On October 31 I tweeted about the recent Man Booker prize controversy surrounding the introduction of a readability judging criteria. Need there be a difference, I asked? A similar sentiment was expressed far more eloquently by poet laureate Andrew Motion, who argued that the inclusion of readability as a new judging criteria “opens up a completely false divide between what is high end and what is readable, as if they are somehow in opposition to one other, which is patently not true”.
He is right, of course. But as this debate circulated (and after my related Twittering) I was also reading the teen cult book Fallen by Lauren Kate, which is, I feel, direct proof that while readability and quality are by no means mutually exclusive, they can also quite happily stand alone.
Somewhere into the first chapter of Fallen I decided I probably won’t read the rest of the popular four-book series – and yet that wasn’t because I found the first installment a drag to read. It frequently produces cringe-inducing clichés and is terribly predictable (I mean, really, trick us a little bit more before the disarmingly good-looking boy produces the serpent necklace and announces himself in the first quarter of the novel as the bad guy), but then again, I’m not a 13-year-old girl, and it’s from that perspective that this book should be judged – and it is from that perspective that it has been hugely successful.
But that brings us back to the relationship between readability and quality. According to the Fallen website (hosted by publisher Random House), the series is “intensely addictive” – and I can’t deny that. I looked forward to pulling it out of my bag every afternoon on the train commute home, in the same way I look forward to the next episode of my (until now) secret soap-opera obsession, Greys Anatomy. But let’s look at that word addictive. Like sugar. Or heroin. I once heard watching television described as sitting in a lukewarm bath, which seems to fit with my experience of reading this book: you become increasingly restless and uncomfortable, but lying there is just too easy to really think about doing anything else. The question is, is that a bad thing? Is it worse than reading something so impenetrable that you get through a chapter and realise you’ve somehow been thinking about something completely unrelated the whole time?
Maybe I should re-read some of the books from my old favourite series, The Babysitters Club and see if I’ve simply lost the ability to relate to my 13 year old self. Except that I only have to think about other books I enjoyed at around that age: the Tomorrow When the War Began series (and, also from John Marsden, Letters from the Inside, So Much to Tell You, Dear Miffy), or Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, and it’s clear which books have had more of an impact and stayed with me far longer – and which I would likely enjoy just as much today as I did a decade ago. Perhaps that’s the difference.
Or maybe I’m just jealous of Lauren Kate’s enormous success, because I can’t argue with what is surely indisputable proof she’s done something very right with Fallen. So good on her.