Thursday, 30 May 2013

What can readers bring to the table?

     Harry Wallop, reporting from the UK’s most prestigious literary gathering, wrote in the Telegraph: "Howard Jacobson, the Booker Prize winning novelist, had said that readers are too often ‘not intelligent’ enough to understand books.
     Speaking at the Telegraph Hay Festival, he (Jacobson) said: Sometimes readers are quick to blame the novel that they, the reader, is not enjoying, whereas you have to ask yourself whether the reason that you don’t like the book is that you are just not good enough.
‘You have to be intelligent to like a book. The author has an obligation to please the reader, but the reader has an obligation to be intelligent.’"
     Jacobson was commenting on the humiliation and frustration of being a writer, the focus of his recent and amusing prize winning novel, Zoo Time.
It may sound more than a little smug and self delusional to blame the reader for not connecting with your novel, but for me, what he was really asking is, can writers expect readers to bring something to the table.
     Rather than ‘intelligence’ per se, it’s the difference between active and passive reading. Although we read for different reasons and purposes, passive readers seek instant gratification in the way of the quick sound bite. What they do read they fail to engage intellectually with so the extent of their understanding is limited to the sentence being read, rather than thinking beyond the text. Is that what Jacobson meant? If there’s no explicit language and action, the passive reader becomes bored.
Visitors to Hay Festival, The Guardian
     Active readers engage with the content and see reading as an ongoing process in which they make plentiful connections. They have the patience to wait for the pay-off instead of demanding to be entertained right now! For the passive reader, each book becomes a blind alley whereas the active reader sees an invitation.
     Is it down to intelligence? Maybe, maybe not. But at the very least, writers hope readers will not just sit at the table waiting to be fed. Rather, they will bring a willingness (and ability?) to participate in the feast.

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