Why Readability Matters

2015 Artwork Why Readability Matters article sketch

A few months ago, I read a couple of really thought-provoking articles (one by Joanna Scott and one by Paul Mason) which argued in favour of fiction that is difficult to read. Long-time readers of this blog will probably already know my views about “difficult” fiction, but I thought that I’d approach the topic slightly differently this time round.

The reason that I am mentioning these articles is because of a part of Scott’s article (which is also referred to in Mason’s article too), where she basically argues that “readability” is a bad thing, especially when taught in writing courses: ‘But despite the fine-arts degree they confer, the credo of “craft” predominates in these programs, especially in the genre of fiction. The goal is to produce a solid, sellable product—a “good read” distinguished by gripping plots, reliable research, and clear, unfussy writing—rather than a work of art.

My response to this quote was simply ‘Well, yes. This is a good thing!’

At the end of the day, if a story is to come alive in a reader’s imagination (which I would argue is the definition of “art”, in the context of writing) then it needs to fascinate that reader. It needs to grip that reader. It needs to be a “good read”.

A good writer needs to make sure that the reader is as close to the story as possible, so that it can take root in his or her imagination as easily and quickly as possible.

Putting lots of needlessly descriptive, needlessly dense and/or needlessly experimental writing in between the reader and the story is like putting an intricately-patterned wooden screen in front of a beautiful painting. The wooden screen may look beautiful, but it’s blocking out something even more beautiful.

The internet is filled with fan art and fan fiction. Every piece of it shows that someone’s story has come alive in someone else’s imagination. It is very telling that most of this fan art and fan fiction is based on things that aren’t designed to be “difficult” to read or watch.

In other words, you’re probably going to find a lot of “Star Trek”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “Doctor Who” and/or “Harry Potter”-based fan works on the internet – but you’re probably not going to find that many James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Samuel Richardson or Will Self- based fan works on the internet.

Scott’s article also quotes Virginia Woolf whilst arguing how reading “difficult” fiction allows us to understand ourselves and the world around us: ‘When we read actively, alertly, opening ourselves to unexpected discoveries, we find that great writers have a way of solidifying “the vague ideas that have been tumbling in the misty depths of our minds.” For Woolf, fiction provides an essential kind of knowledge that can only be acquired by careful reading.

From my own personal experience, I haven’t really had many of these moments when reading “difficult” fiction. However, I’ve had more than my fair share of them whilst reading comics, reading genre fiction, listening to punk and heavy metal music, playing computer games, reading online articles and even watching TV shows and Youtube videos.

Or, to quote a Wingnut Dishwashers Union song [NSFW]: “A punk rock song won’t ever change the world/ But I can tell you about a couple that changed me.

In other words, this quality isn’t something that is only ever found cleverly hidden within dusty old novels and modern “literary fiction”. And I think that I know why.

If a story is the kind of great thing that shapes a reader’s worldview and gives them a better way to understand their own feelings and their own thoughts, then it needs to be something that they feel comfortable spending time with. It has to be something that welcomes the audience like an old friend, rather than something that austerely gives them the cold shoulder.

In other words, your story won’t “enlighten” anyone if they don’t read it.

This doesn’t mean that fiction can’t be intelligent, it just means that it needs to be easily accessible. It needs to be written in a way that actually makes people want to read it. It needs to be written in a way that makes them want to read more.

People tend to focus more intensely when they’re enjoying something. If your readers are fascinated by your story, then they’re probably going to be thinking and daydreaming about it for a long time afterwards.

In other words, instead of sternly requiring your readers to *yawn* “study” your story in order to understand it, if you tell a suitably readable story, then your readers are going to want to study it. They’re going to want to think about it, to write fan fiction and to debate it with other readers.

So, yes, don’t make things needlessly difficult for your readers.

————

Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Four Reasons Why Genre Fiction Is Better Than Literary Fiction

2015 Artwork Four Reasons Why Genre Fiction Is Better article

Well, once again, I was looking at random stuff on the internet when I happened to stumble across this old news article from 2011 about a group of authors criticising a BBC program at the time for only really focusing on “literary” fiction, at the expense of genre fiction.

If you’ve never heard of literary fiction before and don’t know what it is, then consider yourself lucky. It’s a genre of fiction that often focuses mostly on “ordinary” everyday life, it’s often over-written and it often tends to get a lot of prestige and awards. Some older novels that originally weren’t intended to be “literary” fiction can also find themselves cruelly stuffed into this stultifying category by critics, through no fault of their own.

Genre fiction, on the other hand, are all of the types of fiction that most people actually enjoy reading. Genre fiction includes sci-fi novels, horror novels, historical novels, thriller novels, romance novels, erotic novels, westerns, fantasy novels etc….

