Six impossible things

Accessibility in Fiction

First, a happy dance: NPR just put out a list of 100 Best Ever Teen Reads, and guess what ended up at #84? I’m scunnered. Happy, but scunnered. It’s a fabulous reading list; check it out. And thanks to anybody out there who nominated or voted for my books.

Accessibility is one of those aspects of fiction that lots of people talk about (especially in the SF field), but nobody ever seems to define adequately. (I hope it’s obvious that I’m not talking about physical accessibility here, that is, whether or not someone can get their hands on a book.) Furthermore, in some circles the term “accessibility” carries considerable baggage, usually because “accessible” is equated with “commercial” (as opposed to “literary”) writing, and is therefore automatically assumed to be undesireable, lowest-common-denominator writing.

I’ll do the rant about commercial vs. literary some other time; for now, let’s just mention that I don’t think accessibility has a lot to do with that particular argument. I also don’t think accessibility means a story can’t also be complex, layered, or nuanced.

On an individual level, accessibility seems relatively easy to recognize: any book that a particular individual can pick up and sail on through without wanting/needing some kind of outside explanation or pause for thought is accessible to them. Or, to put it another way, any book that contains barriers that block a particular individual’s understanding of the story is less accessible to them, and the more barriers there are, the less accessible the book is.

Expanding this definition at first looks easy: you just judge a book by the number of readers who find the book accessible on an individual level, and the more of them there are, the more accessible the book must be. Unfortunately, looking at it this way can lead to a number of problems, the first and most obvious of which is the “accessible equals popular/commercial equals bad/lowest-common-denominator” equation mentioned above.

This equation is a problem because hardly any writer I know aspires to write lowest-common-denominator fiction, especially if you phrase it that way, and no writer I know wants to write badly.

The second problem with the expanded definition is that it doesn’t recognize that a book can be highly accessible to one group of readers, while being virtually incomprehensible to everyone else. Advanced mathematics textbooks come to mind. (OK, they’re not fiction, but all of you got the point right away, didn’t you?)

The definition also doesn’t recognize that a book can be accessible (or not) on multiple levels. Take children’s books. Alice in Wonderland is, on one level, a splendid adventure for a 13-15 year old; on other levels, it’s an acid trip full of sophisticated word play, parody, mathematics, and political satire, or a parable about losing the wonders of childhood. Many, if not most, of the best and most lasting children’s books have multiple levels, some of which are not fully accessible to their most likely readers…at least, not on their first read-through at age eight or ten or fifteen. One of the reasons such books last is that they stick in the memory, and when one comes around, as an adult, to read them again (for oneself, or as a read-aloud to a child), one finds new levels have become accessible by virtue of one’s adult knowledge and experience.

So the definition is flawed, but it’s the best I could come up with. And it does allow for a way of looking at accessibility that can be useful to writers. One can examine the kinds of things that can be barriers to different individual readers, and try to take out (or leave out) as many of them as possible.

Most of the barriers I can think of – vocabulary, syntax, lack of the background knowledge or personal experience that the author is assuming his/her readers have – can be summed up as a level of unfamiliarity with something in the story that is uncomfortable to the reader.

This is a really tricky thing to judge, because one of the reasons readers read stories is to encounter new things – new characters, new plot twists, new places. Furthermore, every reader has a different point at which he or she gets uncomfortable with the “newness” of the story. The writer is left to balance between imitating “real life” so closely that the readers get bored (because they’ve seen it all before) and scaring off half his/her possible audience by throwing too much unfamiliar stuff at them, too fast.

The classic way around this problem, for fantasy, is the one used by both Alice in Wonderland and the first Harry Potter book. Both Alice and Harry begin the book as, to all appearances, perfectly ordinary children in the real, familiar world; as they move from the familiar to the fantastically unfamiliar, so does the reader. They don’t understand the new places in which they find themselves any better than the reader. The writer can then explain things gradually to the reader as the main character begins to explore and understand…or if the main character is floundering, at least the reader has some company in a frustrating situation.

Making use of multiple levels of accessibility is a little trickier. This isn’t like a plot-braid, where the writer can have a scene from Plotline A and then one from Plotline B and then go back to A. Doing that with different accessibility levels means that the reader who only gets Level A will be completely lost for an entire scene as soon as he/she gets to the Level B part. What one needs to do is mange both levels at the same time, in such a way that the reader who doesn’t get Level B will not even notice that he/she is missing anything unless someone else calls it to his/her attention.

An example: I did a reading of Calling on Dragons once to a mixed audience of adults and children, some of whom were quite young. I got to the point in Chapter 2 where the enormous white rabbit is explaining why he is late for something: “It runs in the family; my brother even got himself a big gold pocket watch, and he still can’t get anywhere on time.”

