How literate are we?

An argument that is often raised among the head shaking admonishment brigade, is that there is a woeful level of literacy in society. The argument usually points to comments on social media as examples of falling literacy, or to emoji laden messages, or is writ large in speciously reasoned blog posts like this one.

The reality is held within these charts:

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Literacy scoreLiteracy rates by school year

Yes, as you can see, for over 200 years the world’s literacy rate has been improving. If you go to the source article at Our World In Data you will be able to highlight the 1870-2010 trends. This shows that even quite well-educated nations have improved their literacy rates.

So what exactly are people complaining about? Well, let’s take some of the examples that are often proffered.

I recently reread a number of pulp novels from the sixties and seventies (with an occasional eighties and nineties thrown in for fun) – not literary fiction by any means, just thrillers the likes of which I grew up reading. What immediately struck me is how erudite the books were compared to modern fare. They were written at a much higher grade level than current popular fiction, because, bluntly, the average person was more literate, and the assumption was that folks wanted a little intellectual stimulation with their car chases and explosions – that words with more than a couple of syllables could be salted through a tome without fearing a slew of one star reviews written in Pidgin English bemoaning that the author was trying too hard or must have once seen a thesaurus. Source.

This is, of course, a personal opinion expressed by the blogger rather than hard data. You only have to look at the above charts to see that the average person they are referring to is actually more likely to be literate now than in the 1960’s. I think the blogger has leapt to the assertion that people are less literate now as an explanation for a style change that has occurred. Or just wants to whine about kids these days. Because what blogger doesn’t want to do that?

Now, why would a style change occur in the last 30 (or more*) years? Interestingly, some research suggested that the way we write changes the style of our writing. With the rise of word processors and computers, writers measurably changed their styles.

But has anything else has changed in that time period that could have impacted writing styles? I’m not sure if these are familiar to people or not, but television, gaming, internet, media, are all more popular now than they were 30 years ago. I.e. books now have to compete with more entertainment than ever. So stylistic changes will occur to capture and keep an audience’s attention, lest it strays from the latest literary masterpiece about a dog caring for its cat with terminal cancer to a YouTube video about how white nationalism is okay now for some reason (because of post-modern cultural marxism apparently).

Has reading and writing (literacy) actually changed much, though? It is one thing to say that people have passed the minimum standard level, but it is quite another thing to suggest high levels of literacy are being achieved by more/less people.

Studies on this were actually hard to come by. Yet there is certainly concern about reading and writing proficiency for high-school and university level students:

Three-quarters of both 12th and 8th graders lack proficiency in writing, according to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress. And 40 percent of those who took the ACT writing exam in the high school class of 2016 lacked the reading and writing skills necessary to complete successfully a college-level English composition class, according to the company’s data.

Poor writing is nothing new, nor is concern about it. More than half of first-year students at Harvard failed an entrance exam in writing — in 1874. Source.

Given the last sentence in that quote, it is probably more accurate to say that the standards are changing. We now expect more of our literacy because more people are schooled and meeting basic literacy standards. For example, in the USA Master’s degrees are now as common as Bachelor’s degrees were in the 1960’s. People are expecting more of education and setting different standards than were held previously.

As an article on The Conversation concluded on this topic:

In 1997 academic Paul Brock gave an enlightening address to educators in which he carefully recounted the ways each generation has bemoaned the falling literacy standards of the younger generation whilst laying the blame at the feet of modern educational methods.

Apparently, we’ve been doing this since literacy first became a thing back with the Sumerians some 5,000 years ago.

The problem is not that literacy standards are falling, it is that literacy demands are changing – and we are not keeping up.

Schools have their role to play, and they can up their game in order to keep up with the times. But employers must also realise that workplace literacy is their core work, not a supplementary remedial program, and plan their businesses accordingly. Source.

In other words, declining literacy standards are a perennial myth that people love to complain about. Styles have changed. Literacy demands have changed. But that doesn’t mean things are going backwards. Much like kids these days arguments, we can expect to see these same points raised again and again with no evidence to support their claims. Because if there is one thing that never gets old, it is complaining about how things are different now than the good old days.

