“How can you possibly know what writers think of readers? Every writer is different. It makes no sense to make such a sweeping generalisation”. I agree entirely. However, you can do something very simple. Pop into a local book store (remember those?) and do a survey of the shelves. See what you find. To a first approximation, it paints a picture of what the body of writers thinks of the body of readers. I found it alarming and upsetting.
OK, you’re going to say that this says more about what the bookseller thinks of readers, not what writers think of readers. Hear out my logic: Booksellers put out what will sell. They find it difficult to stock things that don’t. Writers, who after all can write about anything they choose, have to get published and have to get their books to sell. So they write commercially, meaning they choose the subject matter, agenda and point of view that are likely to get their book published and likely to get it sold. That’s how it works.
So what do you find, when you survey a typical local bookstore? I found the following books were high in number: Food, Crime, War, Fiction.
We like to imagine we’re going to make better food, using better ingredients, bought with all the magic money that will appear magically and take better care of ourselves, eating the exotic things that people that live in some better place eat all the time. We think we’ll make the time. No we won’t, but we fool ourselves we will. Most of the recipes in the recipe books we already own will never be made by us. It’s a fact. The writers of these books know it too, but they know our eyes are bigger than our ability to create the sumptuous delights in their books. They know we’re greedy. They know we long for better and to be somewhere else. They think we’re suckers. They feed our delusions.
We also like, it appears, to wallow in the dark side of life – violence, deception, betrayal and destruction. We worship heroes. Writers know that we are fascinated by dark things and so they feed that obsession. It distracts us from worrying about how to make things better and less dark in actual reality. It keeps us in fear. Writers meet this demand. They think we love nothing better than to be scared senseless by a cruel world. They feed our victim addiction.
I always think that fiction is a funny thing. It’s not fiction. It’s the author’s agenda and point of view, sugar coated and disguised in a story, but it’s really just a device for having their say. And what do they say? Mostly, it doesn’t reflect well on who they think we are. Read the subtexts of most fiction and the message, delivered loud and clear from writer to reader, is that we’re not a very useful, valuable or clever lot. The stories that writers write tell us a lot about the readers they believe will read their stories. Some of it is uplifting and humanist, but an awful lot of it isn’t. Read the summaries on the dust jackets. They don’t, in the main, think very highly of humanity.
There will, in most bookshops, be a paltry shelf on popular science, but rather than telling you things you would really like to know, in mathematical precision and depth, these are often opinion pieces too, delivered in “geez whiz” prose, that fail to admit to the things that science doesn’t actually know (yet). That’s not to say that the scientific method is wrong, but that the writers of science books don’t acknowledge that they’ve got a long way to go and that their certainties might just be dogmatic. Sometimes, their zeal blinds us to unsuspected avenues of genuine inquiry. That’s bad science.
What most bookshops do not have is very much actual, factual information. They don’t do a great job of teaching you how to do complex and skilful things. What craftsy stuff there is tends to be superficially described, in coffee table format. If you look for the secrets of making a better world, you’ll go away disappointed. They can’t even tell you how to build good furniture.
In essence, the bookshop is full of distraction. It doesn’t spend much of its shelf space edifying, instructing, or providing solid information. It spends most of its time trying to get you to believe in some heinous world views or to forget about the things that are really wrong with the world, while focusing on things that don’t matter all that much, in the scheme of things. The prevailing atmosphere is that the everyday things of life are just fine, the authorities always knew best and still do and you are, as a person, not to be trusted, loved, valued or even permitted to live at peace. Your insecurities and lack of self confidence is preyed upon, shelf by shelf.
Writers self select these themes, because that’s what they perceive readers will demand, but isn’t that a self perpetuating cycle? If we are constantly told we are, as a people, a particular way, and we have the agenda perpetually set for us by the incessant media and popular culture, isn’t that the only sort of books and writing we’re going to buy? We won’t know that any other subject matter or points of view are even possible.
My favourite writers (and by extension, bookshops) are those iconoclastic authors that challenge fundamental and dearly held beliefs, who open my eyes to alternative possibilities, who provide insight and explanations of once mysterious events that ring true and who provide messages of hope and solutions for one’s condition and plight. They tell of a better world and describe it, in vivid, believable and accessible stories. They eschew the bleak, to provide the possibilities, tools, knowledge and techniques we would need to take humanity to a better place. I love books that teach me to do and understand things. They awaken us and open our minds to thoughts we might not be encouraged to think, by the usual agenda setters. These writers and their books offer lucid, unvarnished, honest truth, clarity, revelation and courage. Writers of this kind of work are true to themselves, not writing what they think we want. I don’t know where the nearest bookshop to me is, that would reliably and consistently sell me those things.
To me, it comes as no surprise at all that bookshops are under threat. I spent an hour looking at the shelves and found precious little I wanted to read, lots that offended my sense of what I think the world and people could be, lots that I knew to be factually wrong, plenty of twisted opinions and many books that insulted my intelligence.
John Lloyd, the producer of the television show QI, said it best on the radio the other day. He said that he approaches his productions with the assumption that the audience knows as much and is at least as intelligent as he is. That’s not a bad place for writers to start. Would that most movie producers would start there too, not to mention the writers of all the books which clutter the shelves of bookstores.
If you are a writer and you want to reach people, I suggest that you forget what sells, forget what gets you published and forget what it takes to get your book onto the shelves of bookstores. All of that is old world and being washed away, as we speak. Instead, seek to write that which most accurately reflects your view of humanity and the world. Have the courage to say what you really think. Do what you can to educate, enlighten, inspire, edify and speak your truth, through fiction or factual works. Give of your best information and try to lift humanity up, rather than sinking it further down. Lift lids, expose, argue passionately, re-evaluate and cut through the lies and the bland, anodyne, supposedly inoffensive, fixed agenda that gets set by the media. Extend the bounds of acceptable debate. Don’t regurgitate public relations releases or advertising copy. Imagine better ways, better worlds and better outcomes. Weigh what is known against what is not, but above all be honest to your readers. They’re counting on you.
I think that’s the stuff that is going to be most in demand, in future. Heaven knows that’s the sort of book I went looking for, when I entered the local bookstore today. Needless to say, I didn’t find any. Maybe I need to write one.