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Dickens, Professor?

Thoughts CaptivityA recent, controversial  New York Times article by Stanley Fish uses the results of a 2011 psychological study to argue readers and viewers experience no negative effects from knowing the ending of a story in advance. We asked a few of our friends what they thought–check back regularly today for their responses.

A common way to end the description of a book or film you’ve seen to someone who hasn’t is with, “…but I won’t tell you what happens, I don’t want to spoil it for you.” On the whole this restraint is received with gratitude. The term ‘spoiler alert’ has become standard on the web, preceding text that reveals critical elements of a plot, and could, in my view, precede many reviews that read more like synopses, but I digress. The point is, when one sees this warning, one can make an informed choice about whether to read on or not. So, for Professor Stanley Fish to posit that knowing the outcome of a story does not ruin our enjoyment of it may be an interesting academic exercise, but it is disingenuous. Yes, one can re-read a book or re-watch a film attuned to previously overlooked clues that point towards the known outcome (stories with a major reversal like The Sixth Sense being an obvious case in point) but a large part of enjoying new stories is going on an unknown journey whilst trying to anticipate where it is heading. Continue reading “Dickens, Professor?”

What Ya Readin’ for?

ThThe outsidere best explanation of the difference between nonfiction and fiction, I feel, is that nonfiction’s primary purpose is to convey information, whereas the purpose of fiction is to evoke an emotion in the reader.

I think great books work on an emotional level. Fear is an emotion, a very powerful emotion. Perhaps people read thrillers and horror novels because it is a way of experiencing emotions that you ordinarily don’t experience in life, but without putting yourself directly in harm’s way. I think, also, that it is an effort to try to better understand the aspects of the human psyche that we don’t have answers for. The more we ourselves understand about human nature, the better we will survive. I know we operate that way, so all reading—of whatever genre or subject—has to also come down to the fact that we are trying to understand more of ourselves and others to better our own comprehension of life, and thus improve the quality of our existence.

Someone once said to me that there  are two types of novels. There are those that you read simply because some mystery is created and you have to find out what happens. A puzzle or an unresolved question is presented in the opening, and from there you follow a tortuous maze of clues, misdirectors, and red herrings until the denouement. The denouement is satisfying or not, but still this is not the type of book you read for the lyrical prose, the scintillating turn of phrase, the stunningly descriptive passages. It is airport literature, and that term is not applied derogatorily. Such novels are compelling, and the urgency with which you have to reach the end is remarkable. You need to know what happened! Having read such a book, however, perhaps you would be asked some weeks later whether it was a title you had encountered. You would pause for moment. “Remind me again what it was about?” you would say, and that simple request would say all that needed to be said about the level of emotional engagement inherent in such a book. Wonderful plots, clever twists, but not a book to change your preconceptions about life.

Continue reading “What Ya Readin’ for?”

It’s All about the Readers

When the wonderful folks here at Mulholland asked me if I would contribute a small post to their website, I found myself filled with a sense of pride at being asked and of panic at having to create the content.

It was similar to the panic I suffer from on a weekly basis at (excuse the plug) the group blog, Do Some Damage (www.dosomedamage.com), where seven hardy crime-writing souls — and yours truly — post daily on whatever strikes their fancy. But here, at the birth of a great-looking imprint like Mulholland, I figured I wanted to say something about reading and writing and what they mean to me.

But at first, I couldn’t figure it.

Couldn’t get a handle on what I wanted to say.

What is important to me about this business?

What is it that makes me stick things out as a writer (and a bookseller — my day job is working for a national chain here in the UK), despite all the doom and gloom that is being broadcast about the industry from so many quarters?

And then I realized:

It’s all about the readers.

All writers — all truly dedicated writers — have to start out as readers. The only way you can really understand this gig is if you know who you are writing for. And you can’t just understand a reader as some abstract thing. You have to be able to know them inside and out, understand that every reader is unique, that every readers loves and loathes literature in equal measure, because it’s all about that fragile connection that occurs between the words on the page and what happens in your mind.

Readers are who we are all writing for. Not other writers. But readers. Those who devour our words, who are thrilled, intrigued, and stimulated by these seemingly random collections of lines and squiggles. Because that’s what it’s all about.

Continue reading “It’s All about the Readers”