*The blogger’s larger post talks about a change occurring in the more recent 20-30 year period, despite referencing books from the 1960-70’s. You’ll also notice more links to evidence in my post… just saying.

 

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What Makes A Good Story?

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Recently a YouTuber discussed what makes for a good story, based upon three important pillars: pictures, feelings, and ideas. Or as he put it:

Hello and welcome to another instalment of “X lectures you on matters he himself knows nothing about”.

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Video removed, see why further down.

Like with everything that has a simple explanation (and even some complicated ones), I think the response to these sorts of posited arguments is “I think you’ll find it is a little bit more complicated than that.” But this one was funny, so points for effort.

A lot has been written on how to tell good stories. Seriously, every second creative person in history has a list of rules or advice. So here is a list of seven things that make for good stories, because seven is more than three, and it was on the first page of my Google search:

  • A central premise.
  • Strong three-dimensional characters who change over time.
  • A confined space — often referred to as a crucible.
  • A protagonist who is on some sort of quest.
  • An antagonist of some sort bent on stopping the hero.
  • An arch in everything — everything is getting better or worse.
  • And perhaps most important — Conflict. (Source: from Inducing Reality: The Holy Grail of Storytelling by Ken “frobber” Ramsley)

I think Ramsley’s explanation is more of a traditional checklist of things you need in your storytelling. X’s, in contrast, is a more generalist feel of where a story sits on one of those trinity diagrams. Neither, in my opinion, is right. And as a creative person, I’m now going to make a list of rules and advice….

Joking. Joking. Because I don’t think it works like that. I think that what makes a story good is the execution of the various story elements, done at the right time, finding the right audience, and being interesting enough to be remembered.

As an example, Star Wars is regarded as good, despite containing clunky dialogue, wooden acting, and passable directing. Why is it good? Because it hits all the story elements of the hero’s journey, it was one of the first space operas that hit the baby boomer generation and their kids, and had cool ideas like light sabres, space battles, The Force, and merchandising before that was really a big thing, to be remembered.

I’ve previously discussed how the luck factor of being a good story works. One example I cited was of Moby Dick and how it became good literature by accident/chance. Essentially one person dug it up, liked it, wrote favourably on it, and the rest is history. Shakespeare is in a similar boat, as his works were collected posthumously by 5 fans (750 copies, 250 surviving). These are examples of how finding the right audience is important, and how timing may not coincide with when something is made. How many other potentially good works were lost because they didn’t have an advocate who chanced upon them?

Of course, that’s just my thoughts. It’s probably more complicated than that.

Edit: When I originally posted this discussion on what makes a story good, I linked to a video by a YouTuber. Via Twitter I have learnt that this YouTuber sexually abused his former partner. Please take a moment to read her story in the links.

This isn’t behaviour any of us should condone, nor support. In this instance, I was sharing his video and promoting his profile – hence why his user name and video have been removed from this post. I was wrong to tacitly support abuse in this way. By not standing against abuse you might as well be condoning it.

Writing in Western Australia

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Two months ago (November 2017) the Western Australian Government released its Writing Sector Review. Okay, most of the readers here are international, so you’re probably shrugging your shoulders and reaching for an atlas – atlases are still a thing, right? But after my recent post on support for the arts (I was in favour as long as the support was for all authors, not just those deemed worthy/literary enough), I thought this review highlighted many of the same points and might be interesting.

Okay, that’s probably my West Aussie bias talking. But if it is a problem, just mentally substitute your local area name in place of Western Australia. The points raised appear to be universal. Well, Earthiversal. Well, Writerversial.

The Department of Culture and The Arts had nine recommendations in their report:

Recommendation 1: Maintain current levels of State Government funding to the writing sector
This point is at odds with the rest of the list. Lots of new stuff to fund but no extra funding to go with it. But I guess this is why they are writers and not economists.

Recommendation 2: Create a hub for writing and creative thinking at the State Library of Western Australia building
This makes sense, especially if this extends resources out to the larger library network in the state. And a coffee machine, this needs a coffee machine to be a creative hub.

Recommendation 3: Conduct a distinctive annual Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards The Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards
This is something that used to happen but became biennial. I’ll have more to say on this point, mark my words.

