Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Common Reader

Over the years writers have heard and read about the importance of reaching that phantom held fast in the minds of publishers, agents and booksellers: the average reader. You know the guy (I always think of the average reader as male though statistics suggest otherwise). He needs to be captured by the first sentence and must be propelled effortlessly through a compelling narrative. The writer must not linger too long over any detail as the average reader has many bids on his attention and needs to get on with it.

I never imagined that such a person existed. If such a person did exist, I thought, I certainly wouldn’t want to be in his company.

Reader, I married him.

An exchange about a book marked our first date.

“Have you read Julian Jaynes?” Bob asked.

“Do you mean The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind?”

The rest is domestic history.

But our discovery of each other’s literary tastes was not all skittles and beer. Early in our marriage I presented Bob with a mystery I had enjoyed very much, Robert Goddard’s Into the Blue. A while later, I found Bob reading. I don’t remember what it was but it wasn’t the Goddard.

“You didn’t like it?”

“Two pages of introspection and not a thing happened.”

I felt a cold chill. Could I have married a man who didn’t like mysteries?

I continued to buy the books I liked (my library is vast) and I watched what Bob picked out. I discovered that my husband is a great re-reader and he goes over favorite passages in a way I do not.

His favorites?

Dick Francis. Bob likes the way every word seems to serve to drive the plot forward. I’m tempted to say something here about galloping to the end but am resisting. Above all Francis does not blather. Mr. Francis was also a great favorite of Robin Hathaway’s and Bob and Robin enjoyed discussing their favorites. (Robin’s was Nerve; Bob has not committed to a favorite.)

Georges Simenon (the Maigret novels). Bob notes that Maigret is smart about people and focuses attention on those whose lives have largely been failures. He eschews forensics and relies on conversation. I like the fact that Maigret’s job allows him to spend a lot of time dropping into bars and drinking Calvados. Simenon does not blather.

Carl Hiaasen. You get a good mystery and serious issues are raised, but you’re laughing so hard you may not notice. Hiaasen’s madcap plots tend to blend together for me, but Bob actually remembers in which novel a particular plot twist or bit of business occurred. Hiaasen does not blather.

Elizabeth Peters (the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Bob once worked as an archaeologist and he admires Peters’ knowledge of Egypt and archaeological practices. He also enjoys her humor. I used to come home from mystery conferences with books set in the ancient world and Bob would say, “You get me these things, but they don’t really grab me.” I’ve pointed out to Bob that Peters, while she does not blather, is a touch more discursive than his usual favorites.

“Well, everybody goes on about something; you just have to like what they go on about.”

As I type, Bob is reading The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell. This is most uncharacteristic as Bob is not much for Scandanavian brooding. “I do tolerate a lot in the Wallander novels that I wouldn’t normally put up with in other books,” he says.

So, what lessons should you draw from all of this?

They’re isn’t an average reader no matter what publishers, agents and booksellers imagine. But don’t blather unless you’re very funny or Swedish.

© 2013 Stephanie Patterson


  1. This is very clever! I agree with your Bob - re Mankell and Simenon - though I was dismayed when HM killed off the hero... whom I had bludgeoned and murdered to get all his books... and I wd not have wanted to be married to Simenon from what I hear re that boy!!! Thelma straw in Manhattan

  2. Yes, I believe Simenon was a very nasty piece of work.
    Breaking news...Bob abandoned Mankell's "One Step Behind" because he found it more symbolic than real and is re-reading Jussi Adler-Olsen's "Keeper of Lost Causes." He's read me some bits that are very funny