Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the tag “Genre”

As Harry Potter turns 20, let’s focus on reading pleasure rather than literary merit

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Platform 9 and ¾, the portal to Harry Potter’s magical world, at Kings Cross in London.
Harry Potter image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Di Dickenson, Western Sydney University

It’s 20 years on June 26 since the publication of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, the first in the seven-book series. The Philosopher’s Stone has sold more than 450 million copies and been translated into 79 languages; the series has inspired a movie franchise, a dedicated fan website, and spinoff stories.

Goodreads

I recall the long periods of frustration and excited anticipation as my son and I waited for each new instalment of the series. This experience of waiting is one we share with other fans who read it progressively across the ten years between the publication of the first and last Potter novel. It is not an experience contemporary readers can recreate.

The Harry Potter series has been celebrated for encouraging children to read, condemned as a commercial rather than a literary success and had its status as literature challenged. Rowling’s writing was described as “basic”, “awkward”, “clumsy” and “flat”. A Guardian article in 2007, just prior to the release of the final book in the series, was particularly scathing, calling her style “toxic”.

My own focus is on the pleasure of reading. I’m more interested in the enjoyment children experience reading Harry Potter, including the appeal of the stories. What was it about the story that engaged so many?

Before the books were a commercial success and highly marketed, children learnt about them from their peers. A community of Harry Potter readers and fans developed and grew as it became a commercial success. Like other fans, children gained cultural capital from the depth of their knowledge of the series.

My own son, on the autism spectrum, adored Harry Potter. He had me read each book in the series in order again (and again) while we waited for the next book to be released. And once we finished the new book, we would start the series again from the beginning. I knew those early books really well.

‘Toxic’ writing?

Assessing the series’ literary merit is not straightforward. In the context of concern about falling literacy rates, the Harry Potter series was initially widely celebrated for encouraging children – especially boys – to read. The books, particularly the early ones, won numerous awards and honours, including the Nestlé Smarties Book Prize three years in a row, and were shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal in 1998.

The seven books of the Harry Potter series, released from 1997 to 2007.
Alan Edwardes/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Criticism of the literary merit of the books, both scholarly and popular, appeared to coincide with the growing commercial and popular success of the series. Rowling was criticised for overuse of capital letters and exclamation marks, her use of speech or dialogue tags (which identify who is speaking) and her use of adverbs to provide specific information (for example, “said the boy miserably”).

The criticism was particularly prolific around the UK’s first conference on Harry Potter held at the prestigious University of St Andrews, Scotland in 2012. The focus of commentary seemed to be on the conference’s positioning of Harry Potter as a work of “literature” worthy of scholarly attention. As one article said of J.K. Rowling, she “may be a great storyteller, but she’s no Shakespeare”.

Even the most scathing of reviews of Rowling’s writing generally compliment her storytelling ability. This is often used to account for the popularity of the series, particularly with children. However, this has then been presented as further proof of Rowling’s failings as an author. It is as though the capacity to tell a compelling story can be completely divorced from the way a story is told.

Daniel Radcliffe in his first outing as Harry Potter in the Philosopher’s Stone, 2001.
Warner Brothers

Writing for kids

The assessment of the literary merits of a text is highly subjective. Children’s literature in particular may fare badly when assessed using adult measures of quality and according to adult tastes. Many children’s books, including picture books, pop-up books, flap books and multimedia texts are not amenable to conventional forms of literary analysis.

Books for younger children may seem simple and conventional when judged against adult standards. The use of speech tags in younger children’s books, for example, is frequently used to clarify who is talking for less experienced readers. The literary value of a children’s book is often closely tied to adults’ perception of a book’s educational value rather than the pleasure children may gain from reading or engaging with the book. For example, Rowling’s writing was criticised for not “stretching children” or teaching children “anything new about words”.

Many of the criticisms of Rowling’s writing are similar to those levelled at another popular children’s author, Enid Blyton. Like Rowling, Blyton’s writing has described by one commentator as “poison” for its “limited vocabulary”, “colourless” and “undemanding language”. Although children are overwhelmingly encouraged to read, it would appear that many adults view with suspicion books that are too popular with children.

There have been many defences of the literary merits of Harry Potter which extend beyond mere analysis of Rowling’s prose. The sheer volume of scholarly work that has been produced on the series and continues to be produced, even ten years after publication of the final book, attests to the richness and depth of the series.

