Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Would You Like Fries With That Book?

Recently I came across a somewhat mystifying online discussion of Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca, one of my favorite books. The participants were young and, though they said they liked the book, a few of them were having a hard time figuring out why the second Mrs. DeWinter was such a wimp. They expressed annoyance that she let Mrs. Danvers treat her with such disrespect and could not understand how this young wife could be so menaced by her husband's housekeeper.

The discussion went on for a couple pages and I admit I read it, without commenting, with a mixture of amusement and shock. Basically, these young people had no comprehension of the British class system at the middle of the Twentieth Century. One participant said, “I'd get in her face and tell her to back the ---- off!” 


In the last few months I've been much more involved in online discussion groups and blogs about books than I ever have. It has been very educational. I posted before about the comeuppance I got at the hands of some romance writers for daring to call my books romances. My books, however romantic in theme, are NOT romances because 1.) they do not have predictable HEA (Happily Ever After) endings and 2.) the people being romantic are too damn old.

Yesterday I came across a discussion on a writing blog in which the participants were giving their opinions on what the wanted (or didn't want) in books. Among the no-nos listed were:
  • limited descriptions, not too many adjectives or adverbs, too much “explanation”
  • no prefaces or prologues or explanatory openings
  • no flash backs or back story
  • limited character development
  • a structured plot that begins on page one
  • identifiable themes (romance, suspense, paranormal, etc.)

Basically, what these readers are saying is that they want a novel to meet their specific demands and they are totally unwilling to stretch their literary consumption into any area that doesn't conform to what they want. Narcissism meets McWriting.

We live in a sound-byte culture where many people have become accustomed to getting exactly what they want, when they want it, at a price (investment of time) that they are willing to give. This formula is responsible for the success of the fast food industry – a McDonald's hamburger is going to taste exactly the same whether you get it in New York, London, Hong Kong or Toadhole, Arkansas. Furthermore all the characters in these McStories have to exactly meet expectations and, because cultural literacy is narrowing daily, those expectations are increasingly limited. It's frustrating.

I, as a reader, have always adored those big, thick, lush books packed with diverse characters, tantalizing sub-plots, lavish descriptions of setting and atmosphere, etc. I love epic story telling. I love books that, as the last page gets closer and closer you don't want to go there and yet you also do not ant to stop reading. I love books that linger in the mind for days after the final chapter has been closed. Are books like that doomed?

I've come to the conclusion that there are two kinds of novels and the audiences for them could not be more different. There are the McReaders who want a McBook that comes with no surprises and can be consumed along with a serving of McNuggets, fries, and a soda. Then there are the Savorers who want to get lost in a world of amazing story-telling that opens up new worlds, introduces new ideas, and pushes them just a little farther out of their literary comfort zone than they were before – the Prime Rib with all the trimmings readers.

The e-revolution has opened up an amazing new world for readers and I'm always happy to know people are reading – whether it is a quick, predictable, formula story or a long, deep foray into literature. I just hope the latter finds enough readers to keep it vital so that someday, when appetites change, they will be there for the literary adventurer.

Thanks for reading.


  1. Can you imagine how those kids would react to Ivanhoe or A Tale of Two Cities? "I want to talk to my lawyer!"

    You always have an interesting way of looking at things.

  2. McReaders! What a perfect description. Basically, they don't want to be challenged, ever, by anything.

    I think every amazing experience in my life is the direct result of reading a book and deciding that I wanted to see that place, or eat that food, or hear that language.


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