Thursday, April 17, 2008

Reading is bad!

We like think we understand our readers. We believe we know what readers really want. That’s why we believe we’re the experts in story-telling. And why shouldn’t we? We write wonderfully inventive stories that explore every street, every sewer even, of human experience.
Of late, though, the post-modern novel, elliptical, issues-driven, appears to have has fallen foul of readers. There is one view that this all started with 9-11. The market for fiction dried up as the Twin Towers fell.
That’s not really the case. Fiction is still selling. It’s just that readers aren’t looking for any reality in their fiction. They are looking for escape. Fair enough, given the War on Terror, and Darfur, and tsunamis.
But wasn’t it ever so? Don’t we read because we want to escape?
I suffered severe asthma for the first ten years of my life. When I was five and six my grandmother read me Rudyard Kipling’s Just so stories. I learned how the elephant got its trunk. It was all nonsense. I knew that. But it was an escape from the rattle in my chest and the effort required to breathe.
Later, when I could read myself, I’d go to the local library and borrow writers such Ivan Southall, Colin Thiele and Rosemary Sutcliffe. On a cold winter’s day I could sit beside a fire and travel wherever they took me, my wheezing lungs forgotten.
But I also went to the movies. The Saturday matinee was one of the highlights of my week. Later, when my family finally bought a television, I learned how to follow different stories. Superman and My Favourite Martian were perfect relaxation after a day’s school.
For me, neither films nor television dominated. In my home, reading was encouraged, even rewarded. My parents read books, talked about what they read and put no limits on me or my siblings with regard to what we could read. We were never told a book was too old for us. So my siblings and I all grew up enjoying reading and accepting it as a pleasurable activity. We looked for new stories, new writers, and shared our discoveries with each other. I avidly read my way through my sister’s Georgette Heyer collection as well as my father’s library copies of Jon Cleary and Morris West and my mother’s Ngaio Marsh paperbacks. I never had a problem finding a book to read. It was more “which one now”?
Today, we face a reading problem. Many children do not grow up with the exposure to books I had. As a result, educational authorities in Australia have identified a problem in schools. Reading rates remain high for the first couple of years, then drop off alarmingly. This is particularly so for boys. By Year 9, boys are refusing to read books. A similar pattern has been identified in the United States where a recent study, the “Kids and Family Reading Report”, funded by publisher Scholastic, has been reported recently in Publishers Weekly. This study reveals that, while children like to read books, they read significantly less after the age of eight. While 44% of children aged 5 to 8 years of age were high frequency readers (that is, they read a book every day) the proportion fell to only 16% for children aged 15 to 17. Further reports from the National Endowment for the Arts spport this evidence.
The study found one reason for the drop-off was the poor role models parents set as readers. Only 21% of parents were frequent readers themselves. There was no passive encouragement of reading.
But the study also uncovered the fact that the major reason children don’t read more is because they can’t find books they like to read. While the study said parents should be doing more to recommend books to their children, I had another view. Don’t recommend books. Tell children books are bad! Read a book and you’ll go blind! Make books evil. That’s a sure-fire way to sex them up and start children reading. Of course, some good stories would be useful as well. But it’s the sexiness of the activity that’s more important. That draws attention
Think about movies. Movies seem huge. Movies make money. But remember that the total Australian box office revenue for movie is 50% less than the total sales revenue for books -- and Australian movies are much, much less successful in revnue terms than Australian books! Yet movies continue to have a sexiness that the average author can only dream about.
V for Vendetta and X men are action movies with some spectacular special effects but they are pretty simple stories when subjected to any critical analysis. Does this mean they are bad? Not at all. Simply, to non-reading children they are sexier than books. They are bad! Parents disapprove of the violence and hints of sexuality.
No more shocking than a glimpse of stocking, movies like these ooze adolescent hormones and teenage rebellion in a way I see only manga comics doing in print form and. Nevertheless, mangas are the one thing teenage boys do read. Why? Because they are bad!
I’m not saying we should all be writing mangas. I am saying we should be looking at how we can “sex up” reading so that non-reading children will reach for a book as easily as they do a movie or a DVD. For this missing audience, we need to be giving reading a bad reputation.
I think many of us writing for those missing readerships know that. The people who don’t know are publishers. But what would they know? After all, if publishers really knew how to publish for readers why did J.K. Rowling fail in her first dozen approaches to publishers? The truth is no publisher recognised readers were crying out for a child Wizard. Nor did they know readers wanted a book that offered a curious and spurious take on Christianity in the form of the Da Vinci Code.
Both Harry Potter and Dan Brown were sleepers, books that caught their publishers by surprise. It was readers who took them up because they were good, competent stories and good escapist fun. Readers enjoyed them. They were plot-driven narratives, page turners, real stories. Readers spread their strengths by word of mouth. Readers sexed them up. Readers made them bad.
In 2005 at the ASA’s forum on Indigenous literacy Wendy Cowey spoke of her work with the Accelerated Literacy Program from Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory. This program seeks to engage reluctant readers in remote communities and develop their reading skills. Wendy spoke of how she and her fellow researchers first thought their reluctant readers didn’t read because of a paucity of culturally specific material. But this was not the case. It was exposure to reading material that was important. Good stories were even more important. Wendy spoke delightedly about one young girl who had successfully moved from almost zero literacy to a level commensurate with her eleven years of age. The girl had read a whole book by herself. The girl wanted to buy a copy so she could have it with her for the rest of her life, it was such a good story. For her, it was the best.
The book was The lion, the witch and the wardrobe, a story about as far away from the girl’s remote Northern Territory community as you can get. Reading it allowed the girl to escape to a land of the Lion for a while. Now that’s bad!

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