Recommendation 4: Use investment in the writing sector to achieve synergies with existing Statewide library services to extend and enhance community engagement in the reading of Western Australian writers
Honestly, why wasn’t this already a thing? “Sorry, we don’t have room for you West Aussie authors on the shelves, James Patterson just published 12 new books.”

Recommendation 5: Foster professional development for writers to enable them to navigate the increasingly complex areas of rights and multimedia opportunities
This is already available, but an expansion would be welcome news to all of the state scribblers. The isolation of Western Australia from the rest of Australia, let alone the rest of the world, is something that needs to be addressed. I wonder if there is a worldwide… network that could be used in some way to facilitate this.

Recommendation 6: Foster an environment to maximise the potential of Western Australian writers to be published
Like reminding the rest of the world that we exist. Or giving us decent internet. Or a can with a string attached.

Recommendation 7: Enhance data collection about Western Australian writing to provide benchmarks and evidence for policy development
Enhance? Starting would be good. As noted in the report, the Australia Bureau of Statistics stopped collecting data in 2003-04. Also great to see a report admitting they didn’t have evidence to base their recommendations upon.

Recommendation 8: Provide support for screenwriting and playwriting
Aside from all of those tax breaks that film and theatre already get….

Recommendation 9: Establish writer-in-residence opportunities at National Trust properties (Source)
This is a specific focus thing about promoting literature with a local history emphasis. I’m sure that will make someone happy. Like sleep medicine specialists.

The overall emphasis of the report is that Western Australia isn’t a cultural backwater yet it is treated as one. So the state government should do something about that by promoting locals writers, local stories, and more people to wear neck scarves and beret caps.

This is very similar to the calls from The Guardian last month, which I covered in my recent post, Literary Fiction in Crisis. The government should be doing more to support, develop, and nurture artists. The publishing industry is somehow not being asked to do this. Apparently, they are all tapped out, and definitely not owned by the biggest and most profitable media organisations.

There are a couple of big assumptions built into this report. The first most obvious one is that Western Australia isn’t a cultural backwater. Having lived here my entire life, I can confirm we are a backwater, and not just culturally. I think we need to accept this fact. Maybe if we grabbed a couple of cold beers and watched some sport it would help us get over ourselves.

The second big assumption is that writers in Western Australia are worth funding. Why? What exactly is the government trying to promote with this funding? Is there a return on investment intended? These things aren’t really defined, just asserted as true. Now, don’t get me wrong, everyone loves a government handout, just ask the banks who nearly destroyed the world’s economy. But I’d like to think that this funding is a bit better justified than it appears.

The other big assumption is that support should be directed at literary works. This is a common theme to these reports and the articles I discussed previously.  The report recommends the Premier’s Book Awards be annual again, which they want to be used to promote West Aussie authors and Western Australia as a successful writing habitat – possibly with the inclusion of an emphasis on “emerging” and “developing” authors. I note that they aren’t proposing to support genre authors, nor have awards to promote them.

Why wasn’t there a conclusion that the Premier’s Book Awards should include Spec-Fic, Crime, Thriller, Romance, and YA segments? Are these not worthy? Do these genres lack enough subplots about recovering from cancer and relationships with cats? Because we can fix that.

As I noted in my Literary Fiction in Crisis piece, we could acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. The initiatives that are meant to grow and sustain the writing sector always seem to be only for part of the writing sector. IF writing is to receive government assistance then it would be nice to see it not playing favourites without some damned good justifications. Until then it appears that some animals are more equal than others.

Edit: A recent article touched on a point about art vs sport and the taxation of people in those fields in Australia. Interesting what we promote as important.

5.1 CONCLUSIONS

In framing initiatives that will grow and sustain the writing sector, the following issues arising from the research and consultation process have influenced the consultants’ advice.

 The creative process – the act of writing – is severely hampered by lack of time and money

 Market development is a critical issue for everyone working in this sector in Australia, and one which WA needs to address with some urgency. WA’s isolation from decision-makers and peergroups exacerbates this

 Proximity to Asia and the alignment of significant time zones offers a considerable opportunity for WA writers (and to the creative industries in WA more generally)

 Market forces are causing publishers to become more conservative and mean they are not building writers careers in the same way. How is this gap to be filled?

