Monday, April 16, 2007


"Most people in America want an easy read. I call it McFiction - books which pass right through you without you even digesting them. I don't mean a book that has two-syllable words. I mean chapters you can read in a toilet break. Happy endings. We are more of a TV culture, and that is a hard thing to go up against for any writer."
Jodi Picoult


I'm torn on this quote. A part of me thinks it's just a tad snippy and possibly aimed at the mystery genre. Is that what we are, McFiction? Easy reads digested on the toilet? But a part of me remembers what my very first agent told me when he took on Final Copy. He warned that it would take longer to sell because it was "intelligent." (and yes, it took more than three years to sell)
I do think many readers want easy reads, but I don't think that's always a bad thing. Let's just say that when I was sitting ten to twelve hours a day in a hospice at my mother's side, Janet Evanovich provided real relief where David McCullough's John Adams did not. True, I can't remember which Evanovich I was reading or what the plot was, and I still reflect on the new perspective I have on Thomas Jefferson and the early down-and-dirty American politics revealed in John Adams. But the point is that sometimes you read to learn and sometimes you just need the distraction of raw entertainment.

And if "most people in America want an easy read," why are Jody's books, which involve intense themes and are not easily digestible, such best sellers? I don't think the problem is that readers are morons. I think the problem is that there are fewer readers overall, more reselling of book copies, and a lot less room for sales in all categories of fiction and non fiction. So, as Hank says, what think? Is McFiction a problem for us? Or are we the McFiction Jody is talking about?

I confess, I like a book that has something to chew on, something to say as well as being diverting. If I get to page 20 and I feel like there's no 'there' there, I generally stop reading. And yes there's lots of mysteries that seem pretty ephemeral, but we haven't got the lock on light by any means.
And let's pause for a moment to praise great bathroom books. In my bathroom right now is Bill Bryson's THE MOTHER TONGUE: ENGLISH AND HOW IT GOT THAT WAY. It's been there for 4 months and I'm 3/4 of the way through it. Perfectly fascinating and perfect in 3-minute sittings. Mc-nonfiction? Hardly.
Her comment on short chapters -- I'd say that's definitely a trend for an ADD-TV-Addicted audience.

Okay, time to hear from the TV person. I've been a TV reporter for 30 years. And each year that goes by, the length of my stories (and everyone else's) has been cut cut cut. In 1991, I did a story that was 11 minutes long. To be sure, we had an exclusive interview with a person confessing to murder, so okay, how are you going to cut that down. But now, our stories are about four minutes--and that's amazingly long. (Most news stores are 75 seconds.)

"They" say: viewers just won't listen to anything longer than that, and they'll just click away. And "They" say: if the viewers click away, it won't matter how long your story is, because no one will be watching it.

In fact, there's a TV saying that if Moses brought down the Ten Commandments these days, we'd have to do a story saying: "In other news, Moses brought down the Ten Commandments today, the three most important of which were...etc."

So, we try to learn to write shorter better. (Insert the Cicero quote you all know so well here.) "Select" don't "compress" is the mantra.

But "select" translates to "leave out." And in writing/reading a book, if you get all plot and no substance, then--I think--that's a waste. You don't have to be a philosopher king to allow the readers to have some insight into the "Why." You don't have to leave out the "why" or the "what it means." And it doesn't have to be long. It just has to be good.

Where do I begin? This quote opens up a lot of issues - long versus short, light versus heavy, and some would say, meaningful versus meaningless. First of all, I'm just glad that anyone is reading anything, they could be watching some moronic tv show (apologies to HPR, but we know she doesn't do moronic.) And I lost any snobbishness I might have had about what people read long ago when I was a bookseller and kept trying to steer people toward the Marquez when all they wanted was Sweet Savage Love. (Anyone remember that bodice-ripper?)

I agree with Jan. It does sound a tad snippy. I would respectfully suggest that long does not equal good, any more than short equals bad. I am currently reading my first Ian Rankin - a short, but terrific (and not stupid) read. I am also slogging through the biography of Captain Richard Burton, a long, long, book that I have been working on for two years. As Jan said, different books, different reasons for reading, different reasons for writing. Which is better seems like the wrong question.

On the subject of three page chapters...The first time I read one was in a James Patterson and I remember thinking, "that's it? He's got to be kidding." Then I got it. When the scene's over, the scene's over. There are even a few short chapters in my book. Is it marketing? Something designed to make a book feel like more of a pageturner? Perhaps. Or maybe JP just knows that many of his readers are juggling kids and car keys, or waiting for a flight, or taking the train or bus to work, and they have snippets of time to read a book.

At my reading group a few weeks ago, we talked about when we read. One lucky woman said she sat down and read for 6 hours straight. I looked at her in disbelief. Who had 6 hours in a row to read? I took her cue and allowed/forced myself to finish The Birthday Party in one sitting.(Amazing story, btw) It was great, but I'm not counting on it happening again any time soon. Maybe short chapters are popular because, just like us, readers are juggling a zillion things every day. I'm glad they fit us in at all.