The ConversationA focus on children’s reading pleasure rather than on literary merit shifts the focus of research to a different set of questions. I will not pretend to know why Harry Potter appealed so strongly to my son but I suspect its familiarity, predictability and repetition were factors. These qualities are unlikely to score high by adult standards of literary merit but are a feature of children’s series fiction.

Di Dickenson, Director of Academic Program BA, School of Humanities and Communication Arts, Western Sydney University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Isabel Allende’s scorn for genre fiction

science-fiction-vs-proper-literature

Literature vs Genre: jetpack wins!

There is a storm brewing. In the latest of the long line of insults by literary fiction against genre fiction, Isabel Allende has taken a pot shot at crime fiction. Now apparently she hates crime fiction because:

It’s too gruesome, too violent, too dark; there’s no redemption there. And the characters are just awful. Bad people.

But that didn’t stop her writing a crime mystery. It also didn’t stop her saying that the book was a joke and ironic. I think the word she was actually looking for was hypocrite.

I’ve never really understood the people who read or write stuff they don’t enjoy. Sure, I read some really boring science journal articles, but that’s because I enjoy knowing stuff. If I’m going to sit down and read a book, I want that 10-20 hours of entertainment to be, well, entertaining. If I’m writing, which is a much longer and more involved process, why would I invest that much time in something I’m not enjoying doing?

So to some extent, I understand why Isabel decided that her mystery had to be a joke and ironic. But that is also the crux of the problem, she doesn’t seem to understand that she is also insulting readers and fans of genre fiction. I think the book store in Houston, Murder by the Book, that had ordered 20 signed copies of her novel, did the right thing in sending them back.

Now you can write a satirical or ironic take on a particular genre or sub-genre of fiction. But when you do so it has to be because of your love of all those little things you’re taking the piss out of. If you do it out of hate then you can’t turn around and try to sell it to the audience you are taking a pot shot at. I think this stuff is stupid, you’re stupid for reading it, but I still want you to pay me for insulting you.

I get a little sick of snobbishness toward genre readers and writers. Do genre readers and writers take pot shots at literary authors for their lack of plots, characters who have to own a cat and be suffering, and writing that is there to fill pages with words and not actually tell a story? No. We’re too busy reading something exciting.

It would be great if people just enjoyed what they enjoyed and stopped criticising others for enjoying what they enjoy. Enjoy.

See also:
http://www.fictorians.com/2013/03/04/literary-vs-genre-fiction-whats-all-the-fuss-about/

Love it or Hate it

To read genre or not to read genre: that really isn’t the question.

With surprising regularity there are articles written explaining why people should be reading certain types of books. It isn’t just books, of course, but I’m trying not to be distracted…. puppy! The thing that these articles have in common is snobbery.

From a young age we are given lessons in snobbery, certain things are cool to read, certain things have value or social importance. These are the things we should be reading. By definition this means everything else isn’t of value and often becomes termed our guilty pleasures. I agree with the sentiments of this article that mentions guilty pleasures as being one of the phrases that makes people hate you.

The idea that something is a guilty pleasure implies that we should feel bad because we enjoy something. Well that’s just stupid. Either we enjoyed reading the book or we didn’t. Do we really have to impress others with our cool choices in reading material? I’d argue that you can enjoy whatever you like and we need to stop with the snobbery and pretence that some books are more highbrow or worthy of reading. I’d also argue that we aren’t in high school anymore and you don’t have to be cool. And reading is cool…. no, you can’t have my lunch money.

Now I don’t want to get into the argument about reasons why people read. Some people read for pleasure, some for entertainment (I’m defining those two categories slightly differently), some to explore social issues, some to learn about a topic, some to experience emotional stories, and on the list goes. For example, I don’t read scientific papers to be entertained, I read them to learn things, but the novels I read are meant to entertain me. So some people will be snobby about what they read because of why they read. I’m more interested in addressing the other type of snobbery about reading things of worth, value and not the guilty pleasures.

A lot of this snobbery comes from English Literature academics, authors, devotees and columnists. They are regularly telling us that we shouldn’t be wasting our time reading genre fiction, we should be reading the important books. You know, the ones so important that the author didn’t bother to make them entertaining. They would have us believe that reading is too important to be just entertaining, that we can’t read a science fiction, fantasy, thriller, romance or similar genre book because that would mean we haven’t read the worthy books.

Is Terry Pratchett worthy? How about Heinlein? They put more social commentary and sophisticated language into their novels than most of the literature I’ve ever read (yes, I was a literary snob at one point). And here is the problem with the snobbery argument: they are closed minded to the idea of genre books having value and thus miss out on entertaining books that also happen to do a better job of being literature.

