Motives for Reading

Kathy Sierra on creating a (nonfiction) bestseller .

The main problem is this: the more focused you are on demonstrating how smart YOU are, the less likely you are to help the READER feel/become smart. And that’s a formula for hurting sales. The more you make the book about how much you know, the less you have something the reader can benefit from. We write our books from virtually the opposite perspective–we don’t care what they think about us. All we care about is that they have an “I Rule!” experience, and that can come only from them truly learning and understanding in a meaningful, efficient, and enjoyable way. We care about their life, more than we care about anything else. And that is the formula.

The downside (if you care about it) is that approaching books this way won’t do as much for your reputation. On any given day, we usually have five of the top ten bestselling Java books. On many days, we have the top five bestselling Java books. Yet, virtually nobody in the Java world thinks of us as The Java Experts. No, they think of us as the people who’ve written the books that have helped me learn this well, and actually made it easier and even enjoyable… ” They don’t think of us as the experts. But they thank us for helping THEM become experts. And that’s the rest of the formula.

Because when they start talking, and they will, they’ll tell their friends, co-workers, and everyone else they talk to online that they know more because of your book. And that carries a lot more weight than telling their friends that you, the author, sure know your stuff.

Average Joe Responds.

These are all good thoughts, and it’s worth wondering a bit how they translate into the literary publishing world. Some literary works offer a glimpse into a gifted writer’s brain, but does the reader really want that? People read erotica/sci fi/romance to extend their dreams. Or they read a Harry Potter book to find out what the big fuss is about or how the book will finally end. Or they read a biography to learn about what kind of lives notable people led (and how their decisions led them to greatness…or notoriety).

Novels need to promise something. A compelling character, a wacky situation, a terrible crime. One problem with short story collections is that you can’t summarize them. No wonder nobody goes out of their way to read them! Sometimes people read just to lose themselves, maybe to put themselves in a different way of living (that’s the case for my latest book, Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale).

People argue about style and realism and technique. But really, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s about two things: is it easy to read or get into? And is it interesting? Yes, that is a simplification. Funny, that would seem to be an argument against longer works. But in fact, longer works can enclose you in a self-contained world, unlike a novel by Kafka or a short story collection by Chekhov. Read any novel by Dosteovsky or Hesse or Dickens. These are not masterpieces of art, but they are compelling stories. Each novel has different tones mixed together in the same story , switches to different characters and perspectives, plot surprises. While reading Arnold Bennett, I just couldn’t believe what was happening. It was appalling and tragic, not in a melodramatic way, but in a gosh-isn’t-life-like-that way.

If you work at bookstores, you sometimes find a certain breed of people: fans (of the Misery-esque kind of fan). Obsessive, irrational, dedicated, lavish with their money and eager to devour easy stories. It’s easy to have a certain contempt for these people (especially when you can’t get your own works published). Surely, the Del Rey classic or the Harlequin romance isn’t worth getting excited about.

But that’s what literature is: generating excitement or curiosity. Not in a PR/marketing kind of way (that would be too crass!), but in a Gosh Nobody Has Ever Done That! kind of way. I’ve finished 9 hours of the 10 hours Decalogue film series. Absolutely terrific. The collection has a central motif, anomie, moral confusion and a glimmer of hope (Kieslowski was right in wanting to end on a comic story). Jack Kerouac….wow, ain’t that something! Nick Baker’s Mezannine.…wow, 8 1/2 minutes drawn out into a novel, wow!

All in all, I feel Kundera’s novels did a terrific job of drawing us in with titillation, humor, extremely short chapters and political messages. But then again, Bellow tried a completely opposite tack with his ramblings; longwindedness became the reason for reading him. That’s why we seek out his books. Once we “get” what a writer is about (and if there’s something to “get”), we’ll beg for more. Bruce Sterling; read Swarm, and you’ll say, gosh, no one has written about an insect hive before or about different subspecies of humans before. Or with Stanislaw Lem, no one has written about science fiction with a brooding existential stance before. But once the formula gets established, it all turns into a matter of whether someone’s books meet our expectations.

A writer friend, Joy Castro, forwarded to me a press release of her new book The Truth Book : Excaping a Childhood of Abuse Among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Now Joy is a terrific writer, an English prof, and I’m sure the book will receive a healthy amount of media coverage and commercial successl (even for a literary memoir). But as I look over this book, I think to myself, “this press release could practically write itself.” It’s about how a woman escapes her fanatic parents to make a name for herself. Now I’m sure the book is more than that; she is after all an English professor. It is about youth, growing up the hard way, adversity, religious extremism and parenting. I can only speculate. There are many stories here, many things to grab upon, many insights to be had.

Another example. Tie-Fast Country by a writing teacher of mine Robert Flynn (disclosure: Flynn taught us both at Trinity, albeit in different semesters). Great book. Fun and entertaining. It’s about an old stubborn matriarch who runs a ranch and her nephew’s attempt to get her declared not competent to run the ranch (to make it easier to sell later on). (I’m only midway through). But that’s only one way to look at it. It’s also about a woman growing up on a ranch in a male-dominated profession, as well as a nephew sick of modern oppressions (the mainstream media and suburban anomie). There! We have 4 compelling stories intersecting and overlapping. . Sure, my personal connections to these books may have something to do with my enthusiasm, but this is true for writers I barely know about. Michelle Richmond’s Dream of the Blue Room, for example (sexual adventures & Americans travelling down the Yangtse). Okay, my first impression may be off, but I’m buying it! Mary Anne Mohanraj has a new book out Bodies in Motion; she writes sensual tales, and this one involves intercontinental romance, crosscultural conflicts, traditional vs. modern. Well, that’s good enough for me! Paul West’s Portable People. West is definitely an aquired taste (to put it mildly), but Portable People is a series of one page sketches of famous people. Hey, that would be fun, wouldn’t it?

Critics have many roles, but one role is to identify possible stories lurking within a cover, certain hooks to make the work seem relevant to the modern reader. Often the critic doesn’t succeed. That may be due to the critic’s lack of enthusiasm or simply that the book wasn’t compelling. Contrast that with certain essays we read (like those by Susan Sontag or James Wood or –let’s be contemporary–Scott Esposito), where upon finishing, we think, Why I simply NEED to read this book! Not simply to be well-read or supportive of literature, but because hey, this is relevant to me now.

Let me tell you why Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tale is relevant to you now. (Keep in mind I still have 50 pages to go). It’s about heartbreak and disappointment and enduring through the tedium of life and still managing to attain a certain level of success. It is about two people mending relations, and noting the passing of time, the decline of certain people and places over time without causing despair. More importantly, it is about the dignity that accompanies ordinary lives, those people who are not leading countries or planning a space trip or fighting monsters, but running small shops or becoming parents or suffering from sciatica. Let me tell you: I never would have guessed this sort of novel would seem interesting; where’s the profound philosophizing? the experimental techniques or subversive characters (or hilarious riffs)? Nowhere. And yet, at this point in my life this book about 2 old maid shopkeepers in 19th century England suddenly seems like compelling reading. I literally read the book every single chance I get. Boy, is this book long! Not oppressive at all–not at all! A book doesn’t need to be dramatically interesting to capture the imagination; it merely needs to hint at offering secrets into living that we do not yet possess, some circuitous path to understanding and solace.