 Collaboration between allied and sometimes competing parties is an emerging model in Australia and internationally. With the disruption of internet and digital technologies there is a greater need for publishers to cooperate and negotiate with other firms, including competitors, or others such as games, software and media companies in order to create new products.

 For emerging and small publishers, distribution can be a major hurdle

 Self-publishing without an experienced guiding hand is a minefield for new writers

 While authors still seek traditional publisher relationships there has been an increase in publishing innovation and technology driving new models. Australian publishers are experimenting across digital platforms with changes to royalty and subscription agreements, and providing free ebook downloads which helps make niche publishing projects viable

 Digital opportunities are encouraging a more direct relationship between writers and readers, publishers and readers, booksellers and readers

 Sales opportunities in the digital marketplace do not fundamentally alter the economics of publishing but have provided more opportunities for scholarly publishers

 The WA writing sector is supported by a range of community-based writers’ centres, facilitating organisations and by writingWA

 Throughout WA there are also 231 public libraries which provide a nexus for writers and readers in a geographically challenging state.

 There is a strong regional literary festival culture in regional WA – often initiated or supported by the public library. Geraldton, Kununurra, Avon Valley, Broome, Margaret River and Mandurah Festivals are all initiatives of, or have strong links with, their public libraries, and funding from DCA, DRD and Royalties for Regions, delivered via writingWA

 The history and capacity for publishing Aboriginal stories by Aboriginal people is a strength of WA writing

 There is a need to increase the diversity of voices and participants in the writing community

 Recent and current infrastructure developments, plus the proposed reconfiguration of SLWA offer opportunities for increased writing-based activity and activation

 Changes to governance arrangements at Screenwest and its greater emphasis on the telling of WA stories offer opportunities for writers

Literary Fiction in Crisis

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Literary Fiction in Crisis was the headline lede for a series of articles in The Guardian last month. Long known as a balanced and inclusive arts publication (/sarcasm) they sought to highlight a serious problem and a solution for literary fiction.

In case you haven’t heard, people aren’t reading literary fiction. Book sales are dropping. I covered this in my post on Australian Fiction, and US Fiction, and the Guardian article covered the UK figures in its first piece in the series.

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Let’s try not to think too hard about sales being in value terms and not volume. I mean, ebooks aren’t usually priced cheaper or anything and would hardly contribute to this revenue figure whilst being more profitable. Clearly, we need to get onto blaming the real culprits. Stupid kids these days are playing Tweeters and Facepage instead of buying books.

One reason suggested by the report for the decline in literary fiction sales is the recession, happening at the same time as the rise of cheap and easy entertainment. “In comparison with our smartphones, literary fiction is often ‘difficult’ and expensive: it isn’t free, and it requires more concentration than Facebook or Candy Crush,” the report’s authors write.

Won’t someone thinking of the starving artists!!

The researchers looked at the 10,000 bestselling fiction titles over the last five years and found: “Outside of the top 1,000 authors (at most), printed book sales alone simply cannot provide a decent income. While this has long been suspected, the data shows unambiguously that it is the case. … What’s more, this is a generous assessment. After the retailer, distributor, publisher and agent have taken their cut, there won’t be a lot of money left from 3,000 sales of the 1,000th bestselling title. That we are returning to a position where only the best-off writers can support themselves should be a source of deep concern.”

OMG, you’re telling me that artists have to have day jobs?* Oh the humanity! Surely this must be a new thing… Unless it has literally always been a thing. If only there was a graphic somewhere that could highlight the proportion of authors who make a living writing…

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Source: A 3.5 year old Guardian article…

The second article covers some of the same ground before highlighting a couple of important points.

This continuity imperative has long been built into the foundations of commercial publishers, who expect many of their most successful writers to cough up a book a year. And as publishing has become more centralised, with much of its power now concentrated in three giant conglomerates, it has become more ruthless.