So, for today, I thought that I’d list a few of the many reasons why genre fiction is better than literary fiction. I’m not sure if I’ve said all of this stuff before, but it certainly bears repeating.

1) Imagination: This is the most obvious reason, but it bears mentioning. Genre fiction is imaginative. Yes, genre stories might have their fair share of clichés and tropes, but they are often stories about imaginative things.

They’re stories about the future, they’re stories about one person standing up to many, they’re stories about imagined histories, they’re stories about ghosts and monsters and they’re stories about our wildest fantasies.

In other words, they’re “unrealistic” and they’re so much better for it! After all, we all experience boring, ordinary real life on a regular basis – so, why would we want to read about someone else’s boring ordinary life for enjoyment?

Not only that, would you rather read something by someone who has found a way to put the most interesting parts of their imagination on the page or would you rather read something by someone who has just lazily copied real life and changed a few small details?

2) It’s Ageless: Call me cynical, but a middle-aged person writing literary fiction sounds like a middle-aged person writing literary fiction. Likewise, a twentysomething writer writing literary fiction sounds like a twentysomething writing genre fiction.

Whereas, someone writing genre fiction can sound a lot younger or older than they actually are.

There’s often no way of telling an author’s age just from what they’ve written (thus putting both younger and older genre writers on a level playing field). Literary fiction, on the other hand, does very little to disguise the age of the writer (mainly due to it’s focus on realism).

3) The writing doesn’t get in the way: One of the best descriptions of the divide between genre and literary fiction I’ve ever heard is that “literary fiction focuses on the writing and genre fiction focuses on the story”.

What this basically means is that literary novels will often use the most elaborate prose to describe the most mundane things, just to show off their writing skills. Whereas, genre fiction writers usually only use elaborate prose when it serves to make the story more interesting.

For example, a horror writer might describe a disembowelled corpse in an almost poetic level of detail, but he or she only does this in order to make the reader more grossed out by it.

Likewise, a fantasy writer might describe a dwarven castle or an elvish village in a ludicrous amount of detail, but that’s because he or she is trying to create a vivid image of somewhere that the reader has never seen before. Describing an “ordinary” suburban house in this level of detail is totally unnecessary, because most of us already know very well what one of these looks like.

But, most of the time, genre fiction is written in a way where the words don’t get in the way of the story. Genre stories often use slightly simpler (but not stupid) narration because they know that the reader is reading for the story and not because they want to see if the author has memorised a thesaurus.

4) Fun: This goes without saying, but reading should be fun. People care more about stories when they enjoy them.

There’s a reason why some “literary” novels are only really read in schools, colleges and universities – where people literally have to be compelled to read them.

There’s a reason why, if people have only read these books (often against their will), they can easily conclude that reading (as a whole) is “boring”.

Genre stories are written to be enjoyed, but can also often be studied too. Literary novels are written to be studied and discussed, rather than enjoyed.

————–

These are only a few reasons out of many, but I hope they were interesting 🙂

So, “Difficult” Fiction Is Dying? Good Riddance!

Yes, “difficult” literary fiction is going “To The Lighthouse”. Let’s hope it stays there!

A couple of weeks ago, I ended up reading an article called “The Novel Is Dead (This Time For Real)” by Will Self. I think it was the melodramatic headline that drew me in and kept me reading – I mean, I love novels.

I love dramatic thriller novels, gory horror novels, mysterious detective novels, sizzlingly sensual erotic novels, imaginative sci-fi novels and occasionally even fantasy novels too. I don’t want the novel to die – the world would be a much more boring place without novels.

If the novel was dying out, I wanted to know more about why it was dying and how I could prevent this disaster from happening.

Then I actually read the article.

He wasn’t talking about the kinds of novels that I love to read and the kinds of fiction I love to write (on the rare occasions that I write fiction these days). No, he was just talking about one type of fiction – literary fiction.

In case you haven’t got a dictionary with you or can’t be bothered to work out the meaning of the countless obscure words Will Self uses from their context (seriously, he even makes my writing look clearly-written and concise by comparison! I’m not sure if I should feel proud or inadequate….), I’ll sum up what he has to say:

Bascially, he’s moaning about the fact that modern culture hates “difficult” books and that literary fiction is no longer revered as the “best” kind of fiction by most people. Yes, he also makes a lot of valid points about the tragic death of printed books and the sad fact that the internet is turning reading from a wonderful solitary experience into an *ugh* social experience, but I thought that I’d talk about his views on “difficult” literary books.

