The Girl on the Train” to “Little Women”. This is the category I fall under. It’s the category of person who just loves to read and partially studies the reading. It doesn’t really matter what the Genre is, this person will read anything. Personally I go so far as to finish everything. Even if I hate it. I look for anything redeeming about the book. I look for plot sub-devices, I look for character development and depth, I look for subsumed nuances in theme, I look for grammatical and paragraph structure acumen. This may seem strange to some people, but it’s because I love the medium so much. I love everything about reading and writing, and most times when I get to sit down and read or write, it’s the highlight of my day. I understand that I’m a strange subset of this Librarian reader because I straddle the line of the Academia reader.
To that end, the Academia reader is the person who studies the text. This is a person who reads only Philosophy (if you’re reading this you know someone like this); the person who looks down on James Patterson and abhors E.L. James. The person who studies the text and looks for extra nuance. The person who has read “Notes from the Underground” and “Atlas Shrugged” 42 times. This is a person who can quote text from Schopenhauer, Shakespeare and Cicero. They look less for the structure of the book and more for the meaning. They look at Grammar as subtext instead of an interesting way to structure. This person is a philosopher at heart and will stay with a book for a year at a time. They may not read a lot of books, but they know more about what they know than anyone.
So which is it? Which category do you fall under? What type of reader have you always wanted to be? What type of reader do you aspire to? And for all those writers and people who want to be writers, which is the category you think is the most important to be a writer?
It’s late in the day and with all the construction that’s been going on in my house, I’ve only now had a chance to sit down and write tonight. I thought I might pick a few genre’s and pick a book that I feel is a must read in that category. Disagree? Lets talk about it over twitter,Facebook, or Goodreads (or respond to the blog!)!
Literature: John Irving “A Prayer for Owen Meany”
I’m convinced that this is the best of Irving’s many works. Irving has an amazing capacity to make a character realistic, more so that any other author out there. What’s more amazing is that he makes you love them. His characters are always flawed (which is probably what makes them so real), but because of those flaws the characters become your friends. Owen Meany is no different, but what makes this book stand out is it’s structure. Like Chekhov said if there’s a gun in the first act it has to go off by act five. This book opened my eyes to what real literature should be. Read it.
Fantasy: Brandon Sanderson “Mistborn, The Final Empire”
This is the first book of a trilogy (and a much broader spectrum of books under the mantle of Mistborn), but you can read this one as a stand alone. What starts off as a heist book, evolves into something so unique, epic and beautiful that it’s hard to put down, even with its 500 plus pages. People talk all the time about book hangovers. Where you put the book down and you are so satisfied that you are actually a little depressed because you didn’t want it to be over. This is that book.
Horror: Richard Matheson “Hell House”
In a genre where things have gotten so trite and the writing so dime store, it has gotten very hard to find a good horror book (and believe me I try every October. I try to read 3 or 4 of them in that month in honor of Halloween). This, from the grandfather of horror, is probably the best written and the scariest. While reading it you want to put it in the freezer to hide it away like Joey from “Friends” does, but it’s so engrossing that you really cant stop. Matheson was the creator of the trope (He wrote for Twilight Zone which most of his short stories are produced on screen, and most of his books have been made into movies multiple times; the most recent being “I Am Legend”), giving a group of scientists a chance to try and disprove a haunted house. Get ready for a roller coaster.
Science Fiction: Orson Scott Card “Ender’s Game”
Many people have had to read this book in high school, and where I never had to I think it could have been a good addition. This is a fabulous coming of age book, in addition to a treatise on war and society. The Eponymous Ender is a brilliant Hero (I use a capital because he’s a Campbell mythic hero) who does what needs to be done to get farther in life. With teenage angst, pain of family and friends and more drive than many characters do in the genre. Another can’t put it down.
Classics: Fyodor Dostoevsky “The Gambler”
I wanted to add a classic that many people might not have read. This is a preamble to James Bond in both feel and character (James Bond in the Books that is). This is the story of a man who develops an addiction to gambling because of the influence of the young girl he’s chasing after (It’s a little ironic because Dostoevsky himself was a gambler and partially wrote this book to pay off gambling debts). It’s a great realistic tale. The characters a horribly flawed and they make realistic decisions. In the end the gambler finds his reason for being after being lost in the black hole of a gambling addiction and you see light at the end of the tunnel, but Dostoevsky weaves it so beautifully that there is reason to doubt. If you’d like to read a Russian classic (they are some of the best after all), but are daunted by Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina or War and Peace check this one out…might open some doors for you.
That’s all for now! What are your favorites in these genres?
I just recently finished reading “A Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (if you want to read the review check out my goodreads page:
and it got me to thinking about why certain things become famous and have a huge following and others do not.
Throughout my writing career I have always thought (and fought against) that if you wanted to be successful you needed to create a cookie cutter plot with predictable characters. One of those novels that appeals to the masses (think James Patterson, Dean Koontz, or anything in the romance section of Barnes and Noble), because they can get into a familiar mode and have a nice escape from the strain of their lives, but yet something that they don’t have to work to hard at.
“The Casual Vacancy” opened my eyes to a new reality.
In general the book was panned. People flocked to it, but not because it was critically received, more so because it was the next novel of the phenom who created Harry Potter. I experienced a wonderful, realistic novel. A novel where there was sex and violence and rape and drugs and expletives around every corner. A novel seeming so innocent (much like its characters), but with a sinister undertone which threatens the status quo and propriety.
What jumped out at me was the depth of character and place.
What made Harry Potter popular? Was it the fact that it was a young reader novel about a wizarding school? Was it because it followed the archetype of the Joseph Campbell hero? Was it timing? Did Rowling sell her soul to the devil for fame and fortune?
It was her incredible ability to tell a story. It is her depth of character. It’s her ability to make the characters three dimensional, with quirks, flaws, and complexes. It’s her ability to make her characters just like your friend or neighbor, your mother or brother.
It’s also her use of language. She and another author, Stephen King, have the ability to tell a story. Not write a novel, not to tell a story of place, not to tell a story of a person, but to tell a tale. These two are the epitome of readability, because while your reading the books you can nearly see yourself sitting around a camp fire while they stood before a group and told their story. It’s the readability that they share and that makes them so popular.
This is a hard thing to pin point, because it’s not about how to place a verb, it’s not about how to construct a sentence. It’s about how everything flows off the page, and lights up in your mind like the TV screen.
It’s these two things that create popularity. Readability and realistic characters. And luck, a whole lotta luck. If you can get it into the hands of the right people and you have these characteristics you have that international bestseller.