The brutal truth is that through the 1980s and 90s it was possible for the literary novelist to make a living on advances that didn’t “earn out”. They were supported by an old-fashioned value system that sanctioned the write-off of losses for the kudos of association with an “important” writer and a belief that literary value could be offset against the profits of more pragmatic publishing.

These points are ones which are not made often enough. In an industry that runs on the work of part-timers (88.5%), the proceeds to these employees are decreasing, the time commitments are increasing, and the investment in their careers is decreasing. Where are the three articles criticising this problem?

Of course, we need to steer the ship away from that iceberg of issues. The second article instead makes the argument that the UK Arts Council should fund more authors (and let’s assume the implication is that other governments around the world should do the same).

Unlike the performing arts, publishing has always been a largely commercial sector that has had to square its own circles. This is reflected in the fact that it gets only 7% of the funding cake handed out by the Arts Council, compared with 23% to theatre and 11% to dance.

Personally, I want to see Arts Council funding to be decided in a Thunderdome. It would be great to see starving artists facing off against one another for grants. The fit and agile dancers doing battle against the people who spend all day sitting and typing. They could stream it on Pay Per View and raise some extra arts funds.

There will be those who argue that this just shows that literary fiction is a hangover from the past, and the poor dears should knuckle down and resign themselves to writing what people actually want to read. But few would dare to make the same argument about experimental theatre or dance.

Yes, I’d argue this. And I would dare to make the same argument for theatre and dance. Thun-der-dome, Thun-dur-dome, Thun-der-dome!

The third article in this series makes just this argument – just to be clear, for writing what people want to read, not fighting in the Thunderdome. It doesn’t mince words and goes straight for the jugular.

Following the announcement from Arts Council England that sales of literary fiction are plummeting, it is suggested that arts subsidies be deployed to help writers survive. I have another idea. They should write better books.

This article goes on to imply that literary authors could put some effort into writing stuff people want to read, mainly via utilising compelling plots, which the author feels is a major flaw in literary works. I think he misses an important point. Authors can write whatever they want. But I do agree that authors can’t expect to earn a living from this unpopular writing, nor have people like it, nor have it be accepted as appropriate (e.g. racism). Pleasing a small club of literary snobs with worthy books doesn’t entitle authors to a full-time career.

Of course, nobody is proposing supporting genre authors. They aren’t writing important fiction and are thus not real authors. They deserve to starve! This is the main issue I have with the argument to fund literary fiction. Somehow we’ve glossed over all the authors who aren’t making a living writing genre, as though they have nothing to contribute to society, and are thus unworthy of arts funding. Admittedly, a very good study, mentioned in the second article, does show there are clear empathy differences between readers of genre and literary novels** – although why is still a question to be answered. So there is an argument to be made for literature support.

As I see it, there are a few paths we could tread. The reading industry could acknowledge that most authors are part-timers and do more to support this reality while they balance a day job with their art. Or we can acknowledge that arts are an important aspect of our culture and support ALL artists with grants – not just the “important” literary ones. This latter option could be easily and justifiably funded by taking government funding out of popular high-level sports – i.e. no more free stadiums for you football! Let’s just hope that sports doesn’t go up against arts in the Thunderdome.

*Side note: we could probably even refer to the artistic projects as the Side Hustle. This piece by Zen Pencils is quite good and captures the idea behind the author dream.

**Worth reading this paper, which I’ve linked directly. I expected this to be a small sample, poorly analysed, poorly reasoned, paper that was written to elevate snobbery with pseudoscience. It was actually a very solid study. Although, it is worth noting that literary merit was on a spectrum, so literary could be found in many titles. This included Raymond Chandler in the top third of literary titles, which surprised me (last spot was James Patterson, which should surprise no one).

Edit: A recent article touched on a point about art vs sport and the taxation of people in those fields in Australia. Interesting what we promote as important.

See also: Author Earnings

Who Reads?

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Us readers know how awesome we are. And if we ever socially interacted with people everyone would realise that. We also want to know that we’re not alone. In a holistic sense. Obviously alone in the physical sense because otherwise someone would try to interrupt our reading.

