My Three Reader Attributes
People who like to read discuss why they like their favorite authors. The literary crowd argues about the canon—who’s in and who’s out this year, why the creator of the Simpsons is a greater writer than, say, Tolstoy. But has anyone made a case for what makes a great reader?
Of course, the answer to that question depends on what kind of book we’re talking about. A graphic novel requires a reader who appreciates visuals, as well as dialogue, while a Preston and Child’s reader has to be willing to suspend disbelief—a literary word for being willing to believe in Hobbits, for example—to a remarkable degree. (Sort of like Peter Pan . . . “I believe, I believe.”)
Thinking about how writers appeal to a particular type of reader—their ideal reader—got me to thinking about what kind of reader I am. To answer that question, I went through a short process:
- List favorite novels
- List least-favorite novels
- Delete classic novels
- Narrow list to recent, mostly popular novels
Finally, a question emerged: why do some writers find an audience for their work, while other equally good writers never find their audience? Until her lawyer “slipped up” and told the world that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for J. K. Rowling, her first book under the Galbraith name sold 1500 copies. After the so-called slip, it catapulted to the best seller list, which shows that even a really good writer may struggle to find his or her audience.
Anyway, after going through this process, I came up with three “reader attributes” to describe myself.
First, I’m an embarrassingly slow reader. I read slowly because I like complex novels. Or maybe I like complex novels because I read slowly. Anyway, the exploration of the ethics underlying geopolitical themes in Daniel Silva novels keeps me reading even weaker ones, whereas David Baldacci grew old fast with his solitary theme—power corrupts—and his predictable plots. I like novels that force me to turn events over and over in my mind, unable to give up until I’ve figured it out—whatever “it” is.
The Maytrees is a great example—more literary than popular, I admit—but still a great example of character and thematic complexity. You get right up to the end and feel as if you haven’t peeled the last layer of the story, so you flip back and begin rereading sections still warm from the touch of your own hand. Now that’s a good novel.
Second, I’m a patient reader. Willing to wait and work if the payoff seems worth the challenge, I want to get to know characters—the kind who seem to be real people with hidden depths, good and bad. A little mystery makes a character-driven novel even better. I love waking up thinking about a novel I read the night before. Kate Morton really had me guessing in The Secret Keeper. The fact that the ending left me satisfied drove me to her other novels.
On the other hand, I’ve stalled in a Charles Todd novel because ¾ of the way in, a character did something too illogical to believe. I stopped reading The Time Traveler’s Wife 20 pages from the end because I felt as if the entire concept was a kind of trick that had no meaning. Once I realized that the payoff wasn’t going to come, I couldn’t force myself to read another word.
Third and last, as a reader I have a very low boredom threshold, which seems to contradict my last point. I find it impossible to get beyond the first few pages of certain types of novel. Those with Southern characters who talk about mama all the time. Episodic novels that move from scene to scene with no seeming purpose. Despite their popularity, the first Outlander novel almost put me to sleep. It seemed to be all random adventures and public sex. Anachronistic characters also drive me crazy. Not to pick on Outlander, but educated women did not cuss like sailors in the 1940s.
I guess the answer to the question What makes an ideal reader? depends on the book. For readers, it becomes a matter of weeding through thousands of novels a year to find the few that draw you in. Authors, on the other hand, have to help their “ideal” readers find them amid the cacophony of modern publishing. So the next question is, How do authors and readers find each other amid the chaos?
Question: What kind of reader are you?