Sunday, January 28, 2007

Quit Messing With My Magic!

I've expressed this sentiment elsewhere, but I think it bears repeating. And yes, I know I'm bucking a trend. So be it. But I HATE having a novel in my hand that has, as one of its selling points, a note on the cover that indicates there is a "Reading Group Guide" included. Puh-LEEZE, people. Can we please stop this runaway train before it drives the few of us who DO read over the edge into the land of "No, thanks"? We bemoan the lack of reading in our culture as a whole. We worry about the generation coming up who may not be able to sit still long enough to read graphic novels in the future, much less books with no pictures in 'em. (!) We wring our hands over the fact that, in some senses, we're writing for a dwindling audience. Now why would any of these be true, if it weren't for the unfortunate phenomenon all of us experienced in school--the Required Reading Lists? Let's face it. Some of those books were just plain AWFUL. I'm thinking of things like Catcher in the Rye. Is there any good reason anyone would read CITR if they weren't forced to do it? Or The Great Gatsby? (Don't hit me, all you Fitzgerald lovers, but I'm sorry;I've read that book twice--the first time because I had to, the second because I was really trying to see why anyone would have to read it. Failed on both counts.) Some of the books actually were good, but those were few and far between. And, it seems, the moment an English teacher saw something kids might actually enjoy reading on that list it went onto the "optional" list, of which you were only allowed to read a few to "count" toward a grade. The rest seemed to have as a requirement that they be either a) depressing, b) full of foul language, depravity, or perversion, or c) both. If they had all the previous, they were considered great, meaningful, and enlightening to the students. (The singular exception being that if they were about the Holocaust--outside of the obvious "depressing" points, which no doubt would carry them anyway--they didn't have to have too much of the rest of the above, because they automatically were Important.) The end result of all this force-fed "literature" is twofold: 1) Cliff's Notes, which aren't bad in themselves as a supplement...but we all know that's not how most people apparently use them. 2) The end of reading, as we know it, once we are out of school and don't "have to" do it anymore. It's not just TV, the Internet, or other influences that have prompted people not to read. It's the stuff they're forced to read, and analyze, for grades. It's books with agendas, books with "themes" and "universal" messages, books full of allegory and satire and symbolism and metaphor and parallel universes and metaphysics and the Real Meaning Of Life, Which Is, Of Course, That Life's A Bitch And Then You Die. I don't BLAME people for never wanting to read after a steady diet of that stuff. Who would? Well, a few of us would. And did. We're the ones who came into school loving to read already, and we were too stubborn to let "education" take that fun away. Some of us get out of school still loving to read for pleasure. Still understanding what that's about. And still seeing the value in it. So what happens to us? We go to our bookstores and we stock up on some horking good reads... ...only to find them suddenly bearing a striking resemblance to textbooks, when we actually get to the end. Study guides. Study questions. "Suggestions for group discussion." WHY??????? Yes, I know there are book groups out there by the hundreds now. Many people I know have belonged to book clubs for years. They read Important Stuff, the best-sellers, Literature, the Oprah lists, whatever. And they talk about them. And there's some good conversation and sharing that goes on there. And no doubt they're enlightened by some of it...although truth be told, most of the people I know who go to book groups go there as much to gossip and eat chocolate as they do for intellectual/literary enlightenment. Or they go to compare the book to the movie, which is about the same as gossip. :-) But they also have a remarkable ability to come up with their OWN questions. Sometimes they have one or the other of the team take charge of leading the discussion; this is great. Sometimes people are encouraged to write their own discussion questions to share, which is also fine. Because that's what these people are doing with these books, because they WANT to. But how did we go from that spontaneous, creative exercise to publishers thinking that groups wanted PREMADE lists for them? And most of all, why do publishers assume that any reader buying this book will consider this list at the back an asset? Note to publishers: I READ FOR PLEASURE. Translate: if I'm going to get a deeper meaning out of a book, I'LL FIND IT MYSELF. YOU DON'T NEED TO LEAD ME TO IT. And I especially resent the subtext of these sections at the back of novels, as if to say, "Just in case you didn't get the point of what we're trying to teach you in this book, here's some help." I DON'T WANT TO "GET THE POINT." I WANT TO READ A GOOD STORY. PERIOD. I hate this trend for more reasons than one, too. Not only does it come across as arrogant, overbearing, and "instructional..." but it can absolutely ruin the end-of-book experience. I can't tell you how many times I've finished a book, gotten to what feels like the end, and then looked on the next page and seen SUGGESTED QUESTIONS FOR STUDY right after that beautiful, sigh-producing, satisfying ending. Do you know what that does to your story, people? IT REDUCES IT BACK TO PRINT AGAIN. It takes the magic and dumps cold water on it. Do you really want to have your reader yanked back to reality that fast? WHY? I hate the rumblings I've heard throughout the industry that, more and more often, authors are expected to supply these questions now. To me, this is missing the point of why most of us read fiction in the first place--and it steals the magic from the ending of the book. And that's just plain wrong. When I want a textbook, I'll BUY a textbook. When a novel is a keeper, I know why. But I also know what I get out of a book often isn't what anyone else is going to get out of it. I know, because nine times out of ten, I'll hear people talking about a book I've read and say, "It's a story about ______."...and I'll hear that and think, "No, it's not. It's not about _______ at all." So anything you put into a list of questions for me is only meant to do what? Steer me toward a conclusion you want me to draw? Again, WHY???? Note to my future publishers: if you require a list of questions, I'll give you one--and one ONLY-- for the end. It'll consist of this: "In 50 words or less, if you like, write down what the best part of this book was for you. The part that made you laugh, made you cry, or touched you in any way. Then sign it, put it in an envelope and address it to the author. She'll love hearing from you." And it'll be on a page SEPARATE from the end. With at least one blank page in between. If you insist on more, you'll write them yourself. And put them on a website, separate from the book. A place people can go to when they're ready. When they've already closed the book and eased back into reality, and if and when they want to think about it further. But you put those things on page 601 after I've spun a beautiful tale for 600 pages... and you've just robbed both me and my reader of magic I sweated blood to create. If you feel the need to do much do you really LOVE fiction? Or do you get it at all? Cantankerously yours, Janny