Sensing our need for connection to a nationwide community of book nerds, The Australian Arts Council commissioned a report to figure out who was reading books. The report surveyed 2,944 people to see who read, how much, how they found books, and whether they preferred waiting for the movie adaptation. Let’s see what they found.

Firstly they wanted to establish how often people read and how that compared to other leisure activities. Reading was obviously less popular than dicking around on the internet and watching TV, but apparently beat out exercise. Although they excluded sport, and Aussies have a funny definition of sport. But this finding is similar to 2006 ABS figures that suggest Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, versus 21 minutes for sport and outdoor activities, and 138 minutes for Audio/Visual Media (Table 3.3).

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Next are the reader categories. Non-readers were actually a small group, mostly male and more likely to have less education (although I wouldn’t read too much into that last detail). Occasional readers made up half the population, and were defined as reading 1 to 10 books in the last 12 months. Frequent readers were a surprisingly large segment, were defined as reading more than 10 books in a year, and were mostly female, older, better educated, and clearly better looking with tonnes of charisma.

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Reading is to intellectuals what the bench press is to lifters. On the surface they might appear to be a good representation, but most exaggerate how much to appear better than they really are. Oh, and they generally aren’t fooling anyone… So I’m a little suspicious of the popularity of reading suggested by the above figures.

For one, only 34% of Aussies have visited a library in the last 12 months (2009-2010 ABS data) and 70% of them attended at least 5 times. Yet this new survey suggests 39% of people borrowed one or more books from a library in the last month. That’s roughly comparative figures of 24% from the ABS and 39% from this survey.

I’m suspicious. This survey might not be as representative as claimed. Or reading may have suddenly risen in popularity since 2010…. Doubtful given that both the ABS and this survey suggest otherwise. ABS suggested the amount of time spent reading had decreased by 2 hours between 1997 and 2006, whilst this survey suggested the book reading times were roughly the same as 5 years ago (Figure 8 – not presented).

The next figure of average reading rates either suggests Aussies are reading quite a bit, or inflating their numbers like an “all you” bench press. The average Aussie is reading 7 hours a week (5 of those for pleasure) and getting through 3 books a month (36 a year: not bad). Occasional readers are reading one book a month from 5 hours a week, compared to the Frequent readers who are reading 6 books a month from 11 hours per week (72 books a year: nice).

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But I’m not sure how accurate these claims are. I cited ABS figures above that suggested Aussies spend 23 minutes per day reading, or 2hrs 41mins (161 minutes) per week. So either one of these two samples is unrepresentative, or some people just love to inflate how much they read. I’m leaning toward the latter.* But you can trust me on my bench press numbers. Totally accurate and “all me”.

The final figure I found interesting was of favourite reading genre. When you included non-fiction and fiction genres there were two clear winners: Crime/Mystery/Thrillers; and Science Fiction/Fantasy.

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These are our favourites yet our bookstores would suggest that Sci-fi and Fantasy are niche and only deserving of a shelf at the back of the store. Cookbooks, memoirs, literature, and the latest contemporary thing that isn’t quite literature but isn’t exciting enough to be genre, are typically dominating shelves in stores. This would annoy me more if I wasn’t already suspicious of how representative this survey was, or how honest the respondents were being.

It could well be that people enjoy reading Thrillers and Fantasy but feel compelled to read other things. Maybe people are brow-beaten by the literary snobs to read only the worthy stuff and not the guilty pleasures. Maybe the snobs in Fort Literature have successfully turned favour against the invading Lesser Works. This might not be the case though, as 51% in this survey say they are interested in literary fiction but only 15% actually read it.

It could be that people are borrowing books from libraries or friends. Borrowing books is popular with 41% borrowing one or more books per month, mostly from friends (43%) and libraries (39%). But 39.5% bought at least one book in the last month (92% of 43% buying for themselves). So the tiny niche sections in bookstores for the most enjoyed genres still doesn’t make much sense.

I’m not sure what to make of all this. I mean, aside from Yay, Reading!

For comparison, the USA Pew Research’s 2016 annual survey of readers data is presented below. This suggests that Aussies read more than Americans. Assuming people are being honest.

