, , ,

What if reading make someone dumber? Okay, that’s not an entirely accurate statement but I do think the implications are interesting. What do I mean by this? That’s easy enough. Depending on what I read, I sometimes feel as if I can feel my intelligence slipping through my fingers.

If anyone is aware, I also post on Broken Baseball Services, which as it sounds is a blog mostly about baseball, that is also where I know post book reviews. In my first book review, for the site, I said

There are two main types of books in my world:

  1. Serious books – books that challenge me mentally, where every word matters and I have to pay attention.
  2. Popcorn books – where I can blaze through the pages and skipping a few words doesn’t matter.

That’s important because it has nothing to do with genre and length. “A Prayer for the Dying” by Stewart O’Nan, which I reviewed on another blog, is only 194, well spaced pages, but is dense and each word, each page forces my attention. On the other hand, Wheel of Time can be speed read through without missing much. Both are a lot of fun to read; both serve their purpose. After a Serious book, I may feel inclined to read a popcorn book to relax in a different manner.

It’s popcorn books I’m referring to when I talk about books making me dumber. Not all of them. After all, not all popcorn flicks (the origin for the term) are horrible. I loved Avengers, that’s definitely a popcorn flick. But some are particularly stupid. This is a special subset of popcorn fiction. So, what characterizes this?

Horrible Popcorn:

  • Bad, tacky writing
  • Cliche ridden – poor family relationships, mental illness, predictable romance. All these items read like a check list for some high school paper someone assigned.
  • Paint by numbers.
  • No character development
  • Writes like someone who puts a novel out every six months and doesn’t care about it. Actually, not unlike Richard Castle from Castle.
  • Plot only. Not that that’s a bad thing, that’s essentially what action thriller genre is.
  • Plenty of telling. Not a lot of showing.
  • Poor pacing and flow.
  • Written very simply, no challenge
  • Generic characterization. everyone is super smart or good at what they do. a genius

Now, not all of that is inherently horrible but if the approach is bad enough, then it becomes so. I guess what I’m talking about came to my attention after reading James Rollins Sigma Force 02 – City of Bones. A standard action adventure fair, I’ll try not to crust it too hard here. I’ll do that later in a review on Broken Baseball Services.

Okay, refocusing. The reasons I think popcorn stories negative as a writer are multiple.

First: Poor writing only encourages poor writing. What ever book you read, magazine, or short story, whatever, as a reader/writer, you inherently absorb the tendencies of the what you read. That is if you read science fiction, you’ll gravitate towards that style, if you real long, detailed fantasy, you mimic that.

The best example I can think of: I attended a writers meeting a few months ago where the attendee’s presented some work. While most people in my group had never read classic HG Wells or any other classic scifi, these were the stories my father raised me on. One person had a similar past, noticing my structure and pacing echoed those glorious writers of yore.

The second best example is the English teacher who inspired me write. He said in graduate school, he had been studying, I think it was Yates, but when he wrote his initial draft for his thesis, his adviser noticed in the cadence of his writing who he had been studying.

Now, those are examples of good inspiration. The problem is the exact opposite happens. Reading too much poor fiction leads to a lowering of nature abilities.

Second: They don’t challenge your mind. Too often, books such as the Sigma Force series or the Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel do not challenge the reader. They rely on explosions and action to get through a story. Which is fine for SINF, because it’s meant for 10-12 year old. Though reading age expectations are different entirely.

Leading a reader around from scene to scene, does not make you a good writer. In fact, it makes you poor. Challenging someone is the point of a good book.

Orson Scott Card said that Star Trek was poor Scifi. I disagree for the most part,  but the point he’s really trying to make is that Star Trek throws it’s cultural morals at you and says “OOH OOH LOOK AT ME!!” That’s not good SciFi and it’s not good fiction. Readers and the audiences are being dumbed down to where they expect everything handed to them. Popcorn fiction does this very well, to everyone’s detriment. If you  want something that makes you think, that challenges you and brings you up, you read that.

Third: The technical stuff just bugs me. The number of easy “to be” verbs tossed around for grandiose vagueness. Maybe it’s me. I can certainly look back on this post, pointing out the grammatical flaws, but seriously, when you publish something, don’t you want it to be your best? Popcorn books read like the writer wrote it for a paycheck. Horrible scene transition, poorly handled character dialogue. That should get weeded out. Never mind the story.

That’s a problem. When I read these books, I can tell which are poor and which ones aren’t. I don’t have the time in my life to  waste of horrible books. There are too many great ones out  there. Part of  me feels bad, ripping people who are published and I’m not, but I look at it this way: I can’t pitch, but I know a bad pitch when I see one. Or a blown call.

West Wing, Season 03, Episode 02 – West Chester

Doug – I know what the word means. I’m saying if people don’t know what the word means…

Barlett – They can look it up! It’s not our job to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Doug. It’s our job to raise it.

That sums it up. Popcorn books write for the lowest common denominator. And that’s a problem. Sure, it makes things easier on people but it’s not helping them. Every time I read one, I can feel a certain lack of cohesion in my own thought process as my intelligence drains through a sieve. As writers we shouldn’t be trying to lower the standard of the written word, compressing it into a book just small enough to fit in my jacket pocket.

If someone doesn’t know, let them look it up. Let them learn. And, maybe, if they keep reading, their curiosity will be rewarded and the book will tell them. I’m not saying popcorn books are bad, but I think they make up too much of our literary selection and get called good.