This is also why we see 38% of people responding to reading surveys saying that they finish a book, not because they are enjoying it, but because they feel they should finish books they start. This is that snobbery having an extended impact upon our reading habits. We’ve been trained/taught to finish books that aren’t entertaining or enjoyable because of the message or value of the book, which we will only truly appreciate by wading through the boring stuff between the book covers. It will make you think, we are promised. Sure. I always think, What a waste of time, I could have read several other books instead of drudging through this crud.

I know that snobbery is very important, because those literary people would be out of a job otherwise, but can people just keep it to themselves, please? It would be nice to see more than 40% of the population being avid readers (a book a month or more). It would be nice if we bought and read books based upon what interests us and not what would look most impressive to be seen reading or have on our bookshelves. Changing this mindset would stop memes like this one:

Stupid meme is stupid.

Stupid meme is stupid – can we just agree that a book is a book, DTB, ebook, clay tablet, whatever?

It’s great that people want to impress others with what they are reading. Currently my toddler has a really impressive array of books scattered all over the house. They make for fantastic things to trip over, stub your toe on, or make us look particularly well read on the adventures of small, overly cute animals. I’m sure all the other toddlers are impressed. I still can’t wait for him to stop impressing everyone and just have them all on an e-reader. We should be reading to enjoy reading, not to decorate our house, impress others, be worthy: no guilty pleasures, just pleasures.

Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I normally hate literary styled books. They normally take all the fun stuff out of the book and replace it with tedious exposition masquerading as deep and meaningful prose. Award winning books are usually weighed down with this superfluous fluff.

This is a harsh statement, I know. Just because a book has won a literary award that doesn’t mean it has to suck. But it all comes back to some training I had in communication sciences at university. No-one cares about the methods, or process, or how long you spent doing this, and especially not how much research you did, they only care about what’s in it for them. Boil that down to a simple: readers are reading your book to be entertained. So all of that exposition is just getting in the way of entertaining the reader.

Gone Girl is as close to a literary styled novel I have read (to completion) in almost a decade. I used to read persevere with them all the time, now I have learnt my lesson. What makes Gillian’s book different is that she hasn’t forgone the plot, nor drawn out the story. So fans of crime novels will be captivated and literary fans might admit they need to read more genre books.

I put this novel off for a long time, buying it because of all the rave reviews and awards, then hearing it was very literary and baulking. I can see why this novel has been the big thing of 2012, it deserves the praise.

View all my reviews

What is a bookworm?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a bookworm, given the lack of exoskeleton, and my functioning vertebrae and CNS. There is no doubting that my wife and I are readers though, since we average at least a book a week, usually closer to two a week. We’re hoping our son will become a reader as well, but at the moment he is more entertained with pooping his diaper.

Anyway, in my internet trolling this week, I came across this infographic from a survey of a graphic design class. We all know that infographics must be accurate and representative, so let’s see what a Bookworm’s characteristics are.

windsore_infographic

Book Review: Lullaby Town by Robert Crais

Lullaby Town (Elvis Cole, #3)Lullaby Town by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

People who read my reviews will know that I’m not a fan of literary fiction. Elmore Leonard has a list of rules on writing, one of those rules is to leave out the parts that people skip. Literary fiction is loaded with those parts you want to skip. Robert Crais must be a fan of Leonard as well.

The last book I started to read was a literary fiction author trying to write a crime thriller. Lullaby Town is Robert’s example of why literary fiction authors can’t make the switch to genre fiction.

Elvis and Pike are back, this time sorting out what should have been a simple family reunion, but ends up with the New York mafia wanting them dead. My only regret with finishing this novel is that my pile of Crais books have now been read and I have to buy the rest before reading more.

View all my reviews

Genre vs Literature


During a discussion the other day my favourite authors and books came up as a topic of conversation. Needless to say I listed off writers like Lee Child, Matthew Reilly, Robert Crais, Matt Hilton, etc. Now these people weren’t exactly literary snobs, but they did respond as if I was supposed to list the authors of classic literature and contemporary literature.

Seriously?

Can we all stop pretending that there is something superior about literary fiction. I’ve seen discussions of social problems in crime fiction, fantastic use of literary techniques in horror, exploration of character and humanity in science fiction; all performed with more skill and insight than I have seen in the literary genre.

How about we go back to judging a book by its cover.

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