Reading the Readers of VanderFiction

Over the years, I’ve begun to see patterns in my readership–or think I have, at least. I’ve set out some gross generalizations below. I’ve thought about this a lot with Finch coming out, because for those who buy into the novel’s plot but are indifferent to the setting, they may be better off first sampling the two other novels I indicate as preferences for Direct Readers.

DIRECT READERS (want structure/trad plot indicators): Trend toward enjoying Veniss Underground, Predator South China Sea, Finch, and any short stories that do not use experimental or meta techniques. Dislike: Shriek: An Afterword (subset of direct readers actively loathe Shriek).

INDIRECT READERS (willing to accept non trad plot indicators): Trend toward enjoying City of Saints, Shriek: An Afterword, along with a selection of short stories depending on factors other than structure/technique. Dislike: Predator South China Sea (sometimes just on principle)

NARROW READERS (not pejorative; those not interested in tonal or genre variety): Trend toward thinking of City of Saints as a mixed bag and enjoy the third part of Veniss Underground the most. These readers will pick through the short stories for the gems they feel exist among the material to which they remain indifferent. Narrow readers tend to defend their turf more proactively, which means they’re more likely to be offended by work that’s not within the corridor of their reading tastes. Dislike: Various, because each has his or her own alley.

WIDE READERS (like and seek out many different modes of writing): Trend toward dismissing Veniss Underground as early work and Secret Life as mixed bag. Most enjoy Shriek and City of Saints, and seem thus far to like Finch. They’ll follow me across genres and structures at the short lengths, but let me know about it when they think an individual piece didn’t reach its full potential. They tend to be split down the middle on the value of my Predator novel. Dislike: Various, because they have so many alleys.

AMBERGRISIANS (like and seek out any permutation of the Ambergris setting): Trend, as core fans, toward enjoying City of Saints, Shriek, and Finch but deviate strongly as to the degree of affection for each. The strength of their affection for Ambergris is what draws the Ambergrisian Narrow Reader or Direct Reader through Shriek despite the novel possibly not fitting in with their core reading pleasures. It’s also what seems to be drawing the Indirect Reader through Finch, despite possible qualms about the lack of metafictional or experimental tropes.

BASTARDS (hate anything I write): Trend toward hating life itself….Just kidding…Seriously, though–there are some readers who just don’t like my work, just as every writer has those who don’t like their work. (Writers who have a problem with this probably also have issues of acceptance in their general lives.) Some of readers keep trying and failing, which is admirable if masochistic–like one woman on Goodreads who keeps being exasperated with everything I’ve ever done…but continues to buy the books. I suppose she likes to be exasperated by her fiction. There are also Indirect, Direct, and Narrow readers who encounter one of my books written in a mode not fitting their bandwidth, and their personality type is not to retry an author in that context. These readers may actually be missing books they’d like. Wide readers, in my experience, rarely discard an author based on one book.

12 comments on “Reading the Readers of VanderFiction

  1. I’d like to combine my replies (sort of). Thanks for the link to the Top 50 list. It kind of started off as a lark then I really ran with it. And while I did include Finch and Veniss I don’t dislike City of Saints and Shriek, not at all. I liked them a lot actually (though I was late to the party on Shriek).

    I’m curious about external forces and how they affect one’s reading habits and what kind of reader they are because one of the things that has happened to me over the last decade was that I had kids. As a result I’ve noticed that I liked shorter books and shorter chapters, particularly when they were babies (they are 7 & 8 now). I also preferred transparent prose and simple sentence structures at that time. It was just easier to read that kind of book when fits and spurts were all I could devote to reading, no longer having the luxury of prolonged reading sessions. As an example that I’ve given before it literally took me almost a year to read Perdido Street Station when it came out, reading just a couple of paragraphs at a time. Talk about crawling through a book! These types of books also allowed me to, for example, read at the park when they were a little older.

