Hey everyone and welcome to 2015.
We need, as a group, as writers, and readers, to challenge the level of expectations and the standards that have defined what books we read at what age and what is appropriate. The current model is broken, speaking only to those who wish to reach the lowest common denominator of readers. Now, in all fairness, reaching for the lowest common reader is in my mind, quite a significant percentage of how books usually gets on the Times Best Sellers list, so let’s tread carefully, if not too carefully.
In my last actual blog post for 2014, I discussed the idea of why what we read matters and, in very general terms, discussed encoding and the habits humans tend to have with regards to mimicking and absorbing tendencies.
I wanted to expound on that idea a little bit, because one of the concepts that I discussed was the fact that if you read poorly written books you’re going to write poorly. I don’t necessarily think that this is an absolute rule but I think that it takes awareness of what you’re reading and what you’re writing.
Even if we are only aware of it, there is something more. A responsibility to the reader that we, as an author, must own more than just the intellectual copyright. We own the dream and the work that went into that novel.
That is to say, if you’re reading a book that is written for third-graders, be aware that that’s what you’re reading and that’s the level of the plot and grammar and vocabulary. You will not be on the same level as if you are reading a book written for high schoolers.
However, that said, there needs to be some accountability from the author. There is an arbitrary and obnoxious rating system for the reading level of books for grade schoolers that determines what reading level the book is written for. (I’ve provided two links, because Scholastic’s does not progress beyond 6th Grade, which I think is important in recognizing the scale’s limitations.) Be that 1st-graders or 7th-graders, I think some of the rating system is ego driven by parents who want to say “Hey look, my child is reading at an 11th-grade reading level when they’re in third grade.” So take that with a grain of salt.
The accountability aspect that I refer to lies in that if you intend your books to be read by a 5th-grader, you should write that book as if it was for a 7th- or 8th-grader.
As authors, we have responsibility to challenge our readers and push them further than they might otherwise expect themselves to go. Yes, a 5th-grader might not understand all the grammar or diction of a book written for 7th- or 8th-grader, but by exposing them in some increments to a higher level we have moved bar for them.
If society is going to complain that we have left our children behind in terms of their reading and writing then part of that blame needs to fall on us, as the authors. We should be attempting to raise the lowest common denominator of readers, not sink to it. We should be setting the expectations that every time you read a book, you are expanding your horizons.
This is all set with the qualification that I am aware that you cannot control what people read and you cannot control what they gravitate towards or enjoy. But when you have adults who are college educated and—in theory—advanced enough to understand and appreciate a higher level of communication, you should give them more books that are fun to read that you can enjoy at that level.
Maybe James Patterson is a mass consumed writer and he does not do the most complicated technical things with his books, but maybe his audience—while adult—is not college-educated. I’m going to get some flack for that answer, but it is again with the understanding that we need to raise the level of writing in the books out there. A comparison would be the Narnia Chronicles. CS Lewis stated on several occasions that he wrote in the manner he did in those books because his target audience was youth. But that didn’t mean that he let his writing get sloppy or that he didn’t choose the best word for the circumstance. He didn’t and he also didn’t go into detail about what the technical specifications or reasoning for the terminology of a ship was called—or why—he simply used the term and expected the reader to figure it out from context.
What do you think about the notion that we have a duty to push our readers as far as they can go mentally? Is it truly our responsibility or do we leave that up to the reader to comprehend? And, if we want to leave it up to the reader, are we placing a reasonable burden of expectation upon them if they don’t know that there are expectations?