  1. Short chapters? I like short chapters. I read before I go to sleep, so if there's a long chapter, I have to stop in the middle and then the next night, I've forgotten what I read.

    In fact, short chapters, I think I read more of the book because I can go farther. I say--I'll just read one more.

    You'd think that's what the author would want to have happen. It's like those potato chips. You can't eat just one. So you just eat one more. And by that I mean, you just keep reading. What's so desirable about long chapters? Is it supposed to be literary?

  2. I find this a bit ironic. From my view (the one where I see preteens in all directions)we have a nation that regularly hyperventilates about the ability of its youth to read. The average student goes home and books compete with TV, myspace, i-pods, all sorts of video games, and even the occasional round of football, basketball or baseball when the weather is nice. Wouldn't anything that gets the public to read be moving toward something good?

    On the other hand, I become frustrated when I find few books that have higher level ideas in them. If students will read 'popcorn' books on their own, then in class I want to present the books that can spark discussions and cause students to think about ideas and issues. I would prefer books that do this without putting my job at risk for 'inappropriate content', but I can't have everything.

  3. Interesting post. I, too, was a bit taken aback by her comment, but I understand her point. However, I think there's something to be learned from all books: the best example of McFiction might be The Davinci Code. Say what you will about the writing, but Dan Brown is the master of pacing and the good hook. Commercial fiction, almost no one writes better characters than Stephen King. Literary? Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections didn't have much in the way of a story arc, engrossing story or characters, really, but the writing is lovely. The books that include all of these components are either classics or destined to be classics: Memoirs of a Geisha, Cold Mountain, Old Man and the Sea, Wuthering Heights.


  4. Yes, and you know--this thought sparked by "beautiful's" complain and Amy's list--

    Think of what they say happened with Harry Potter book one (which certainly had enormous themes and lessons and everything else and was far far more than a compeppling plot.) Everyone said it encouraged kids to read more--especially the more difficult-to-convince boys.

    And I wonder if readers of any age, who read whatver they enjoy-- whether it's an unputdownable Stephen King (don't even get me started on The Stand) or an addictive Da Vinci Code (yes, I agree it was so much fun to read)-- will at some point come across a Wuthering Heights or a Custom of the Country or a To Kill A Mockingbird or whatever it is that's one or two or three levels "higher" and then discover all the new worlds awaiting them.

    (Everyone who got through that sentence, yay for you..)

    So maybe--just read what you love and keep reading? And that's all that matters?

    Digression: my mother was constantly bugging me as a pre-teen to stop reading Mad Magazine and read something worthwhile. I didn't stop reading Mad, of course. But she didn't know I was actually reading every book I could get my hands on--I just never let her see me do it.

  5. From Mad Magazine to Rolling really are my idol.

  6. To anonymous,
    I don't think there's anything more literary about long chapters. I think chapter length should all go along with the mood and pace of the story. And I think most readers don't care or notice much of anything except whether the story is captivating them. For me, the absolute worst thing writing can be is pretentious. And I think that comes about when the writer is thinking more about impressing other writers than about the reader.

  7. On short chapters... yes, The DaVinci Code is full of them, and they do pulse you forward. There's a great screenwriting rule that applies to fiction as well: start each scene as LATE as possible, end each as EARLY as possible. As Jan says, the scene should be just as long as it needs to be, no longer.

  8. I suspect Jodi Picoult has been answering questions to clarify what she meant in that quote for days. I agree with her first and last sentences. Easy reads are undeniably popular. What she says after the first sentence seems to imply that all easy reads are cut from the same cloth, which isn't true. Some are pure crap, some are good and others; for example, Mark Haddon's the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, are considered literary fiction. I choose which book I want to read next based on the time and focus I have available. I wouldn't dream of taking One Hundred Years of Solitude or The Sound and the Fury with me on a travel day because I'd be rereading pages all day long with all the noise and interruption. On the other hand, if I'm snowed in on a weekend and have the time, I want something I can sink my teeth into. I agree with her last comment. Writers are up against a lot of competition for a reader's time because of all the other outlets for entertainment. Before cable TV, the internet and videotapes, far fewer books were published than there are now and I have to believe the average book length was a lot longer than it is today. I looked up the best selling books from the 60s, 70s and 80s and authors that showed up repeatedly were James Michener (has he written anything under 800 pages?), John Updike, Leon Uris, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Saul Bellow, Graham Greene, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Wouk, Richard Adams and William Styron. How much editing do you think they’d be told to do if they were submitting first novels today? In fairness, the equivalents to the “McFiction” (in my opinion) were there too in the form of Arthur Hailey, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steele and Jacqueline Susann. But as I remember them, those books probably wouldn’t all pass for easy reads today if short chapters and low page count are part of the criteria. Unpublished writers interested in writing books other easy reads have a big challenge.