Why do people like books I hate?
And vice versa.
How can a book (or a film or a play) send some folks into raptures of delight whilst sending others rushing for the exits?
I didn’t like Harry Potter. There, I admitted it. My name is Will Once and I didn’t like Harry Potter.
And the therapy group solemnly intones:
“Hello, Will Once.”
For that matter, I really didn’t like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, although I did finish it. And I absolutely hated Fifty Shades, the book. I could barely get past the second page. I didn’t mind the smut. It was the writing. Oh God, the writing.
I more or less tolerated the Da Vinci Code, but I couldn’t read another Dan Brown after that. They all felt very samey.
Yet I will happily read science fiction and fantasy novels that make my wife’s toes curl.
The answer, I think, is that most books aren’t really about writing. That might sound like sacrilege to those of us who writes books, but stop and think about it for a moment.
I believe that most successful books give us something that goes way beyond the writing. Fifty Shades of Grey gave its readers – mostly women – permission to be open about sexuality. It’s okay to read erotica. Really it is. Particularly when you can read it on a kindle so the people around you don’t need to see the cover.
There are many things I disliked about the “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo”. The opening is dull. The baddie dies disappointingly off screen. The writing plods. The main (male) character is all about author wish-fulfilment as every woman in the book finds him amazingly sexy. Although the book is dressed up as a morality tale, I find it to be borderline exploitative.
But none of that matters to the book’s fans. They almost all seem to like the character of Lisbeth. A feisty, streetwise girl with the eponymous skin art who takes revenge in response to being raped. It is almost as if we forgive the turgid prose because the character of Lisbeth gives us a permission to be strong. We don’t have to be victims.
Harry Potter works on several levels:
- There is a strong theme of friendship and right versus wrong
- Parents like it because it is a relatively mild and safe fantasy
- Kids like it because it gives them permission (that word again!) to have adventures without their parents spoiling the fun.
- The series of books grow up with the reader as Harry and his friends go through school.
The Da Vinci Code gives us the same recipe that Dan Brown uses in all his books. A conspiracy, foreign travel, bad guys, puzzles, sex, action. This works for many people because they want to believe that conspiracies are real. In a complicated and confusing world, the Da Vinci Code says that we could solve it all if only we could unravel the puzzles.
The most successful fiction works by giving us permission to do something or be something. It almost doesn’t matter if the writing is poor. We forgive the writers for their flaky prose if the overall message of the books is something that we want or need to hear.
That nearly gets us there, but I think there is something else. I think the way that people read is changing. I have no science to back it up, but I think we are reading faster than ever before. We expect our books to give us a hit of instant information, almost as if we are experiencing a movie. We want to feel as if we are inside the story. That means that we read the words at a gallop. They are simply a way to get ourselves into the action.
If I think about a book like Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code, I can’t remember a single memorable quote. What I remember from those books is what happened. I remember scenes, characters, plots. I don’t remember the words.
But that’s okay. I don’t need the words for books like those. We experience them like a piece of cinema. Plot is more important than words. We put ourselves into the story and forget about the words.
If we think about a more wordy book, I can remember quotes.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat; it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”
“Call me Ishmael.”
“O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name.
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.”
Vincent: And you know what they call a… a… a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with cheese?
Vincent: No man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the **** a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules: Then what do they call it?
Vincent: They call it a Royale with cheese.
Jules: A Royale with cheese. What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent: Well, a Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it le Big-Mac.
Jules: Le Big-Mac. Ha ha ha ha. What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent: I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King.
But there are some other books – sometimes damned good books – where I can’t remember a single quote. It doesn’t matter because those books don’t operate at the level of individual quotes. I am a great fan of Iain Banks. I can’t remember a single one of his sentences, but I love his plots and characters.
Being an authorly type, I tend to hang around writing websites. I have noticed a really weird thing. Writers are obsessed with words far more than they are interested in character or plot. They will witter on endlessly about adjectives and adverbs, commas and apostrophes. But they will hardly give a second thought to what actually happens in a book.
Let’s have a fr’instance. What is Doctor Watson’s job in the Sherlock Holmes stories?
You might think that he is Sherlock Holmes’ friend. He is a retired army doctor. He brings his army revolver in his pocket for when the situation looks dangerous.
Yes, yes, yes, all of that. But what is his job in the stories? Why didn’t Conan Doyle tell the stories from the perspective of Sherlock Holmes?
Dr Watson is there to ask the idiot questions that we the audience need to ask. Sherlock Holmes has a brain the size of a small planet so he will experience the action at a much brainier level than we can manage. We need Watson to ask questions on our behalf. “But, Holmes, what was so important about the dog that didn’t bark in the night?”
The reader probably doesn’t realise it, but part of the reason that the Sherlock Holmes stories work is because the character of Watson brings the reader into the story. It just so happens that the writing is pretty good too, but frankly that’s just a bonus.
It’s the same with Harry Potter. Harry stands in for the reader. He is initially an outsider in the magical community, which gives JK Rowling a seamless way to deliver lots of exposition. Everybody has to explain things to Harry, which means they are also explaining things to us. That would not have been possible if Harry had known that he was a wizard from a very early age.
Harry Potter is also the comic-book trope of the nerdy and unloved character who finds out that he is special after all because he has hidden powers. And which young child hasn’t wanted to be more special, more powerful and more loved?
These “love them or hate them” books work for some people because they draw the reader into the story so well that the action transcends the words. Plot and character over-rides the quality of the writing.
But maybe that leads us to a strange conclusion. Maybe the “bad” writing isn’t so bad after all?