Types of readers, and fandom

  • May. 20th, 2009 at 9:14 AM
my_daroga: Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera (phantom)
Yesterday, I attended a workshop given by Nancy Pearl of librarian action figure fame. The workshop was meant to give us a new way to address readers' advisory, which is the fancy MLS way of saying how to recommend (she says "suggest") books to patrons and friends.

Pearl's system disregards categories like "fiction" and "nonfiction" for pleasure-reading purposes and instead attempts to put books--and readers--into four basic categories: Story, Character, Setting, and Language. That is to say, all books have all four, but each book will most likely have a larger "doorway" for one type of reader. And readers will read primarily for one of these things. So the largest group, Story, includes stuff like Stephen King and Danielle Steel and Dan Brown is pretty much all Story, and most readers find "entry" into a book through this "doorway." That is to say, the most popular books are page-turners, and that's what bookstores and libraries have the most of. (She assures us this isn't intended as a slight, people just read for different pleasures.)

Character readers are pretty self-explanatory, and care less about being hurried along a plot and more about who they get to know and how well. Setting readers include anyone who mentions "I felt like I was there" as what drew them in, and that can be real places, historical time periods, or imaginary places like Narnia or Pern, I suppose. Language readers are the ones who say, "I like well-written books," though clearly someone can feel quite differently about Hemingway and Nabokov.

Anyway, as systems go, I think it has its merits--it means that when someone asks you for a recommendation, you're not looking at the plot itself or even the last book they loved, but at what it was that got them into and kept them reading that book. Any two given readers of the same book could have read it from different, or multiple, points of view. However, I kept thinking about the perversities of these categories.

For instance, when I wrote out some of my favorites, I realized that while I genuinely believe I read primarily for Character (with Language as a second essential bit, in the sense that I don't read for it but won't read if it's not to a certain level) but I don't at all read primarily Character-driven books. I am the only person I know who reads Philip K. Dick or Asimov and says, "ooh, I liked X and how they thought!" No one likes PKD for his writing--I'm told frequently. I love Phantom of the Opera for the characters--as I think most people reading this who like Phantom do. But I don't think the focus of Leroux is character--not the way he writes them, anyway. I'm a huge Sherlock Holmes fan, but don't care about mysteries and in fact would never pick one up unless there was a strong character element to draw me in (which is why I've confined myself to Sayers and the like).

I could be deluded, but that's my sense of myself measured against Pearl's rubric. And I think a lot of people read this way. And I got to thinking... a lot of fannish people read this way. One of her examples for Story-driven narrative was JK Rowling. Which, yeah, makes sense, right? (We're talking primarily, not that the other elements are totally missing.) And most people read this way. But fannish people, I think, are more likely to read for Character. Which is why fanfiction and other fanworks become so attractive and necessary. Just as societies have been built up around Sherlock Holmes for a hundred years; these aren't all inveterate mystery readers, though some are. These are people who feel an intense relationship with this character, else millions of words wouldn't have been written about him and his life would not have been endlessly mapped and pored over and reconciled to the canon and history.

So here's my hypothesis: that fandom could be partially "explained" by Character-driven readers responding and reacting to Story-(or other-) driven texts.

Thoughts? (Also, I still have a Dreamwidth invite, if anyone wants...)

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