Wednesday 2 May 2012

Sugar and spice and slugs and snails and puppy-dogs’ tails, that’s what Readers are made of . . .

It used to be the case that I really didn’t have the slightest interest what anyone thought of books. I knew what I liked and that was fine. Gradually zilch expanded into a mild interest in what three or four friends might think of my favourite novels. The internet rolled along and once in the bluest moon I would scroll down an Amazon review page and nod my agreement or blink my surprise at the polar opposites expressed there.

Over the last 12 months though I have been in the very different position of caring quite a bit about what a huge number of strangers think of one particular book with which I’m very familiar. That close study has given me new insights into the nature of readers, insights that are probably common knowledge to the rest of you, but I’m going to expound upon anyhow.

The first and most obvious observation is that we are a diverse lot. Here are a few of the extremes posted regarding Prince of Thorns:

- Prince of Thorns is easily the most incredible epic fantasy I have ever read.

- It's about on the same level as a dedicated high-school student's unpolished first draft.

- This is one of the fastest paced fantasies I’ve read in a long while. The action comes fast and thick.

- I found it very slow going and nothing happens. It just meanders.

- Let's get this out of the way first: Lawrence has a way with words; he is a master of pacing; and he can keep one turning the pages.

- Disturbing, Beautiful, Chaotic, Poetic, Haunting, Exhilarating.

- This is an unredeemingly awful story.

But enough of that. We know humans are weird. Some like marmite. My observations are more about the broad streams that divide readers into a taxonomy, simplified and cartoonised for your viewing pleasure below. Spot yourself!


The Plotster:

The Plotster, unsurprisingly, is all about plot. Unless the plot is explained to them on page 1 (some will allow you to dawdle until page 2) they are not happy bunnies. Unless the events transpiring are moving us steadily through the expounded plot toward the stated goal ... the Plotster believes nothing is happening. The world could be on fire, the main character having a profound and life-changing epiphany ... but to the Plotster’s mind nothing is happening. The plot must be served. Books are plot machines. Period.

 The Characterophile: 

The Characterophile is the Plotster’s foe. The Characterophile is a chummy sort, and is looking for friends. They want to be attached to a character ASAP. They want to see that character grow. Ideally the character should be a paragon, but not Mary Sue, virtuous but not perfect. Should the character be stained in some way then they must be about redemption. All about redemption. There are of course more sophisticated variants of the Characterophile who will attach to characters who are neither good nor virtuous, or even seeking redemption - these collectors will take to any character, so long as they are interesting. Plots are permissible. Their function is to exercise the character, to rotate them so we get to see them from all sides. Possibly even to turn the character inside out. The Characterophile can be strange.

The Beautician:

The Beautician might well have several poets’ bones in their body, but it’s not a requirement. They appreciate writing on the small scale. The Beautician can be arrested by a single line. The power of prose can take their breath away. Insight and gravitas can nestle between a capital and its period. The Beautician will highlight passages for Kindle, will remember lines months afterward, will recognise the writer’s voice. For the Characterophile and the Plotster the prose is simply a delivery mechanism. For the Beautician it is an end in itself.

The scanner: 

 The Scanner views the world through a distorting lens crafted from their politics, buzz-topic or personal bugbear. They don’t so much read as sift through a story looking for word-bites that can be used to construct the case against. Generally they arrive at any given book with a full set of opinions about its contents, furnished by whatever clique they happen to be affiliated with. The tale in hand is merely a means for ingratiating themselves further into said clique, points being scored for vitriol and mockery.  The Scanner is a rare creature but so noisy you may be fooled into thinking there are many of them.

I don’t like scanners. They’re a bit wank.

The self-righteousness of a Scanner is inversely proportional to their self-awareness.

The Award Reader:
The Award Reader is on a mission to collect the finest. They have a crib card of points to look for, an aesthetic culled from the group-mind of a small selection of high profile short fiction magazines. They can tell at a glance what award any given book was written to win, and can list the reasons it will fail. The idea that a book was not written with awards in mind, or that it possesses qualities that their yardstick is not graduated to measure, will not cross the Award Reader’s mind. Each year the Award Reader’s cleverness is confirmed in a process of long and short lists. The Award Reader is a happy soul.

Of course the zoo goes on. There’s the Subject Matter Expert whose main goal is to to find an error in whatever detail they happen to be expert in. The Lover, a subset of the Characterophile who just wants two characters to get it on. The Moralist who desires that the story instruct us, the Hunter of Secrets who will ferret out a hidden message in any text longer than a till reciept. And more and more subdivisions marching away into infinity.

And of course almost none of us are any of these. Be wary if you ever meet a person so singular that just one of these titles makes a snug fit. We’re a mix and match. Myself I tend to think of as:

(in a 3:5:2 mix)

Whereas I’d consider the typical genre reader to run more along the lines of:
(in a 6:3:1 mix)

But in the end it's all good & of course I love all my readers. Except the Scanners. Oh, and these guys:


  1. I'm just sad you didn't provide us real life examples of these readers.

    1. I want Mark to try and guess what mix or reader we are by reading our reviews. :)
      I think I've actually changed a fair bit since I started reviewing books and attempting to write some fiction of my own. I think I became much more of a 'beautician' and care less about plot.

  2. Is there an Immersionist? (Experientialist? Empathist?) I judge good writing on how deep into the story a writer takes me - irrespective of the moral judgement of the protagonist, the twists in prose, et al.

    The big driver is just how MEMORABLE I find the story, characters, world, writing and judgments within the novel. For me, the best writing means that I've been sucked into the writer's world - only to emerge on the other side of the novel wanting more. Even better when echos of that writing haunt me for months or years later.

