What Kind of Reader?

Reviewers of all sorts – from those in Kirkus and The New York Times to those offering their opinions on their blogs or on Goodreads or Amazon – generally attempt to assess authors according to their standards. And that’s really what reviews are all about.

What tends to get overlooked, if not positively ignored, is that there ought to be reviews about readers as well. Because, just as authors differ, so do readers, and what pleases one reader can often infuriate another. And, just because I’m feeling contrary, I’ll offer some reviews of the types of readers I’ve observed over the last forty years or so, although you shouldn’t attribute too much meaning to the order in which I’m presenting these reader semi-stereotypes, even if they’re only my stereotypes.

I’ll begin with every author’s favorite type of reader – the enthusiasts. They like reading and books, and many especially like a particular genre or subgenre of fiction, and some are only wildly enthusiastic about a given author. Authors who have large numbers of enthusiasts are fortunate indeed, although often enthusiasts can be very reticent to admit their enthusiasms, which can leave some authors bewildered – as I was for years – because such authors sell books but can find very few people who admit to buying them.

Other types of readers are a more mixed bag, such as the literalist purists, for whom three typos in book provide discomfort, and more than that occasion physical pain, who also often have difficulty with authors who employ words in ways that require knowledge of more than the first dictionary definition, and who are outraged if the author portraying a low-tech culture uses a different weight for a stone’s worth of merchandise [despite the fact that there were different “stone-weights” for different commodities until the nineteenth century].

Following the literalist purists come the one-gender readers. They’re usually but not exclusively male and have virtually no interest in or possibly no ability to identify with a protagonist of the opposite gender, let alone protagonists with complex genders.

I’ve also noted in the past that there are readers who seem to believe that literary romance cannot be complete without copious and explicit sexual encounters. Call them the over-sexed romantics, as opposed to the prudish romantics for whom the merest direct implication of sexual encounters sends them for the literary equivalent of smelling salts.

For the stylistics, the words themselves offer the greatest satisfaction, so much so that often the plot or what passes for one is merely a bothersome necessity, some of whom prone to gush over or luxuriate in the work of Mervyn Peake or Gene Wolfe.

The secret violence lovers are those readers who find all manner of means to praise books of dubious quality so that they can deceive themselves into believing the books they enjoy are better than they are, rather than accepting the fact that they personally have a touch of the voyeuristic sadist in themselves and really like all that violence and rough, if not vicious, sex. Those who have a touch of the stylist get double pleasure out of Game of Thrones.

The gourmet bibliophiles comprise one of the smallest groups of readers, those who want excellence in every aspect of what they read, and who are actually intelligent enough to know what excellence is and well-read enough to discriminate between the merely popular, the flavor-de-jour books of the pseudo-literati, and the books of depth. Unfortunately, they’re usually disappointed, given how rare excellence is, and how often literary flash is taken for depth.

Then there are the fictional gourmets, for whom plot is a device to carry them from fictional meal to fictional meal, and I suspect a number of them read my novels, particularly the “Ghost” books.

In stark contrast to the gourmet bibliophile and the stylist is the minimalist – otherwise known as the slam-bam-thank-you-sir-or-ma’am type. They go straight to the story, like a famished wolf to bloody meat. This kind of reader demands only the bare-bones story, and forget about metaphor, allusion, or anything requiring diversion from the pursuit to the bloody, sexual, or explosive end, and if a book doesn’t have one of those, for them, it’s not worth reading.

Then we’ve also seen the recent rise of the genderists, for whom no book is satisfying except those that explore in depth beyond that of the Challenger Deep the role, identify, function, malfunction, dysfunction, optimal theoretical function, including all other ancillary functions, of all possible genders and permutations thereof, preferably in overstated understatement.

More and more in the realm of speculative fiction, we’re seeing the immersers, or the compleatists, those who not so much read a given series, but would prefer to live and spend their entire existence in just the world of that series. And yes, I’ve given them a series just like that in the Saga of Recluce.

Related to the gourmet bibliophiles are the cogitators, the thinkers who get great pleasure in books so deep that they can find additional twists and meanings on re-read after re-read and who find what the minimalists insist upon is akin to reading primers or simplistic graphic novels.

Now… I’ve probably missed type or two of reader, and most likely many readers have characteristics of several types, but since readers are always rating writers, I thought it was only fair for a writer to review readers, turn about being fair play, so to speak.

12 thoughts on “What Kind of Reader?”

