Reading Obsessions

37788084343093605_97fQ9uva_fWell, it’s good to be back.

First and foremost, thank you all for your good wishes and for you kind comments to The Bears.  They would like you to know that CAKE has been postponed to Saturday, which is also a special day in our household, and that there is a fair chance that there might be some on Sunday as well.  We would invite you all round but I’m not sure that their good nature extends to the sharing of cake!

In fact, they have been extra specially kind and loving Bears over this past weekend because my goddaughter, who has grown up telling them all her secrets and bringing them all her sorrows to be mended, found out on Saturday that one of her closest friends had been killed in the Malaysian Airways crash.  As you can imagine she has been distraught, the more so because it is the first time that one of her contemporaries has died and I’m sure we can all remember what it was like when we first had our own mortality thrust into our consciousness.  In the face of such senseless destruction there is little of any use that you can say.  Perhaps that is why The Bears have been such a comfort; they do know when to keep quiet and just be available to be hugged.

Thank you as well, for your suggestions as to what I might read while I was laid low. A number of you mentioned audio books but as I was having problems concentrating they didn’t work because it is so difficult to go back over anything you may have missed while your mind has been wandering or you’ve dropped off to sleep for a couple of vital pages.  In the end, knowing that a new trilogy was just about to begin, I picked up the last two volumes of Robin Hobb’s The Tawny Man sequence so that when Fool’s Assassin became available I would able to read straight on.  In doing so I realised just how long it is since I read any adult fantasy and yet at one time it was my major source of relaxing reading.  I know I was still reading it when my younger goddaughter (who has just left primary school – where did those years go?) was born because her mother borrowed and read the entire Katharine Kerr series while she was pregnant, but somewhere in between it has been replaced by crime fiction, in particular, the police procedural.

This brought to mind a piece by John Sutherland that I was reading last week in which he discusses the phenomenon of genre fiction.

Readerships and bookshops have always played a decisive role in the emergence and mutations of a genre.  Readers tend to be genre-loyal (‘addicted’ might be a better word) – and voracious.  It is estimated, for example, that sf fans, who tend to be young, male and college educated, will consume up to a dozen titles a month – burning up the new book shelves.

It was the word addicted that resonated with me because I think that was true of my own behaviour in my fantasy reading days and might equally be applied to my consumption of crime fiction now.  I like the term because it implies that there is something unhealthy about the mono-diet that such reading habits suggest and I know that when I have really over indulged my brain begins to feel fugged and I have to force myself to read something different to (and I am aware of the irony) awaken the little grey cells again.

Perhaps Sutherland lights on the reason for this when he writes about women’s popular romance.

It is the peculiarity of women’s popular romance that it likes a high degree of plot repetition between novels – with only small variations.  The imprint websites nowadays have rules to be followed as regards narrative formulae. Nurse Smith finds true love with Dr Brown, Nurse Brown finds true love with Dr Smith. My grandmother, who was addicted to ‘romances’ borrowed, or sometimes nicked, from her twopenny library, would put a cross … on the flyleafs of the novels she had read, to spare herself the waste of reading them again.

His grandmother was not alone.  You can certainly find a wide range of such identifying marks on the inside back covers of the Mills and Boon publications in any of my local libraries.  But it is that fact of repetition that I find really interesting. As a teacher I knew that for many children it was the repetitive nature of Enid Blyton’s plots that kept them coming back for more.  And, where some of them were concerned, I encouraged that.  If they were still in the process of becoming a confident, independent reader then having their expectations met meant that they were likely to feel that reading was something they could succeed at and consequently an activity to which they would return.  It was also my job, however, to recognise the moment when that support was becoming the crutch of addiction and gradually begin to feed them other material, weening them away from the repetitive grooves that they might otherwise never be able to get out of.

For ultimately, addiction is bad for us.  It prevents us from thinking for ourselves.  I was talking to a student the other day who had taken a year out between her Masters and Doctoral studies and who was bemoaning the fact that in that twelve months she had read nothing but crime fiction and now was finding the discipline needed to read anything that demanded she react to it as an individual piece of work rather than as an example of a known pattern very hard to re-establish.  And, I know what she means.  If it wasn’t for the fact that I have to read other people’s selections for the book groups to which I belong I think I could very easily fall into that same trap. There is nothing wrong with a good dose of genre fiction every now and again, but when it becomes the sole item on the reading menu then the spectre of addiction rears its head and, I think, needs seeing to before it becomes a habit you can’t break.