All of the adults and older children laughed. A six-year-old in the front row immediately looked around suspiciously and demanded in a piercing voice, “Why is that funny?” She obviously hadn’t seen or read Alice yet, so the joke wasn’t accessible for her…but the reference goes by quickly and looks like just the sort of throw-away line that somebody in this situation might say (even if the somebody is a giant rabbit), so if she’d been reading it alone, she wouldn’t have realized that there was a joke she wasn’t getting.

  1. I voted for you!

    Accessibility is something I worry about a lot – partly in my schooling, where I yell silently at a lot of writers in my field who completely fail to make their work accessible to anyone, even other people in the field, and partly because I want to do that sort of thing, where my writing is fun and entertaining on one level, but thoughtful and meaningful on another level. I also get really annoyed when people try to calm down my vocabulary – proliferated, bifurcating, these are good words!

    Right now I’m reading Ann Radclyffe: The Great Enchantress by Robert Miles – which is incredibly accessible – and I’m hoping that it will tell me what to look for when I actually read Ann Radclyffe. I’ve tried on my own but have been unable to get into it. Part of accessibility is being able to tell what’s important and what isn’t, and knowing what you should expect from something. I think a lot of problems with reading classics is that people expect them to be overly intellectual and dull, but if they didn’t know they were ‘classics’ they might find them funny and lively and interesting instead.

  2. This is awesome! I’m actually mid-rereading the “Series of Unfortunate Events” and discovering all sorts of things I missed as a child — having such a wonderful time doing it. Great post.

  3. This!

    I had a reader tell me that on her first reading of Troll-magic, she was so caught up in the suspense and “what will happen next?” that she simply missed most of the nuance and undercurrent and emotional commentary. But . . . when she came around on a re-read, there it was, waiting for her. Presumably those elements were white rabbits. (Love the metaphor!)

    (And I love how absolutely lucid you are explaining the underpinnings of the craft of writing. Rock on, Ms. Wrede!)

  4. Hello. This is totally off topic, but I was wondering when your new book “The Far West” would be available on kindle? I emailed your publisher, but didn’t get a response. Thanks, Meredith.

  5. I voted for you 🙂 Also, I love finding things that I missed upon a rereading of the book. I find that I sometimes read a book for the first time for simply the story, and then when I read it again, I can focus more on the writing itself.

  6. Congrats on making the list! I totally voted for you. 🙂

  7. I voted, too! And, am very happy to see you on the list!!! =) I remember the first time I picked up Dealing with Dragons, I sat right down by the bookshelf and started reading it to the annoyance of the school librarian.

    I loved Cimorene she’s the first main character of a story that I absolutely enjoyed. It was nice to see a female-oriented story because I grew up in a conservative house and women weren’t ever really mentioned in writing or in the church.

    Anyway, thank you for writing the story no matter what number it is on this list — it brought me into Fantasy and fond memories =)

  8. Hoo boy, I love re-reading something and catching something I didn’t the first time around. I wish I would have known about this sooner, or else I would have voted for you, too! I am a budding author myself now and working on my first novel (with dragons of course).

    I have been reading the archives of your blog for some time now and have become very inspired. I write every day now. Thank you for that! Thank you for your Enchanted Forest Chronicles that were my springboard into loving to read, write, and imagine.

    I was at Barnes & Noble recently, looking for The Thirteenth Child (it was out, so I purchased The Seven Towers instead), and there was an Employee recommendation for The Enchanted Forest Chronicles and I was thrilled. You definitely deserve it.

  9. I am not at all surprised that you made the list. The Enchanted Forest Chronicles were one of the few print books that made the cut to move across the ocean with me.

  10. Ms. Wrede, I have seen your name mentioned in rec.arts.sf.written, but I do not think that I have ever read any of your work. You write very well indeed in this blog. Such clarity. YUM! I think that I shall have to look for some of your fiction.

  11. As a follow-up to my last post, yesterday, I went to my local used-book store — a “used bookstore” presumably being something else — and the owner said your work is quite popular.

    I got a copy of “Magic and Malice” and so far, rather good. Two points: 1) There is a lot of slang. Much of it is obvious from context, but I wish there were a glossary of it. Apart from the slang, your writing is very clear. 2) It is uncomfortable reading at times, because of the versimilitude. (Cue author’s “Bwahahaha!”)

  12. Second follow-up: Your book was *too* accessible, and I spent the day reading it. While I recognise that stopping where you did does make sense, it is frustrating. Kim and Mairelon are such good characters. I would love to read another story with them.

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