  1. darcherd says:

    A highly amusing blog and an eminently fair turnabout on we readers. I do fall into the “LEM is a guilty pleasure” category. I know that while the political philosophy is sometimes pretty deep, the characters tend to be rather one-dimensional, particularly the protagonists who are uniformly decent, moral people who, even when they err, err on the side of trying to do the right thing. Are those characters representative of humanity in general? No, not a bit, but that’s part of what I enjoy. If I want to experience someone who is petty, thoughtless, self-centered, manipulative and self-destructive, there are plenty of works deemed “great literature” who present such realistic characters. Or I can just look in a mirror.

    Anyway, I enjoyed you sharing the view from the other side of the author’s keyboard. Keep it up.

    1. invah says:

      Oh my god, you consider LEM to be a “guilty pleasure”?

  2. Andreas says:

    Thank you! Very interesting and informative post, it has me wondering what type of reader I am, and thinking of what I read, as well as how I review books. It also has me wondering how often books are written for a specific type of reader on the one hand and on the other hand how we take the critically review of readers unlike ourselves seriously…

  3. Robert The Addled says:

    I’m not sure myself where I stand.

    I read what I like, but that varies by mood, weather, medium (print or digital), and so forth. Some books/series I cannot stand – until I revisit them years later. Others I wonder why I ever liked them (when re-reading).

    I think the STYLE of the writing matters – some lighter novels I consider mind candy (some of the Holt books – like ‘Expecting Someone Taller’), while others (Ghosts, Recluce) are thinking books.

    Pure Fantasy to Hard SF is too broad a spectrum to really pin down easily for picking favorites.

  4. Tim says:

    Brilliant post. This mirrors an entertaining and thought-provoking MBA module on stereotyping which involved taking several psychometric tests in different circumstances.

    I now realise I am an unashamed fictional gourmet as I appreciate both a good plot and some detail on things like restaurant meals. I have not read the Ghost series/stories but this was very apparent in the early Imager books. Zelazny was a master at food description as well.

    Keep the food and wine flowing in your novels 🙂

  5. R. Hamilton says:

    Humans not being computers, and computers as yet not really understanding human language, I don’t mind occasional typos that don’t introduce unintended ambiguity. The ones that bother me are the ones that can’t be made to make sense, or worse, that could be made to make different kinds of sense. Fictional names are alas, too easily mixed up.

    I recall a book by another author that had blocks of text transposed on the page. It took awhile, but at least there was only one plausible correction in that situation.

    Regarding fictional food, even if there’s no time on your calendar for a recipe book, I’d love a list of nearest available approximations. Yes, I actually read appendices.

  6. John Prigent says:

    Put me down as an enthusiast and cogitator. I read books for pleasure, and re-read them often to tease out the bits I missed first time around – not to mention the second, third, fourth, etc times.

  7. invah says:

    >And, just because I’m feeling contrary, I’ll offer some reviews of the types of readers I’ve observed over the last forty years or so

    It’s a quiz! I’m an enthusiast! Based on darcher’s remark, I apparently mostly read trash. (I’m not feeling salty, just wry amusement.) This post is a gift and I love these categorizations!

    I think it would be fascinating to see how people self-identify and what they claim as their favorite novel or series.

    As soon as I read the description for “stylistics”, I immediately thought of Gibson’s “Mona Lisa Overdrive”. Those sentences were utter prose, just gorgeous, and I could not lose myself in that story AT ALL.

    Would you consider making a mini-list of books a reader in each category might enjoy? Please?

  8. invah says:

    I often classify consumers – of books, music, beer, whatever – in terms of broadness or depth.

    For example, when it comes to music my taste is broad, dipping superficially into many genres; when it comes to books, I tend to be genre specific and go deep into an author’s bibliography.

    Not a rigorous analysis, by any means, just something I’ve noticed.

  9. Earl Tower says:

    As an avid reader, I consider myself to fit several of those roles. I find different authors sate different appeals and desired forms wordsmithing.

  10. John Mai says:

    That was awesome, and I laughed several times, then I saw myself.
    That’s not funny.

  11. Wayne Kernochan says:

    This is amazing. As a reader talking to other readers, I had no idea there were so many types.

    I also have no idea where I fit in your taxonomy. What does it mean that I enjoy your descriptions of smithing, carpentry, and being a miller as much as your use of tense and important ideas? Why do I like CV Wedgwood’s King’s Peace almost as much as her King’s War? What does my affection for David Weber have to do with my appreciation of Dorothy Dunnett? Why do I root for my authors to take chances, even if the results aren’t as good, like CJ Cherryh attempting to make a romantic fantasy out of assimilation by a computer? Why do I now think that Sheri Tepper is almost as bad as John Norman — and yet think that both had real stylistic gifts? The only common thread, I guess, is that I love to learn, maybe?

    Gee, Officer Krupke, as a reader I’m a mess. I guess I’ll have to curl into a fetal ball, suck my thumb, and read another of your books 🙂

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