36 thoughts on “Reading Obsessions

  1. Thank you, Alex….Wonderful, insightful and at the same time abrupt with the reality of this life. My heart goes out to your Daughter. My nephew was in the playground of a school, on the hill above the Pentegon on 9/11, when the jet passed over so low the force felled his teacher to a stone wall and Corey watched him pass before his eyes. He still has nightmares. Hopefully your daughter will prevail.

    1. And there will be so many others because each one of the passengers on that plane will have left a circle of friends and acquaintances behind them. We have to trust that ultimately the memories of the people they have lost will ameliorate to some extent the pain of their no longer being there.

  2. Hi, Alex! So good to know that you are back on your feet. My sincerest condolences to your goddaughter. You’re right, there’s really nothing one can say profitably sometimes. As to what one reads, I find that I simply have to be glad that some people read at all, regardless of what they read, because they and I widely diverge on what a “good read” is. I was born, I suppose, and certainly brought up by my best teachers as an English major, and an English major I have remained all my life, though my literary interests have broadened to include many good novels and stories and poems from other countries in responsible translations. But some readers I know do as you mention and feed addictions permanently. It can have some funny side-effects, just as addictions do. I know romance readers who have never managed to be content with their mates because they’re convinced that they were meant to be swept off their feet by an astounding spouse, and apparently the spouse they wound up with didn’t fill the bill. I know mystery fans who only read mysteries, and who are looking behind every bush and into every casual conversation for conspiracies. And I know at least one science fiction fan who is taken in by every cockeyed claim pseudo-science makes on the internet. This is not to say that they shouldn’t read what they do, but I agree with your plan of at least occasionally reading something to sweep away the mental cobwebs, something challenging and intellectual. They could do with that. In my life, I’ve read many books in all those categories, but lately, realizing that my life is getting shorter and is not infinite, I’ve tried to steer myself more responsibly and read mainly books which will stand the test of time (and some do in fact fall into those categories, at least in part, of romance–think of Jane Austen–mystery–think of Dorothy Sayers, who was also a medievalist–and sci-fi–think of China Mieville). I’ve come to believe, after all, that as long as people are reading something, they are at least tangentially related to me and my interests, and perhaps that’s the best we can hope for, in a various and contentious world.

    1. SO, I do hear what you’re saying and I certainly agree that reading at all is better than reading nothing. I think (in truth) this was really a plea to myself to stop taking the lazy way out and read with a bit more discrimination. I’m not satisfied with how I’m spending my reading time at the moment and feel in need of a good shake up. If I could afford to go off and do another degree in some sort of literature I haven’t yet studied I would give it serious consideration.

  3. Good to hear you’re feeling better!

    Yes, from having been an eclectic reader in youth, I went to reading very little but crime for years, and not even particularly widely within that genre. It was at the point where I was busiest with career and life, which is my excuse – or possibly even reason. But over the last 5 years or so, I’ve been forcing myself to read eclectically again and am enjoying my reading much more as a result. It’s too easy to get stuck in a groove and, however enjoyable initially, the same diet will tend to pall after a while…

    1. I need the same sort of forcing at the moment FF. My reading groups help but I know that I am still giving too much time to reading that asks nothing of me.

  4. Pleased to hear you’ve recovered, Alex, but very sorry to hear your goddaughter’s news. It must be particularly difficult to face the seemingly endless media coverage. As for genre addiction, I can verify that anecdotally from my bookselling days when the same customers regularly fuelled their particular obsession with copious numbers of purchases. My own addiction isn’t genre specific although I bought my first crime novel yesterday – Fred Vargas – on the recommendation of a friend. What have I let myself in for….

    1. The media aspect has been almost the worst part of it, Susan. She first realised he had been involved when she saw his picture on the front of one of Saturday’s papers. Not the way you would want to discover such news.

      I suspect we are all addicted to books per se or we wouldn’t be blogging as we are. I don’t have a problem with that aspect of my addiction, it’s when I can feel that I am being less than selective in what I’m picking up that I become concerned. I’ve read one of Vargas’s novels and did enjoy it but I wouldn’t see it as typical of the type of crime fiction that leads to addiction, so I think you’re safe.

