Wednesday, September 18, 2013

On Giving Readers Credit

I drove over to the newly-renovated Central branch of the St. Louis Public Library last night for a middle grade author event. Three authors were assembled: Catherine Jinks, Catherine Gilbert Murdock, and Jasper Fforde, all of whom are masters of, among other things, world-building. As I listened to the authors talk about their processes, their inspirations, how their characters and places come to life, I kept making lots of connections. One of the benefits of reading in volume, it would seem, is that books become linked and interconnected across genres and publishing date--lots of great titles to pair with others to make the readers in your life happy.

My favorite sound bite from the evening came from Jasper Fforde. In response to an audience question which I cannot quite remember with accuracy, Fforde began talking about how once a book is shared, even with a single person, it is no longer just the author's creation. As more and more people read the book, it becomes the book of all those readers. Which means, posited Fforde, that if a reader really, really loves a book, the author shouldn't get all the credit for making it a great book; the reader should get ample credit, too.

With all of the talk of the excellent world-building among the novels of these three authors, it would be easy to attribute all genius to the writer. But not so--the writer creates, but the reader envisions. The writer draws the map, and the reader resides within the story. It is that partnership, that working together, that makes for a truly great book that resonates.

What does that mean for librarians like me? It means I should give readers credit for the joy they find in the books they love. Readers are active participants in the world of the book, and it is their participation that makes the story so rich for them. I should give readers credit for the interactions they have with any and all books, whether they are books I would love as deeply or not. Giving readers credit means asking young readers not just what they liked and didn't like about a book, but also asking what it was like for them to be within the story. Asking this sort of question can help me to provide better readers' advisory to young readers as well; when I understand how a reader can engage with a story, I can start to make deeper connections to the sorts of books they may like beyond simple genre and standard appeal factors.

Think this concept of giving the reader credit for the experience of being in the book is utter nonsense? Try this thought experiment: call to mind your favorite book, and actively try to remember what the experience of reading that book is like; the interacting with the characters, the watching as the story unfolds, the very real, very visible settings. The author did some of that, but you make it real for yourself. Those are the books you fall in love with, the real ones. Give yourself some credit.

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