    I do think your distinctions are interesting and food for thought and will have to ponder some more.

    I like to think I have different reading skills developed (though some may be a bit rusty) and I also try to be a varied reader so, like I said in the top 50 intro, I really am curious what that list says about me and my reading habits.

    I’m done riffing off of the topic now…

  2. Brian: Yeah, like I say above, those are gross generalizations just to start a conversation. I like your points a lot. There are all kinds of situational, environmental elements that cause us to change as readers at different points in our life.

    I do think that readers who read a lot of different things tend to grow as readers over time. It’s like loading lots of different kinds of software into a computer–that computer can do a lot more things. Some people don’t get that growth through reading, though, they find it elsewhere.

    What I find curious is the fact so many adults are now reading novels about teenagers. It’s probably my personal blind spot, but I don’t like reading about teens. We have to accept that people do grow and change, and that the average teenager hasn’t yet had all of the life experiences–like having kids–that an adult has had. (I also don’t like reading about cowboys, for different reasons.) This isn’t to say that books about teenagers can’t be complex and awesome, but I usually prefer to read about adults, even if they’re acting like kids. If this makes me a a horrible person, so be it. No one ever said we had to like all things equally.

    The one thing we never hear said about readers is: it’s a private act. It’s one of those areas in which you totally get to reflect your own prejudices, for good and bad. You can provide information and context that makes a reader appreciate a book that lies outside of their taste, but they’ll never love that book the way they love what comes naturally to them.

  3. Fascinating breakdown, Jeff.

    One of my research interests is creating more quantitative predictors of aesthetic pleasure. (Almost wrote “ascetic pleasure”, which might be interesting too.) Borrowing from lower-level facets of psychology, like perception, suggests a variety of possible directions, and I’m toying with an information-theoretic formulation. This will hopefully be my thesis work.

    Anyway, with that as precursor, I’d like to suggest that your labels, while functional as indicators of category, are vague in terms of the underlying mechanism, particular wrt causality. In other words: why are ‘wide readers’ wide readers? What is it about them that leads to the behavioral manifestation of ‘reading widely’? One might propose a variety of post-hoc rationales, but I think we can aim higher. I hope so, anyway.

    The reason I post this is because there’s a huge tendency to use ‘wide-reader’ as a kind of superlative, and ‘narrow-reader’ as a pejorative. If there’s one thing that makes me see red it’s the self-congratulatory attitude of people who will not hesitate to tell you what wide readers they are, who implicitly cast their personal reading histories (and yours, by extension) into nothing more than notched bedposts.

    You were careful to steer clear of this attitude, so I’m not arguing with you. Mostly I’m just thinking aloud. Taste is certainly is an interesting question; it would be awesome if there were some kind of “Netflix prize” dataset available for books so that we could really drill down.

  4. Shane–I’m coming at it purely from a writer’s perspective, and it’s mostly about having made peace with the idea that I don’t write in one mode structurally and thus I’m not going to satisfy the same readers from book to book. On the level of theory, or of scientific study, it’s even grosser generalization.

    I’m a firm believer, as stated, that readers love what they love, so if you want to change what they love, then you’d have to look at educational and environmental factors growing up and if a specific change is sought–a kind of frightening thought–it has to occur there to some extent. I could be wrong.

    A narrow careful reader is fine by me–who am I to castigate readers?!–I am in some instances a narrow reader. In general, the only reader I’m wary of is the one who feels the need to trash what they don’t like despite evidence that it’s not the quality of the book but their own tastes that provide the barrier to enjoyment. So in this sense I find wide readers more generous, because they don’t seem as territorial or aggressive about these issues. Again, using gross generalizations. Every single solitary reader is unique. Like snowflakes. Or aardvarks.

    I’d love to hear more of your thoughts–also, when you guest blog, I hope you’ll post on the topic.

