Breathing Words, Bleeding Ink

A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.

– Madeleine L’Engle

It is a truth universally acknowledged that people who write fiction spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about it.

A love of words is in my blood and a day that passes without my picking up a book occurs with roughly the same frequency as a blue moon, but just because I love to read doesn’t mean I’ll read anything at all. There are certain types of stories to which I gravitate instinctively, a comfort zone I’ve learned to recognise. As an immersive reader, every book I open is an investment I take seriously, and I am not obliged to like everything I read. There’s a reason I have a comfort zone. My rule is that I must finish a book in order to review it, and at times, that’s the only reason I keep going.

Other times, I feel obliged for a different reason. Recently I read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and if it hadn’t been a capital c Classic I’m not sure I would have finished it. The experience has left me thinking.

There is a strange hierarchy to the world of books. The status quo varies between generations and genres, but the implicit understanding is the same: some books are just inherently better than others, and if you haven’t read them or didn’t like them, you’re not doing it right. Add to that the startlingly pervasive idea that worthwhile books are supposed to be difficult, and the logical progression of thought is that books which are deliberately easy to read are of lesser value.

My short response is, that’s unutterable nonsense. My longer response involves impassioned life advice and parallel universes. You have been warned.

Writing a story is reading in reverse – guessing frantically at where the plot will go, trying to pin its nebulous edges with the right words in the right places, then revising that shape repeatedly until it’s ready for the world. It’s an intensely personal process. Once a story is released into the wild, it becomes a different sort of beast. The task of an author is to say what they mean as effectively as they can; the task of a reader is to take away from that what they need. Everyone brings their own prejudices and preconceptions to the media they interact with, and as a result will come away with their own unique perceptions of its worth. If there’s a consistent standard by which all books can be compared, I’m yet to hear of it.

Seriously, consider the question. How can you define a good book?

Do you judge a book’s worth from the number of sales? Things become popular for a reason, after all. Of course, popular things are often also the focus of intense criticism. Despite a readership in the millions, the Twilight series has been publicly savaged (which can have NOTHING to do with the fact most of those readers were teenage girls). The Da Vinci Code was everywhere not so long ago but was critically panned. I am yet to see an argument that the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy is high literature, despite its impressive sales. Even the pop culture leviathan that is the Harry Potter series has received its fair share of hate.

Is a book good, then, based on the length of time it survives in the popular consciousness? Shakespeare’s going strong centuries after his death. The works of Jane Austen have retained their wit in an unrecognisably different era. If you go by that standard, though, no modern book can be good simply because it isn’t old enough.

So let’s consider literary merit. By my standard, a truly good book should have originality of concept, intricacy of character and elegance of language. I know those criterion when I see them, can tell you some of the authors who most frequently achieve them, but I’ve read books with genuinely labyrinthine protagonists and exceptionally plotted convolutions that I didn’t care about, written in skilful prose that I would never read again. How can a book be good if I didn’t enjoy it?

By the same principle, what is extraordinary writing to me may seem flat and predictable to someone else. There are people out there, REAL PEOPLE, who consider Jane Austen’s novels all alike. I do not relate to these people’s literary standards on any level, but whatever Austen does for me, she is clearly not doing it for those readers and they have a right not to enjoy her work. I don’t think it’s actually possible to make an objective judgement about something so inherently personal.

A staple of public debate in Australia, and most likely everywhere, is the future of education policy. National standards of literacy come in for regular scrutiny. At the same time there’s a degree of angst over what kids are reading, particularly teenagers, because no debate involving child rearing is complete without catch-22 hypocrisy. It’s not an uncommon belief that the current crop of popular YA titles are the literary equivalent of fast food, all taste and no sustenance. Why are they not reading the right books? Don’t they want to learn?

The thing is, schools are not real life; they are a parallel universe existing solely to provide children between certain ages with the various forms of information that a particular group of officials, at a particular period in time, agree that they should know. In such discussions, books are little more than instructional tools to impart core language skills and in that specific environment, some do meet a measurable form of scholastic development better than others. Out here in the real world, though, books mean so much more. I did not consume the greater part of the children’s section of my local library because I wanted to grasp the finer points of grammar. I read because I wanted stories in the same way I wanted oxygen: to not have them was unthinkable.

It’s certain that there are teenagers who adore different forms of classical literature, just as it is certain there are those who despise them, each for his or her own specific reasons. I can’t speak for them. But I can speak for the teenager I used to be, who thought that reading a book because other people said she should was a terrible reason, who adored Charlotte Brontë but had no patience with William Shakespeare’s rampant misogyny. She knew he could not give her what she needed at that time, so she looked for authors who could, and she found them.

That is the point of reading.

It would be absurd to believe every book can satisfy the needs of every reader, or even the same reader at different times. That is what the plethora of genres and subgenres available to us are for, none worth less or more than the others except according to individual preference. Classics that are about ‘the human condition’ frequently leave out huge sections of actual humanity, including women, people of colour, those who identify as QUILTBAG or who live with disabilities, or happen to be all those things at once. Every book needs to be judged within the context of its times, but so do its readers, and what might have been revelatory in one era won’t necessarily reach someone today. That’s okay. A classic is only a story that has been known and loved for a long time. Today’s writers haven’t had the chance to develop that patina of nostalgia yet, but you give them time. Books that everyone said would never sell, books that were banned because they were too different to be understood, the ones that celebrated things people didn’t think should be said out loud – they have all become beloved household names. Authors who are dismissed today might be literary heroes in a hundred years.

There will always be people who are afraid of what teenagers are doing, because what teenagers like to do is probably new. It’s different. And there will always be people who believe new and different things are bad. As for teenage girlsthose people are terrified of what teenage girls read. A big part of growing up – and we are all still growing up, no matter our true age – is learning who to ignore, because if you listen long enough to the ‘advice’ that is slung from all sides the only thing you will learn is how to be ashamed of everything you are.

You know what? Screw that. Read whatever you want.

You will come across mind-numbingly awful books, and you will come across pretty mediocre ones, and people will tell you that you are doing it All Wrong. But keep reading anyway. Being human is hard. Reading books you love makes it easier. Because whatever you read brings you inside someone else’s head, makes you see through someone else’s eyes. Reading makes us more human. I know for a fact that it has made me a better person. Books have bored deep into my reserves of empathy and found more than I knew I had. There are books out there right now, waiting unread, that will make me sparkle. Books that will make me a happier person, a wiser person, a stronger person.

And I’ll find them in my own sweet time.

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