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Author Topic: On the problem of inexperienced readers
Member # 9345

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Here's a really good article about something that's been bothering me lately, about how the newer generation of readers seem to too-often lack the foundations we elder gents <g> have come to expect:


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If I understood that article correctly, it's making the argument that there are readers out there who are dismissing an entire genre simply because they get hung up on something they don't understand in the prose.

To me, the only foundation anyone needs when it comes to reading is knowing the language the book was written in. Fiction, regardless of genre, is to transport the reader to unknown worlds, mixing the familiar with the unfamiliar. Those characters do not exist, but they could exist. Those events didn't really happen, but they could have happened.

I suppose it's called imagination.

I also know how to look up unfamiliar words in the dictionary or decipher meaning from context.

So I have the skill set to enjoy books in general no matter the genre because I enjoy discovering how authors use language to create fictional worlds.

Do newer generation of readers really lack this ability?

[This message has been edited by redux (edited April 17, 2011).]

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Member # 8892

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I agree with redux. I'd attribute it to literary snobbism. And different habits mostly.

Just like Dan Brown said: "What rocks me may not rock you".

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I don't know if this pertains to the link or this thred for that matter, so sorry if it doesn't. (I sped read the article)

A good rule of thumb for me (a young author of 24 years old), is that if 99/100 people know what a Difini Blade (basically a chain blade for lack of me wanting to describe it in a paragraph) but that 1 person doesn't I will describe it. I don't care what the other 99 think. It gets a little long winded but it's for a good reason.

I actually don't read that often (kind of weird to say for a writer haha). When I do it's almost always older authors (herbert, tolkien, etc). I almost never read anything from younger authors because I don't feel it's origional and in-depth enough for me to enjoy. That said I think a lot of younger authors don't have a good foundation or they skip it entirely because it's "boring" (yes I've heard that excuse before). That "boring" foundation is the most important thing you can and will work on. Ultimately I believe that if your foundation sucks in anything (writing or otherwise) it's very rare that the work will be any good.

Btw, I'm not saying that my foundation is really good, becuase it's not...It's something I almost have down good but not quite there yet.

Whew...I'm glad I got that off my chest. Again sorry if it doesn't pertain to anything in this thred

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I think people are too worried about some piece of equipment or something else and they put down a book. I rarely have put down a book because one part didn't make sense.

However, some books go too far and I get lost.

Stephen Baxter for example:

I loved his book Titan but it was extremely technical and I know I missed a lot of key points about how stuff works in that book. However, the story itself was so good that I could put up with the my own confusion to continue. However when I went to read Voyage I couldn't get past my own confusion. Despite my desperate desire to know how this alternate history worked out, the story was just not strong enough to get past my own confusion.

For us SF writers the main issue is that we have to make sure our story is strong enough to 1)support a technology and 2) not get lost in the technical.

I also think a lot of people discount SF as simply rockets and robots. When SF encompasses all other genres and puts them in a Speculative world. Just look at all the sub-genres of SF.

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Something I learned outside the writing arena: You can't make everybody happy. So imo, don't sweat it: Write for a specific audience (in my case, I write for 'readers like me') and accept that some people will just refuse to 'get it'. I think if you don't accept this, you risk being offended when some reader says they refuse to read your book because it's written in first person, or present tense, or third person, or it includes the colour blue. Who cares!
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One of the points of the article is that different genres require different expectations for reading.

For example, I would guess that someone who primarily reads Romance novels (the kind with half-naked people on the covers) won't enjoy reading novels in which inanimate items are described in detail. The reader, wondering whether or not the two main characters in a fantasy novel will kiss, might consider a discussion regarding the castle's construction as a waste of time, because it's delaying the answer to her short-term question, Will they kiss?. The problem might compound for the reader when she reaches a climax in which construction materials are an important plot point.

Here's another example--this one from my personal experience. A friend recommends Neal Stephenson's Anathem to someone who usually reads urban fantasy and classic non-speculative fiction. The friend, however, neglects to mention that the novel is written in a fictional form of English that is easy to understand--but only if the reader allows the language and culture to seep in during the first two parts. Without this advice, the reader struggles to memorize each unfamiliar word and concept as it is presented until she decides the entire novel is either nonsensical or would take too much effort to finish.