  5. Oh–and vague re causality because I can’t presume to know, therefore it’d be irresponsible for me to hazard a guess.

  6. …It’d be to some extent when readers assume they’ve identified something in the text that lets them know me on a personal level.

  7. Michael says:

    I’ve always appreciated/admired the fact that your writing can’t be pigeonholed into just one thing. The fact that you don’t repeat yourself and are willing to experiment with genre and style is what keeps bringing me back to your books. That being said I love the whole Ambergris setting. :)

  8. Hellbound Heart says:

    who am i??????
    what am i???????

    (besides an individual who wilfully omits upper-case letters)

    peace and love…..

  9. Divers Hands says:

    I would like to offer my own – admittedly fairly limited – category for consideration: The Masochistic Schizophrenic Reader. To wit, a reader who reads a number of different texts simultaneously in order to glean an imagined ubernarrative from texts only inter-related by virtue of being read within the same limited time frame. For example: currently I am reading Lethem’s ‘Chronic City’, Crossley-holland’s ‘The Norse Myths’, Morrison’s ‘All Star Superman’, Moorcock’s ‘The Lives and Times of Jerry Cornelius’, and Nabokov’s ‘Bend Sinister’ concurrently. And by concurrently, I mean reading anywhere from a handful of lines to several chapters of each text before abruptly switching to the next volume and resuming where the last change of fancy left off.

    While I cannot claim that it provides any greater insight into… well, anything, it does make my recollections of a novel’s form, characters, plot, etc. far more interesting than my neighbors. Plus: spectacularly weird fodder for the mind’s wanderings.

  10. Larry says:

    What about those readers who happen to like your short fiction as much as your novels, Jeff? I don’t see a category for them, unless I’m misreading something (not surprising, considering the time I’m writing this :P)

  11. Interesting. I suppose I’d consider myself a wide reader, though I admit I’ll often only give a writer one chance. Not that I think they couldn’t write something I’d like (hopefully I’m not that judgmental and unbending), but merely that the To Be Read pile is so huge, and there’s so many favourite writers to read and new ones to discover… it’s hard, sometimes, to build enough energy to retry an author who failed you once (and that’s a subjective not an objective failing, to be clear). I have done it, but there was usually something specific that drew me back – and, also, the problem with the original story was probably with the nature of the story rather than the execution. If I think the execution is poor in a book… it’s very unlikely I’ll retry that author. But if it’s a story element… for example, I remember being greatly annoyed by the second half of McEwan’s Amsterdam. But there was something about the quality of the writing that drew me back to try him again, and I’ve loved all the rest of his books I’ve read. So to retry an author I need some sort of lure… something that intrigued me even though the first story didn’t work (for me) on some level.

    And I’d agree with the idea about the changing subjectivity of the reader. And not just across different stages in a reader’s life, but day to day and hour to hour. I’m kind of moody as a reader. On Tuesday maybe I’m laughing at John Barth’s postmodern trickery… on Thursday maybe I’m bashing it on the radiator. There are times when I want the stories from City of Saints, and times when I want something more direct. I just finished reading I was Dora Suarez and it was great… but there will be times when the grit and violence of that book wouldn’t sit as well.

    Interesting post. Thanks.

  12. I’d say I’m a mixture between Wide Reader and Ambergrisian: while I’d say I prefer your novel-length works to short stories and agree that ‘Secret Lives’ is a mixed bag (held together by a very entertaining central strand that had echoes of ‘The Situation’) I wouldn’t dismiss Veniss on any terms, especially not those as demeaning as “an early work”. It’s a fucking great book, and the first I read by you. The Shadrach / Nicola / Nicholas dynamic still strikes me as very effective, and ultimately very sad, on every new reading. As I’ve often said before, your novels have invested within them a certain level of emotional realism/credibility uncommon within the genre and that book is a very good example of it. Actually I’ve often wondered what would have happened if you took the Veniss world further as you did with the Ambergris cycle. I wouldn’t have missed Veniss Underground for the world.

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