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“Key” insights from the Aussie research:

•  We value and enjoy reading and would like to do it more – 95% of Australians enjoy reading books for pleasure or interest; 68% would like to read more, with relaxation and stress release the most common reason for reading; and almost three-quarters believe books make a contribution to their life that goes beyond their cost. Over 80% of Australians with children encourage them to read.

• Most of us still turn pages but many are swiping too –  While print books still dominate our reading, over half of all readers in-clude e-books in the mix, and 12% audio books. Most Australians (71%) continue to buy books from bricks-and-mortar shops, while half (52%) are purchasing online. Word of mouth recommendations and browsing in a bricks and mortar bookshop are our preferred ways to find out what to read next. At the same time, nearly a third of us interact with books and reading through social media and online platforms.

•  We are reading more than book sales data alone suggests – each month almost as many people borrow books (41%) as those who buy them (43%) and second-hand outlets are the third most popular source for buying books (39%), after major book chains (47%) and overseas websites (40%). Those who borrow books acquire them almost as frequently from public libraries as they do by sharing among friends.

•  We value Australian stories and our book industry – 71% believe it is important for Australia children to read books set in Australia and written by Australian authors; and 60% believe it is important that books written by Australian authors be published in Australia. While there is a common perception among Australians that books are too expensive, more than half believe Australian literary fiction is important. Almost two-thirds of Australians believe books by Indigenous Australian writers are important for Australian culture.

•  We like mysteries and thrillers best – the crime/mystery/thriller genre is the most widely read and takes top spot as our favourite reading category. We also love an autobiography, biography or memoir. (Source)

* I’m biased toward the ABS survey results over the Australian Arts Council for a few reasons. The first is that the ABS data is part of a larger Time Use Survey (How Australians Use Their Time, 2006, cat. no. 4153.0), so this removes a few biases in how people would answer questions (i.e. ask people specifically about how awesome books are, you’re going to talk up your reading more). It is also the larger survey covering 3,900 households. The methodology was also more likely to produce better data since respondents were filling in a daily diary and being interviewed. The Arts Council methodology wasn’t bad, but the survey was developed by interest groups, so the questions were presuming some things.

That isn’t literature too

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I recently reblogged an article from The Conversation about how awesome the Harry Potter books are, but how snobby (some?) literary people are about them. The vitriol and chastisement of the Harry Potter books reminds me of a time when I too was not on the Potter bandwagon. Oh how wrong I was.

Stupid kid’s books. It’s just The Worst Witch with a Chosen One narrative. That’s not literature!

And once again we come to my favourite book chest thumping topic. How worthy is Harry Potter and how wrong have the snobby people been about it?

I think it is worth addressing a few of the arguments that are levelled at JK Rowling and genre fiction in general. Let’s use Rowling as a stand in for all genre authors. Because all genre authors are just as successful and beloved…

Mostly the arguments revolve around Rowling not having the correct goals in her writing. Of course, these supposed goals are rather arbitrary and change depending upon who is deciding what Rowling’s goals should be. Because apparently writing an entertaining book series that sells hundreds of millions of copies, has devoted fans, promotes laudable social principles, and got some kids reading books who wouldn’t have otherwise isn’t enough for some people. They also tend to expect the world from the Harry Potter books, something that I’ll delve into further below.

Take for example this piece by Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian:

Do I need to explain why that is such second-rate writing?

If I do, then that means you’re one of the many adults who don’t have a problem with the retreat into infantilism that your willing immersion in the Potter books represents. It doesn’t make you a bad or silly person. But if you have the patience to read it without noticing how plodding it is, then you are self-evidently someone on whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. Source.

Ugh. I’ve got two words for you, Nicholas Lezard, and they are what your mum should have said to your dad on that fateful day.

There is so much to unpack in that small quote. Lezard starts by insulting fans of the books, then says he isn’t insulting them, then insults them again. Someone who could write a paragraph such as this is self-evidently someone upon whom the possibilities of the English language are largely lost. He’s insulting the use of speech identifier verbs whilst failing to understand the audience and style being utilised. If you expect YA to be using the same style as the Man-Booker winners you’re gonna have a bad time.

