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How Can We Make Literature Less Intimidating?

A photograph of a copy of Jane Eyre with a lock and chain around it

When I sat down to brainstorm this idea, I found answering the question hard, until I decided to reverse it. Thinking about how could we make literature more intimidating immediately brought to mind that to do so would mean having to keep doing what we’re (general) doing, stick to the status quo rather than continue down the paths a few people and publishes have started to take. Which then answers the first question.

To look on the idea of making it less intimidating, one of those paths that have been created is Quick Reads, the handful of short, easy reads, that are published each year, written by well-known writers. I’ve only read one, but it was enough to see the idea fully in action; I would presume the thought is that after some of these books a person might try something longer and more complex. Might – they don’t have to of course. (A note: Quick Reads is just as much about time constraints as it is making literature less intimidating, I believe.)

The ‘problem’ with the idea of less intimidating literature is that you have to look at specifics rather than the broad picture or it becomes controversial, for example, if ‘literature’ means classics and literary fiction, the argument would be that they ought not be ‘dumbed down’ in any way (and indeed to do so would mean current readers may not like them). But if applied broadly, then we can consider all the genres, which includes fantasy, science fiction, and crime, which often seem the most intriguing and most likely to be read by non-readers. With fantasy there’s less you need to know, in terms of facts, going in because it’s all to do with making things up.

A different point is the importance of letting people read what they want to read and come to their own conclusions. School English lessons, when part of the mandatory curriculum don’t often help with this and if it puts people off that’s a problem. It’s important that someone is allowed to interpret a book through their own experience, no matter how much, or little, or relevant or not, it might seem to others.

I think we do a good job with covers – lots of variety, though obviously trends stay in place for each genre – and in having books that relate to the audience that the shop serves; there are a few specific genres in supermarkets here. You rarely find literary fiction in them but the ‘easier’ books that are stocked must have an audience they wouldn’t be on the shelves. (I know there’s dislike for supermarkets and knocked-down prices, but it’s surely a very good place for fiction if you want to reach those who wouldn’t normally go to a bookshop, whether due to intimidation or price, and it’s easy to find yourself in the aisle whilst looking for something else.)

I do think a lot of it comes down to support and accessibility – accessibility of conversation and a good welcome to it – more than the books themselves. If you feel included in the conversation and able to ask questions and make mistakes, then you’re surely going to be more interested in the idea of picking up something that might be challenging.

How do you think literature could be made less intimidating, and do you have any stories of converting daunted non-readers?

 
 

Kelly

September 17, 2018, 8:56 pm

I have trouble comprehending the idea of a non-reader!

I understand that literature courses must have certain assigned titles for class discussions, but I always liked the idea of a varied reading list from which one could make their own choices. Not everyone likes the same genre.

I’m rarely intimidated by a book, but belonging to a book club has certainly made me step outside my comfort zone and read (and enjoy) books I might never have picked up otherwise.

Jeanne

September 17, 2018, 9:36 pm

One thing I used to do in literature courses was to encourage students to read an assigned poem “in a circle,” beginning again when they got to the end, until they found something they understood a little or had felt before. This works best with short lyric poems and has to be followed by class discussion, starting with the lines or words they found.

Jenny @ Reading the End

September 18, 2018, 1:16 am

I definitely agree that one piece of the puzzle has to be letting people like what they like. Right now there’s SUCH a hierarchy of what books are good and literary and what ones are, like, shameful guilty pleasures. And I think it makes it hard for people to even approach the higher-brow stuff, because they’ve been told that there are boundaries that delineate what “counts” or doesn’t.

Andrew Blackman

September 19, 2018, 1:14 pm

You make some good points here, Charlie. I think the way English literature is taught at school is very important. Personally, I always found it very restrictive, as if there was some single “correct” interpretation of each book that we had to find in order to get a good mark. Encouraging young readers to give their own interpretations and trust their own reactions is important, I think. To your point about feeling included in the conversation, I think more diversity is important too, both in the people writing the books and in those commissioning and editing them, as well as in the content. I mean all kinds of diversity—regional, class, race/ethnicity, age, etc.

Charlie

September 20, 2018, 1:28 pm

Kelly: A choice for literature courses is a good one. I suppose the problem would be if not enough people chose the same, assuming the course includes lessons or tutor groups. A book club is a great way to help. I’ve only been to one, and only once, but it was very open and everyone could say what they think. It’d just be the issue of getting people interested in joining a hobby-sort group!

Jeanne: That sounds fab, especially with the point of understanding something or empathising, more variety there. The class discussion, too.

Jenny: There is, and even we readers go on about guilty pleasures to those who understand them! Yes, less ‘counting’ would be good – more prizes for genre fiction or, rather, more publicity of them, would help. The Man Booker, Women’s Prize et al are great, but those are the ones most publicised and they’re specific.

Andrew: I had a pretty good secondary school teacher in that we could ask ‘how’ people knew such and such about a book, and she’d admit we don’t truly know, and also was quite casual at times (I remember her fondly but parents and the school weren’t so happy!) so that helped, but beyond that, when following the text books and guidelines, it was quite like your own experience.

Diversity itself is important in widening the conversation, I agree. I’d love to see more authors like Kit de Waal and her books; I know there are people out there trying to broaden working class narratives, but it seems contained still. We need more diverse gatekeepers!

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