Donna Alice said...

Would it be wrong to shout AMEN to this? I'm with you--it seems awful to me to get to a book and have to read all the Study group questions out the end (especially the ones that stress finding the deeper CHRISTIAN meaning inside.) Please, if I'm too dumb to figure it out myself, I'd still like the pleasure of enjoying the story and how it made me feel.

What gets me is the fact that a LOT of adult books have the questions and so many children's don't. As a child, I loved Nancy Drew but none of the libraries would carry those. You couldn't read just for fun, it had to have a hidden meaning or be some award winning book to be good.

I'm glad I was rebellious enough it never bothered me. I still love to read! A fact I deplore in my nieces who go to a very expensive private school---they HATE to read because it's such a chore.

Janny said...

You can go ahead and shout all you want, sistah. :-) Spread the word about the blog, and maybe we'll get a groundswell of support for this. So many of our fellow Christian authors, especially, are blindly going along with this because "my publisher demands this" and "readers like it." No, readers don't like it. At least not readers like you and me...

I loved your comment about "If I'm too dumb to figure it out myself(!), I'd still like the pleasure of enjoying the story." That's exactly, to me, what these questions imply: that if they don't TELL us what to look for, we won't "get it."


Thanks for your support, as usual!


Termagant 2 said...

I'll jump in and join the chorus saying "no" to these. In fact, after one horking good read, I ripped the "questions" pages outta the book.


I finished junior high. And high school as well, come to that. And a couple of other school experiences. Hear that, publishers? FINISHED. As in Zu Ende, Full Stop, Finito. If I wanna answer study questions I'll hie myself back to school.

I will go on record that I hate this phenomenon. IMO it smacks of "now, after 265 pages you poor dumb readers didn't get the joke. Okay--the punch line was ... and it means..."

Please. Publishers already seem to assume their average reader's IQ is about 60. I've actually been told not to use big words (big, I assume, meaning words of more than two syllables). I will NOT dumb my own voice down. If ever I sell to one of these supposedly well meaning houses, I will NOT provide questions.

If at the end of the book my readers still don't "get it", then I haven't done my communication job well enough.

End of rant.



Janny said...

I have a feeling lots of us actually feel this way but we're afraid to say so. If you want, feel hysterically free to spread this rant around to other people. With any luck at all, we can start a groundswell that says, "Enough already. If people want to study my book, I have confidence that they'll be intelligent enough to enjoy the process and come up with their own questions."


Termagant 2 said...

The world waits for the CBA mystery story with study questions in the back, that start: "It was Mr. Green, in the Solarium, with the candlestick."

Sheesh. How much more dumbed down can we get?


Donna Alice said...

YW for the support. You write things I wished I'd written!

The Koala Bear Writer said...

I'm in agreement... I think people today are too used to getting everything easily and having it all handed to them - including what they should think about or question about the books they are reading. I've never used the study guides at the end... by the time I'm finished the book, I just want to enjoy having read it, not go back and endlessly analyze it (I did that in my English degree, not when I'm reading for fun!). If I want to, I'll grab a close friend and we'll talk over the book, but we'll discuss what we WANT to discuss, not what the publisher tells us to discuss!

And hey, I didn't like the Great Gatsby either, or Romeo & Juliet, or a few other recommended high school reads... :)

Oh, and I really like your suggested question... including the mailing back to the author! Great idea! :)