I’ve been having this debate in my head for a week now…
Why do we read things we know do not constitute “good literature”? And not even highbrow and philosophical type of literature. Why do we read things with flat characters, predictable plots, weak storytelling, and poor editing?
I used to finish books regardless of whether I liked them or not because I have a compulsive personality and I felt like books were meant to be finished. I no longer finish books that I do not like. I pick up books that I might like, read them, and if I don’t like it, I put them down. Recently tossed out: It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Bunheads (two completely different books). I loved the movie It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but I found Craig on the page to be hard to understanding. And trust me, he should be a relatively easy character for me to connect to. Bunheads was too predictable for me. It was like Center Stage, but on paper, and while I love ballet and I like reading about characters being pushed to extremes, it wasn’t original enough to draw me in. (That being said, Bunheads gets great reviews on Goodreads and maybe if I could have pushed past the first 20 pages, I would have survived, but I couldn’t. With It’s Kind of a Funny Story, I think that the restrained quietness of the film that played so well into the character’s detachedness and depressed state didn’t read as well as I thought it would. Of course, I am in the minority).
But at the same time, in the last 5 days, I’ve read two books that I did not like at all and one book I was lukewarm about, and I finished all three of them.
So what compelled me to finish those stories?
The first two — Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince — are flat, frustrating, full of beautiful people, and the main character doesn’t feel at all her age. She feels 11 or 12 and she should be 16ish. Sorry, but when I was 16, when a beautiful boy looked at me, I never second-guessed if he may have a crush on me. I assumed and ran with it. Maybe I was just desperate (true) but I think that’s not uncommon. A straight girl who doesn’t know that a boy likes her? Really? Anyways, little about the books worked for me, but I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I finished Clockwork Angel (which I bought 2 years ago on my nook and never read) and in the morning, ordered Clockwork Prince. That says something, doesn’t it?
So why did the books compel me? I’m not sure. I don’t have answers. In Clockwork Prince, I wanted to find out who Tessa chose (and I was sorely disappointed!) between the two boys, but more than that, I wanted one of the boys to catch her with the other boy. Not just find out about it when she tells them, but to catch her. I wanted Tessa to have shame and guilt and remorse, and she was never put in the position to grow. Instead, I finished the book feeling like Will was the only character who showed any growth in the 600+ pages of the two books. The plot was unconvincing and predictable.
I think it’s the same reason why people buy and read Fifty Shades of Grey. You know. The faux-Twilight formerly fanfiction “steamy” erotica making its author millions of dollars despite the fact that even she admits it’s “not great writing”? Yes. That one. I downloaded the sample on my nook as I have no intention of reading the entire thing (sorry, poorly written BDSM erotica isn’t my thing) and I found it to be compelling. I can see why people read it. And it definitely reminded me of Clockwork Angel and Clockwork Prince (whose author, Cassandra Clare, also wrote a lot of fan fiction, including Harry Potter slash fic).
So what about these three books made me want to keep reading despite knowing that I was not reading something I considered good writing?
It’s the fantasy.
Not all readers write. In fact, I suspect a very small minority of readers write. As alarming as this is to some people, not all readers care about character development, cliches, Mary Sues, plot arc, or even grammar and punctuation. They don’t care. They don’t care if the story is well told, as long as there is a story.
Something must carry the reader away. There has to be a fantasy or desire involved. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, of course straight women want to read about beautiful boys. Who cares if there are very few of them in the world and some of us like “realistic heroes”? A boy with silver hair and silver moon eyes *is* alluring because he is what we want and we don’t have. (Keeping in mind I haven’t read the entirety of Fifty Shades of Grey), a story in which we are empowered by our lack of power? A book about sex written for women who may be having increasingly less sex? Sure. Why not. It works.
So while I love reading very good fiction, and I love knowing that I’m reading very well written good fiction, they are not necessarily one and the same. And that’s what happens on the market. Very good fiction sells, whether or not it is well written. It’s about the story. A well told story is even better, but it’s about the story.
Find the story that is compelling. Find the story that you want to read, and write it. That’s what others want. Not everyone wants to be reminded of ordinary people, of girls who are average and stay average, or boys who are average looking. Sometimes, people want to imagine the unimaginable.
And to people who read Twilight, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Immortal Devices series, etc, and were confused why they couldn’t stop turning the pages even though they knew what they read wasn’t well written, it’s alright. We’re human. We dream, and dreams don’t need to be perfect and polished. It’s nice when they are, but even when they aren’t, they’re still dreams, and they’re worth having.