Open for Discussion: Writing for “Bad” Readers

Paul Harding, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel, Tinkers, shared six writing tips with Publishers Weekly today. One tip (#3) piqued my interest, and though Harding writes for adults, I believe his quote also applies to fiction and poetry for children:

“Don’t write your books for people who won’t like them. Give yourself wholly to the kind of book you want to write and don’t try to please readers who like something different. Otherwise, you’ll end up with the worst of both worlds…. Similarly, don’t write your books for bad readers. Your books will suffer from bad readers no matter what, so write them for brilliant, big-brained and big-hearted people who will love you for feeding their minds with feasts of beauty.”

I have little to say about the first part of the quote except to note that many children’s books owe their existences to being “assigned reading” in schools where curriculum requirements outweigh a child’s (and even a teacher’s) desires and individual abilities. And many publishing decisions are based on classroom sales. That said, fiction and poetry seldom succeed in an artistic sense when they are written to order.

(Few books, if any, are meant for everyone at each moment, and many people simply don’t enjoy reading imaginative literature, no matter the kind or quality. Unless we’re among those brandishing a spiked club instead of a pen, we’re aiming for readers who take the same sort of pleasure we do in language come alive.)

Regarding the last part of the quote, I have more to say. In the case of the child reader, I’d substitute “struggling” for “bad”—but the meaning holds true. A work of art can certainly be a stepping stone, but it is never solely a teaching tool. Verse in particular can be a draw for reluctant readers because it is often short and rhythmical with a punchy ending. However, poetry’s freedom of thought balanced by patterned precision can also be a formidable challenge and a gift to an enthusiastic, gifted reader who thrills to poetry’s high-wire acrobatics in the way a violinist falls in love with classical music.

(We writers sometimes underestimate the intelligence and sensitivity of children, forgetting that all readers tend to grasp more than we comprehend. We feel the emotions even if we misunderstand the details. And fiction writers and poets are artists of emotions.)

Good writing takes risks. If we’re writing for someone other than our ideal reader then perhaps we ought to hold off trying to publish. No one needs another tepid, safe, mediocre story or poem when there are plenty of good (and great) ones out there left unread. We continue writing, but we count it as practice. If we push our own limits and listen carefully, we’ll come, in time, to know when our work is beautiful and ripe for sharing.

What do you think?

— Steven Withrow

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2 thoughts on “Open for Discussion: Writing for “Bad” Readers

  1. I really like this–yes! Especially “artists of emotions.” Good writing will please sophisticated AND struggling readers, barring decoding barriers. And then it just becomes a matter of finding good writing (again) that’s a little more accessible at a particular level, that stepping stone you referred to.

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