Until I was about twenty-one, I didn’t really know the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. I just read whatever interested me when I was a teenager – yes, I’d read some “literary” books if they seemed interesting enough or controversial enough (eg: stuff by Goerge Orwell, J.G. Ballard, William Burroughs etc…), but I’d also read lots of wonderfully low-brow horror, sci-fi, thriller and detective fiction too.

And, of course, I’d also reluctantly read most of the boring set texts I had to read at school (like *yawn* “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” by John Fowles) and gladly read some of the few interesting set texts (like “Vurt” by Jeff Noon, “The Passion” by Jeanette Winterson, “Dissolution” by C. J. Sansom and “The Beach” by Alex Garland) I had to read at university too.

So, I read both literary and genre fiction when I was younger and I didn’t even really know (or care about) the difference between them until I was twenty-one. When I was twenty-one, I was the student of an absolutely excellent writing tutor.

Although he was a very good tutor, he was a fan of literary fiction and he’d almost always make a point of saying that my stories were “genre fiction” whenever he critiqued them. Since I wrote the kind of stories that really interested me, I was surprised by this and I decided to do a bit more research into the differences between literary and genre fiction.

Basically, modern literary fiction is the kind of boring fiction which mostly focuses on the ordinary lives of ordinary (upper middle class) people. It’s a type of fiction which focuses on flowery and complicated writing instead of interesting storytelling.

It also covers things like *ugh* drearily incomprehensible modernist fiction from the early 20th century (and it’s no surprise that Will Self mentions [or at least implies] in his article that he’s a fan of writers like *yawn* James Joyce and Virginia Woolf).

Yes, there are some good literary writers (like J.G.Ballard, Jeanette Winterson, Margaret Atwood etc..) and not all literary fiction is terrible, but most literary fiction is – for want of a better description – dull and pretentious just for the sake of being dull and pretentious.

Once I knew that there was a difference between these two types of fiction and, once I knew what that difference was, I had to choose a side. And I chose genre fiction.

Because, dammit, genre fiction is fun. When I read a genre novel, I know that I’m in for an exciting and riveting story – rather than flowery three-page descriptions of wealthy middle-aged people drinking fancy coffee, or verbosely elegaic descriptions of how the narrator’s latest bowel movement is a poignant symbol of her dissatisfaction with the modern decline of courtly love and it’s associated rituals.

When I read a genre novel, I can just sit back, immerse myself in an interesting fictional world and enjoy myself, in the same way that I can when I watch a good TV show or play a good computer game. Good storytelling is good storytelling, regardless of the medium it appears in.

And good storytelling is the kind of storytelling which makes the audience want to know what happens next, it’s the kind of storytelling which makes the audience feel a whole range of emotions, it’s the kind of storytelling where the writing doesn’t get in the way of the story and it’s the kind of storytelling which welcomes it’s audience with open arms rather than trying to push them away (unless they’re over the age of fifty, have lived a particular type of “ordinary” life and have a PhD).

The fact is, for stories to be recognised as classics and for stories to live on in the collective imaginations of everyone, they need to be stories that most people actually like and care about.

To give you an example, quite a few people know who Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes are – because they’re characters in interesting and accessible (but not dumb) old stories that have stood the test of time.

Not as many people know who Stephen Dedalus is (he’s the main character in at least one of James Joyce’s *yawn* modernist literary novels that I had to read when I was twenty). Hmmm, I wonder why…

This doesn’t mean that all stories should be “mainstream” or that they should only go for the “lowest common denominator” (and they shouldn’t). But it means that they should not only provide a fascinating story and interesting characters for their readers, they should also be welcoming to their readers too.

They should be the kinds of stories that most people can either study intensely (and write essays about) or just read for fun if they want to. Genre fiction offers readers this choice, literary fiction usually doesn’t.

I mean, sci-fi, horror, detective, romance, thriller and fantasy fiction can deal with all sorts of intelligent ideas and still contain some very good writing, but they can also be read for fun too. They can make lots of interesting points about life, philosophy and humanity whilst also telling an exciting story at the same time. Literary fiction can’t quite do this.

Genre fiction can do everything that literary fiction can do, but it can do it much better. Purely because, as I’ve said a few times before, it doesn’t make looking at “intellectual” stuff compulsory. If readers want a fun story that anyone can enjoy, then they can get this from a genre novel. If readers want a story that makes them think, then can also often get this from quite a few a genre novels too.

In this respect, literary novels are inadequate. And this is why they are slowly withering away into obscurity.

Good riddance. Long live the new fiction!

—-
Well, this article is only about 1300 words long 😦 I don’t think I’m quite up to Will Self’s standard yet….

Anyway, I hope this article was interesting 🙂