March 12, 2002

A Column by Byron McAllister


Reading about what editors like, I noticed that one of them wrote--of any work he is willing to consider--"It must grab me viscerally."

I imagine he was telling the truth, which brought to mind the fact that the stuff I like to read needn't do any such thing. Still, thinking it over, it does appear that the market for viscera-grabbing stuff is large and that the market for material with some degree of subtlety is, well, less large. And even though the two characteristics, viscera-grabbing and subtlety, are not intrinsically mutually exclusive, still when I'm obtaining a book, new, used, or on loan, I have to look at it rather closely to tell whether it's my sort of thing or not.

"What," I sometimes wonder, "has brought about this concentration on viscera-grabbing stuff, and why can't the work with more subtlety keep up in the market place?"

I haven't ever solved this riddle, but that doesn't keep me from having some thoughts on it. If I were as curmudgeonly as I sometimes think it would behoove me to appear, I'd claim that I'd solved it. You may think I think I have, if you like.

First of all, fairly little use of the intellect is involved in being grabbed viscerally. One can do it, for example, by going down a water-slide or swinging fairly high in a playground swing. So the fact that the public seems to be in one of its oft-recurring anti-intellectual moods may play a role.

Another biggie is the fact that those of us who like the subtle stuff have a very difficult time explaining to the editors and their marketing staffs what it is that we like. I realized that fact just now, when I was about to write a paragraph explaining what I mean by "some degree of subtlety." Maybe it's like pornography: hard to define, but we know it when we see it. I suppose a corollary to that would be that people who don't see it won't know it. But, for one crude example, a passing mention of anything occurring in somebody else's imperishable literature might constitute a subtlety. The quote wouldn't have to be imperishable, in fact: lots of modern writers subtly refer to their favorite pop singer or rock artist, often without actually naming that person, simply assuming that of course everybody will recognize a mention of, say, Graceland. Of course, if the citation is from a very transient aspect of culture, the use of it will be of very transient comprehensibility, which may make it a wee bit too "subtle" in a few years. More like "obscure." In mystery writing, though, some hope to be read by future generations and others don't give a rat's ass.

Maybe the enormous pressure on editors to deal with a huge pile of manuscripts in a very short time is part of the problem. Some editors can read "really, really fast," to say the least, not even counting time saved by looking down their noses at anything that, by the second sentence, hasn't grabbed them viscerally. But speed-reading isn't always the way to see all that's there. I'm only a moderately fast reader, myself, but even my slightly more than snail's-pace reading rate has treated me falsely a time or two. Can I give an example? Glad to: I read a Lillian Jackson Braun novel called "The Cat Who Saw Red" at full speed and didn't like it a bit, hence didn't read any more of that lady's work for a while. Then one day, my spouse read me a series of very amusing passages from some other work--I forget which--by the same author, and ended up reading the whole book aloud. Needless to say, reading aloud is quite a bit slower than reading silently, even for me. But we both enjoyed the novel, and read another by her in the same way. Eventually--I fear it took two or three L.J.B. novels before this--we tried going back to "The Cat Who Saw Red," and read it aloud also. Hey, it was entertaining as all get-out! I really think that some books lose a lot when read at high velocity. I've had my eyes open since for further evidence along those lines, and eventually found that a number of people who claimed to detest that author's work were very fast readers.

So here's one of my many not quite unsupported theories: reading very fast enables us to skip over some of the subtleties and thereby enables us to enjoy our reading less.

The fly in the ointment of this particular diagnosis is that there are also at least a few books out there that aren't entirely bad, but that appear to be truly rotten when read aloud. Here I think there is another factor at work: one kind of good writing involves putting words together in a way that shows some appreciation for the words themselves, but in another form of writing, the need to use words just gets in the way of the author's ability to convey broad ideas in a clutter-minded but, for many readers, effective fashion.

In order to be as controversial as possible in my self-limited space, I'll express a flat bias against the latter type and a strong preference for writing that works well when read out loud. Even though I seldom do read a book aloud (L.J.B. excepted), that's the kind I select to read, and it's the way I attempt to write.

I fear that analyzing the numerous exceptions to my rule of thumb would take us way too far afield, so that's where I'll leave it for now. (We moderate-speed readers don't have as much time on our hands as faster folk do. Today, maybe I'll read an Agatha Christie aloud. Or, maybe I won't.)