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But why insult fans, young and old, of the series? Why insult Rowling? Although she is probably insulated from such lowly criticism in her gold-lined money castle. He didn’t like something, he can critique it, but he is forgetting that a literary critique stands on argument, not insulting people for disagreeing with him.

This speaks poorly of Lezard and other such critics. In a previous post I discussed literary people defending Fort Literature from the invading Lesser Works. But this is Lezard leading a charge against the peaceful village inhabited by the Lesser Works. He has marked himself the despotic bigoted scourge of Fiction Land, seeking to crush all those who would dare be different from him.

Other critics of Harry Potter have argued that the series didn’t do enough to change the world. This piece comes from the unsupported opinions at The New York Times:

But in keeping with the intricately plotted novels themselves, the truth about Harry Potter and reading is not quite so straightforward a success story. Indeed, as the series draws to a much-lamented close, U.S. statistics show that the percentage of youngsters who read for fun continues to drop significantly as children get older, at almost exactly the same rate as before Harry Potter came along. Source.

Of course, the problem with this argument is that it requires one series by one author to change the lives of all kids worldwide… The article itself cites the series as having sold 325 million copies worldwide in the decade since the first book’s release (a third of that in the USA alone). Out of the 1.9 billion kids and 7 billion people in the world that means only 17% of kids, or 4.6% of people have bought a Harry Potter book (because nobody ever bought the whole series, or two copies of one of the books, or saw a copy in a library). To put that 325 million copies for the entire series in perspective, roughly 175 million people paid to see A film in the cinema that was tenuously about cars. A similar number paid to see the final Harry Potter film. Let’s face it: reading isn’t that popular.

Let’s break this amazing phenomenon down a bit further. There have been several studies that have looked at readers, particularly kids, and how many of them have read the books.

Percentage of kids reading each Harry Potter book
Source

This is a small survey of children (N = 233) looking at Harry Potter fans, but is consistent with other studies and with a Waterstones reader survey the researchers used to validate the small study. You can see that most kids had read the first book, but that quickly dropped off as the series continued. The studies showed that only 25-35% of kids had read all 7 books in the series, with the average fan reading 3.98 books in the series.

Another thing to note is that studies have also found that 46% and 49% had read a Harry Potter book. Or to put it another way, over 50% of kids hadn’t read any Harry Potter books, and many had only tried one (usually the first one). The most popular book series of all time still isn’t read by a majority of people.

But what about JK Rowling’s influence on reading?

Harry Potter reading influence stats
Source

This study was of only 650 kids, but it does illustrate that particularly amongst secondary school kids that they were inspired to read. More books, more difficult books, and more fiction – and if someone can point out the difference between non-fiction and fiction I’d much appreciate it.

Another study of a similar size found supporting results:

Many, though not all, of our enthusiasts consider the Potter books a major contributor to both their self-identification as readers and their wider literacy development. Perhaps the most striking change they reported was the confidence and motivation to try more challenging books or more books in general. Thus, the Potter books—particularly the thicker ones—acted as a “Portkey” or “gateway,” transporting readers into the world of more mature fiction. Source.

The increasing complexity and length of the books was cited in both studies as giving people confidence to grow as readers. But it was also noted that one of the reasons given for not reading all of the books in the series was also the increasing complexity and length. In other words you can’t please everyone, especially not kids. Unless you have ice-cream. And the kids aren’t lactose intolerant.

Ease of reading Harry Potter
Source

So the problem isn’t that the books are second-rate, nor that they aren’t encouraging people (kids are people too) to read. The problem is that even the most popular book series ever is going to have a limited impact. Rowling has managed to connect with a huge audience – for a book – which has had positive impacts on readers, such that they are more likely to go out and read more books, even the more complex books that keep the literary snobs in a job.

It is a big ask to expect one book series to have improved literacy rates. At the risk of labouring the point – any further – most people don’t read, and most people who do read won’t have read Harry Potter. The problem isn’t Rowling failing to inspire people enough. It isn’t that she wasn’t a good enough writer. The problem is that people love to make lazy attacks on genre fiction. They don’t want to admit that reading is not that popular and that what we have been doing is probably not encouraging new readers. At least Rowling was on the right track.

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.