Saturday, October 29, 2011

Is Fiction Getting too Easy?

I recently read an article where Jeanette Winterson is worried that today's books are "too easy" for readers today. Or at least, I think that was the point of the article, I didn't really understand what she was trying to get at.

She appears to be rambling about the books picked for this year's Booker awards list. She points out early in the article that there is nothing wrong with an enjoyable read that doesn't "tax the mind". But that that doesn't make it literature. Instead, she says that there is a simple test, "Does this writer's capacity for language expand my capacity to think and to feel?"

And while that is a wonderful little test, I do not think that it is justifiable for what is and what isn't literature. Why? Well, I've read tons of novels that do this. In fact, almost every novel I've read recently has at least several words I have to go look up in the dictionary. But just because a novel has a mass of huge and unknown words that doesn't make it literature. 

I don't see this row as one about dumbing down though. Rather, it is a misunderstanding about literature and its purpose. We are nervous about anything that seems elitist or inaccessible, and we apologise for the arts in a way that we never do for science.
Nobody blames maths for being difficult – and it isn't difficult – but it is different, and demands some time and effort. It is another kind of language. Literature is also another kind of language. I don't mean literature is obscure or rarefied or precious – that's no test of a book – rather it is operating on a different level to our everyday exchanges of information and conversation.
That's obvious in poetry and we welcome it. In fiction we seem to want a kind of printed television. Why?
I understand what she's saying here (after rereading several times because it didn't make sense at first), that we shouldn't apologize if books are harder for the person reading it and make the book easier. 

The thing that struck me about this article was the thought that are books getting too easy to read? I said before that I don't think so, but while books need to be challenging, they should also be easy to understand. Writers don't "dum down" their stories, we choose every word for a reason and hopefully, none of us will use a word that we don't know it's meaning and use it because we think it'll make us look smart. But we also might not use as many big and challenging words because, lets face it, not many people have a large vocabulary.
The best thing for the Booker prize would be to outline its aims – is it about literature or is it a division of easyBook? Should we include first novels? I think not. 
The thing that bugged me  about this part was the fact that this writer doesn't think that the awards should go to first novels. While I agree that most of the time our first novels won't be the greatest, but just because it's our first novel doesn't make it bad. Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, was her first and only novel. And today it's considered a classic and a great book. I've read it and enjoyed it. And guess what, it's her first novel.

Anyways, you can read the whole article, here, and see what you think. And so, what do you think about this?



  1. Thanks for posting the article.

    I actually agree with this. I won't name them but I think books are lowering in reading age. There are still some awesome books out there too.

    But I don't think that a higher reading age means a better book. I've read some complex and densely written books which are awful and then some simply written books which are just brilliant.

  2. Interesting article.

    Personally, I find the idea of that books are "too easy" absolutely ridiculous. It reminds me of when I was in elementary school, and we were required to read books where there were a certain number of words per page we didn't understand. Since I had a higher than average reading level, I didn't get to read (for class, at least) books that really interested me. I just had to read books where I had to look up words. And that seemed to defeat the purpose.

    Frankly, I understand nearly every word I come across in books, and I'm totally okay with that. I still enjoy the book. I still think about the book. It still expands my thoughts. I still get a good experience from it. I still learn.

  3. @ Kamille: No problem.
    I understand what you mean, it could just be me, but many of the books I've read in school that are "above" the average reading level for my grade are actually really easy and not challenging. While on the other hand, the other half of the books I've read in school were challenging.

    I've seen books like those too. I think on one hand I prefer more simply written books to more challenging ones, especially when I'm reading for fun, but then complex books are sometimes fun too.

    @Annie: That sounds silly, no offense to your school or anything, but if they wanted you to find words you didn't know, they could have just given you a list and made you use them in a sentence after looking them up or whatever.

    I remember in my elementary school we had these reading groups that I think were based on your reading level, surprisingly, I was above the average reading level at the time but they never put me in the higher groups. But my brother who never read outside of school was put into the higher groups and he said the books they read weren't actually all the different from the ones I was reading.

    Personally, I think the whole thing is kinda silly. I think it differs from person to person on how "easy" books are. And I think that really most people can actually read above the "average" level or whatever for thier age group if they put their mind to it. But because most people never find reading worth it, most people end up at the same reading "age" levels because they're all forced to read the same books in school. Or something like that. Does that make sense?


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