Am I making sense?

We've probably all experienced this issue as readers and as recommenders. People build expectations based on what they have already read.

Another point of the article is summarized in the last paragraph. When a writer of SF explains everything--instead of assumes his readers will recognize concepts already established by existing SF--he risks cluttering his story with trivial details and wasting readers' time. On the flip side, a writer who explains nothing probably won't give his readers enough of a story.

We as SF writers should understand what concepts and expectations our readers might bring to our stories. Otherwise, we are almost guaranteed to disappoint.

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Member # 9183

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Being honest, I found the article a bit whiny. If I read a romance novel, i'd probably complain that there was too much gushiness and not enough plot. It's not because I don't have a proper foundation in the romance genre, nor is it because of my pretensiousness. It's just not what I enjoy reading.

If someone doesn't want to take certain sf elements at face value (perhaps it breaks their suspension of disbelief), who am I to say they aren't reading it properly?

A novel should stand on its own without an instruction manual on how to read it (or a prereq of reading xx number of books from a sf top 100 list). Otherwise, it will become irrelevant aside from dedicated fans of the genre.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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First of all, if it is important for readers to know what a Difini Blade is, then, by all means, go ahead and SHOW how it works, if possible, and if not, then TELL the readers. If it isn't important (as in the Difini Blade is just part of the setting--and is there to signal the reader that This Is a Strange Place) then don't waste the reader's time on it.

That said, I have to share something I experienced along the lines of this article (which I think is great, by the way--thanks for posting the link, Reziac), but in the opposite direction.

I tweeted (and it appeared on my Facebook profile page) that I had read a literary short-short and was frustrated because I didn't "get" it.

Snapper asked me about it on Facebook, and I explained that it was written by an acquaintance who is a university English professor. I'd heard him speak on the subject of literature on more than one occasion, and wanted to read something he'd written.

It was not what we think of when we talk about SF/F short-shorts, which have to be complete stories in their tiny wordage. This was more of a "slice of life" or even a "prose poem." And I didn't "get it"--meaning that I recognized it as "literary" and that the reading protocol for "literary fiction" is going to be different from that for speculative fiction.

As Jo Walton pointed out in the above linked article, literary readers and reviewers (and translators) look for meaning in the metaphor, but (as OSC has also pointed out in his HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY) in speculative fiction the "metaphors" are not metaphorical, they are REAL.

So I read this "slice of life" "prose poem," which was very well written, and tried to figure out if there was more to the "story" than what appeared on the surface.

And I couldn't. If there was a "point" to the story (since there certainly wasn't an obvious plot--which isn't surprising if it really is just a "slice of life"), I couldn't find it.

So I submit that there are protocols, or expectations, or approaches, or whatever you want to call them, that readers take when they read fiction, and they are different for different kinds of fiction.

And whether you agree with that idea or not, I also submit that you would be wise as writers to consider the possibility as it might apply to your writing. It might make a difference in whether you sell or not, or in whether you are read by lots of readers or not.

And again, thanks, Reziac, for sharing this article. I just read AMONG OTHERS by Jo Walton, and loved it. She knows how to write to SF/F reader protocols (for this reader, at least).

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Member # 9183

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So I submit that there are protocols, or expectations, or approaches, or whatever you want to call them, that readers take when they read fiction, and they are different for different kinds of fiction.

Yes, of course. Everyone has approaches and expectations for everything in life, not just fiction. I went to GenreCon in Sarnia, Ontario yesterday and one of the authors (Dennis Collins), a mystery writer said that he writes his novels for the blue collar worker - the guy that wears blue overalls and has a paperback sticking out the back of his pocket that he reads during breaks. The kinda guy that doesn't want to go grab a dictionary to find out what a word means.

I really took his comment to heart. Who am I writing for? I better be able to answer that question. Boasting a vast vocabulary or deep technological knowledge may impress some people, but will it have broad appeal?

I guess it all depends on what you like to write and who you want to read it.

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