  5. Only once did I get embroiled in genre reading and that was in early adolescence when I couldn’t get enough of Dennis Wheatley’s occult books. It’s a million miles away from what I read now. Maybe I just got it out of my system. The familiarity factor is an important one for those readers of romance fiction, they don’t want to feel uncomfortable because they don’t know where the book is going. It’s a safety net for when their lives are not going in the direction they want so they look to the book to give them the assurance all is right with the world.

    1. I’m sure you’re right, Karen, about the importance of familiarity. And, for people who are using reading as a way of escaping from a life that they find difficult then I certainly wouldn’t want to deny them that comfort. I suppose it is really necessary to remember that reading can mean something different for each of us and never be prepared to judge what another chooses to pick up.

  6. So sorry about your goddaughter’s friend, but glad you’re on your feet again.
    I can understand the whole book addiction thing. I read only SF and fantasy for years from pre-university into my working life. It was the circle I moved in and access to specialist bookshops that kept it so tight though I think for I reverted to non-genre reading when I didn’t have access to it. I did keep up with all the Star Trek novels into the 1990s though *blushes* (although some of them are by very respected SF authors).

    1. Yes, I too had my fantasy/sci-fi addiction period when I was younger, and even had a real “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation” thing when I was in graduate school (that’s something to blush about!). All I had to see was Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s bald pate shining, and hear his authoritative deep voice saying “Make it so!” and I was ready to outdo Gates McFadden (Dr. Beverly Crusher–what a name!) in my hero worship. He gave me weak knees, just as the less accessible Mr. Spock had in the earlier series, and when I ran across the novels made from the series about Star Trek characters, it didn’t matter that I couldn’t see them, I could see them in the mind’s eye, and that was enough! I was off and running to the nearest bookstore!

      1. Ah well, who hasn’t fallen for Pat Stewart’s bald pate, SO. This is the point where I make you green with envy and say that I have been watching him on stage since long before he made the transition into the twenty-third century and always knew that he was one of the very great character actors. In fact, I must have first seen him when he was in his middle twenties and I have to report that said shiny pate was every bit as bald then as it is now!

        1. Yes, I’ve read that he was long an actor with the Old Vic. I’ve also seen him in his younger days with various hair pieces in various roles for younger actors–but no, if he had real hair too, he would be TOO perfect! I did manage to catch him in a modern-setting made-for-tv movie of “Macbeth” a few years ago, in which he played the title role, and I can’t adjust to the fact that the way most Americans are content to know him is an an “X-man.” He’s good in that, sure, but I’d love to see him reprise some of his early Shakespeare roles, or those from any other standard serious dramatist.

    2. I think you make an important point here, Annabel, in as much as a lot of genre authors are very good writers indeed and it wasn’t my intention to suggest otherwise. The trouble is that there is a lot of dross out there and you can find yourself reading it just because you are hooked on the format. I’ve never tried any of the Star Trek novels but I am a confirmed Trekkie and have been every since the very first episodes.

  7. Such a thoughtful piece, much appreciated and giving me insight into comments from friends and acquaintances that have bemused me over the years. Praise for a very bright god daughter who’d ‘read all Enid Blyton’ as if this was a good thing, ‘Oh I’m a reader, I get completely lost in a good book; etc
    And myself, during prolonged illness I began reading detective novels with the exact intention of distracting myself from pain and misery. And when I can read it’s very helpful.
    Incidentally I’ve been pleased to find some very good writing..

    Sad stories here – a neighbour has connections to 3 of the Malaysian airlines’ victims.

    1. There will be so many sad stories connected with this incident, Carol. And the tragedy begin that it was so needless.

      I understand about the reading for distraction, which I think is an entirely different animal to the one I was describing. It is one of the marvels of the well stood story that it has the ability to take us away from our own lives and for a short while, at least, provide us with some relief. I hope you were writing about something that is now in your past, but if not then know that my thoughts are with you.

  8. I’m glad you’re back and better. What a terrible thing for your goddaughter, and for all who have been affected by this catastrophe. The surreal complications around the recovery and investigation efforts can hardly help.