  3. You might be right with the estimation of your readers. Maybe an author must be a "beautician" to create beautiful characters for readers who are not that much into poetry of any kind?

    1. Could be a lot of truth in that. Many readers only notice prose when it's bad.

      By the way - did you destroy your goodreads account just now or is the site being flaky?

  4. I break it down into Plot, Character, Setting and Language, with their little sister Theme. Different readers focus on different ones as their primary love.

    1. Pretty much exactly how I break down a book when I am reviewing, except I replace Theme with Immersion.

      Also I'm a massive sucker for the set piece action sequence, the epic battle that goes for 50 pages and is designed to look like a Hollywood script. Actionophile?

  5. Ha, lovely, I bet most readers wouldn't have figured they were the ones being read.

  6. @Justin, it doesn't take much to know who those examples are, especially re. the Awards Reader.

  7. And then there's Harriet Klausner. A category in her own right. :)

  8. I guess I'm equal parts Plotster and Characterophile. Story has always been the most important thing to me, though my obsession is not as extreme as the description here. But I also have to have, not necessarily likeable, but interesting characters. I can be a Beautician on occasion, but most likely not without a good story first.

    Maybe I'm a Keep Me Up Past My Bedtime-ist. If a writer manages to do that once, I'm a fan. :)

  9. I am almost entirely what you would call a Characterophile, sadly, though the more "sophisticated" type that doesn't care if the character's "badness" gets redeemed or not.

    Weak prose doesn't tend to bother me unless it is profoundly illiterate, and I am frankly not educated enough to know who is a "master of prose" without being told. (I had to be informed about Faulkner, whom I enjoy but would have otherwise suspected of having some serious punctuation-phobia.)

    A good plot is entertaining, yes, but as long as I know basically what the character is trying to do in a given scene I don't tend to notice overall structural flaws or plot inconsistencies.

    You might consider me a "scanner" because I do notice issues of racism/sexism in texts and sometimes they make me very VERY angry, but I don't fit the description you provide there as I don't open up a book looking for things to be angry about (and I suspect that most of the people you believe do, don't actually, either).

    I will admit that my entire reason for partaking of any kind of fiction is just to crawl inside someone else's head and see through his/her eyes for a bit. And I have a healthy dose of The Lover as well. I do so adore it when fictional people get starry-eyed over each other and have the smoochie-woochies. (But it's not required.)

    So yup, pretty much just a straight-up Characterophile.


    Shamelessly one-note

  10. This was ridiculously entertaining. I don't think I could deconstruct my reading criticism to this extent.

  11. Sorry mate, but i am a pirate, the Prince of Thorn isn't out in my country.I would buy it if it would be released in my country which is Serbia. There is nothing better then holding a physical copy in my hands.

    1. I'd rather you didn't steal my work - I don't steal from you.

      Delivers free to Serbia.

    2. You need to have a credit card for that, which i don't have. Never wanted to have one i don't think i could control myself if i had it at my disposal. If the book gets translated here i will be more than happy to buy it. It isn't even expensive. The only way i could buy it is by paying the postal service that sends the book package. That is the only way how i order books, if i can't get my hands on it at a bookstore.

    3. When I can't afford an item I don't need but would like ... I don't fucking steal it.

      The fact that my work is easy to steal doesn't mean that you should. Listen to yourself.

    4. I'm sorry, Stefan, but it sounds like you are trying to justify, to yourself, and us, stealing Mark's book.

      Stop that. Don't kill the golden goose by deciding its easier and justifiable to yourself to steal an author's work. I happen to want Mark to write lots more books, thank you very much.

  12. Yep, I'm definitely somewhere between a Beautician, Characterophile and a Hunter of Secrets. Love this post - I found myself laughing at how true the Beautician was for me in most cases...


    I am never reading your books again!



  14. Oh, I don't know. I want a bit of everything, good writing, good plot, good characters, good ending - so guess I'm the greedy bastardist.
    Lynn :D

  15. I wish I had written down the mix you put yourself down for before I read it - just to prove that I would have guessed as much from your writing.

    As you say, we are all a mix of different types and I like to think I can be as impressed and over awed by good writing as anyone - even the phrase "Hunter of Secrets who will ferret out a hidden message in any text longer than a till receipt" had me tickled pink.

    Maybe you redefine a genre? break a mould, or merely create (collate) a new caste of people who love beautifully written epic fantasy.

    In what I write I am very plot driven, tying stray loose ends together in a skein of interconnectivity that makes the world wide web look like a cat's cradle, so why have you sold four trillion times as many books as me!

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  17. I am definitely a Characterophile with a bit of a Beautician and a Lover thrown in. I have a Master of Arts in Spanish lit so I can be a bit of a "subject matter expert killjoy" when books are written with poor grammar and overused clichés. My specialty is XIV century polemicist literature, so I know a bit about the Middle Ages and about manuscripts, knowledge that I use to roll my eyes at some of the poorly researched books I've come across in the Fantasy and Historical Fiction genres. Plots for the sake of plots irk me, especially in Fantasy where writers often suffer from "World-wright Syndrome," that is, they spend a long time setting up this intricate and very detailed world and forget all about their characters and their motivations. So, they have this fantastic world with cartoon like characters running around. That really makes me want to throw the book across the room.

    So, there you have it, I love books with interesting characters that have some smut and lyricism thrown in. I love to fall in love with a writer's style and a character's voice. Bah! I am a bag of walking clichés. :P

  18. I'm mostly a beautician who also appreciates characters and plot. Pretty sure that's why I find your work mesmerizing. Your characters and plot are fantastic, but you could write about pretty much anything and I'd still be all in. My kindle books are all highlighted up. :-P