    What you say about genre fiction and repetition is so interesting. It reminded me of what P. D. James has said about the predictable structure of detective fiction being very freeing for the writer: the strong pattern makes some key decisions so that you can focus on other things (in her case, character, setting, and also moral problems) without needing to invent a whole new plot to sustain them. I think you’re right about the way genre fiction habituates the reading mind, but the best of any genre doesn’t feel familiar, I think.

    1. Rohan, I hadn’t thought about it from the writer’s point of view which is stupid of me because it was a technique that I used to use to get my ten and eleven year olds writing. And yes, I completely agree about the best of any genre and I certainly wouldn’t want to suggest that there isn’t excellent writing to be found in say crime or fantasy novels. In fact, an author who finds a way of reshaping an established mild without entirely breaking it is doing something that would really excite me.

      1. Yes, I really like Rohan’s quote from P. D. James about using formulaic plots so that one can develop character, setting, and moral considerations. I know at least that those three things are James’s strengths, and her mystery novels are really quite good as literature per se, too. She was a justice, I think, wasn’t she?

  9. Very glad you are well again. I have been addicted to crime fiction for years, but lately am finding a good deal of it is not at all to my taste. Still, it remains the only genre I really like, so I’m not giving it up.

    1. Sorry about your goddaughter’s loss.
      I remember that my sister submitted a manuscript to Mills and Boon – it was rejected probably because it was a bit too downbeat! I don’t know if one should be too concerned about addiction to genre literature, perhaps a genre meets important psychological needs. I read a lot of crime fiction but turn away from it when I have overstuffed. Tend to read it when I am a bit stressed because it is so plot driven and, too often , formulaic.

      1. She was probably being far too original, Ian. Heaven fore-fend that she should have wanted them to publish something original! And, you have pinpointed precisely what I am concerned about in my own reading – that feeling of being overstuffed. What a wonderful way of describing it.

    2. I think that is part of my concern, Harriet, that we can become so addicted to a genre that we go on reading it even when the books that are appearing either do not satisfy us or are poorly written. There is still enough out there, however, that is new and well written to keep us both interested and I don’t think either of us is really hidebound by one particular genre:-)

  10. Glad you are feeling better again. My condolences to your goddaughter. It is hard enough to lose a friend and even harder when it is because of something so senseless.

    I enjoyed your thoughts on genre fiction. I don’t read crime novels because they tend to be so repetitive to me. My mom on the other hand reads nothing but. I love SF and fantasy but these days find myself being very choosey because of the sameness that has crept in. It seems like it is something that series books fall into more easily and more and more books these days are part of a series which drives me nuts. If the series is really well done and each book manages to go in unexpected directions then I am ok with it and will invest my time (Game of Thrones), but otherwise, no thanks, I prefer stand alone books. Even those I parcel out and don’t read one after the other or I get bored and that tendency to get bored has saved me from becoming addicted to a genre though it hasn’t saved me from being addicted to books and reading in general!

    1. It is that feeling of sameness, isn’t it? I think that for some readers it can be very reassuring but for me it is starts to make me feel stale and I know then that I should break away and read something different. I think you touch on an interesting point when you mention series fiction, though. It is much easier to break away if you have read a singleton. When you are in the middle of a series the addiction has a far greater chance of surviving because you are hooked to discover what is going to happen next.

  11. I think of genre fiction as a sort of “home” in the world of books. So much of my early reading was fantasy and science fiction that when I come back to it, there’s a feeling of having come through the door (particularly the last sentence in LOTR).

    1. I wonder if that is a particular feature of fantasy literature, Jeanne? So much of it is about someone either trying to find their home or protect it and inevitably that rings true to many of its readers.

  12. I am so very sorry to hear about your goddaughter’s loss. Such an enormous and incomprehensible tragedy – I don’t know how the mourners will go about making sense of it. That’s the link I see between the bad news at the start of your post and the addiction you go on to talk about. The repetitive nature of genre is really about the assurance that sense will be made. The bad guy will be singled out and arrested, the couple will overcome their obstacles and find love with one another, the fantasy kingdom will be assured continuation. When life can be so meanly poor in meaning, there’s great comfort and reassurance to be found in genre narratives. I think when we begin to notice the sameness, we’re feeling a little healed and ready for challenges again.

    1. Now that is a really interesting point, Litlove, and definitely one I will want to give more thought to. It is certainly the case with children learning to read that it is the reassurance of success that the repetitive narrative bring with it that is what matters.

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