Can a book be for everyone?

A post at tor.com — I mean “Reactor” — by Molly Templeton: Can a Book Really Be For Everyone?

I like Templeton’s articles because she is usually discussing books rather than movies, she is usually discussing broader themes, and we seem to have similar tastes in books. (I am less sure of that last point after reading the linked post, though.)

To me the answer to this question is plainly NO. I mean … obviously the answer is NO, even defining “everyone” to mean “most people.” How could that possibly work?

A) I love grimdark! Let’s have suffering! Better yet, pointless suffering that leads to no good outcome! The protagonist may try to achieve something worthwhile, but sorry, no way! Pick the worst bad guy in the story — let’s have that guy come out victorious. He can grind the world beneath his bootheel. Blood, filth, and suffering are in your face at every turn. That’s what I want! Gritty realism in fantasy!

B) Let’s have a positive tone, where most people are honestly trying to do their best and mostly succeeding. The protagonist is genuinely kind, and so are many of the other characters. They are trying to achieve something worth achieving, and they succeed. The world is a better place at the end than it was in the beginning. Not only that, but the protagonist becomes a better person because of his commitment to achieving worthwhile aims. He also supports those around him when they try to become better people. Filth and suffering are passed over lightly; the camera doesn’t focus on grit. Sometimes we turn a corner and the world opens up into wonder. That’s what I want — a sense of wonder in fantasy.

These two preferences are totally irreconcilable. What possible book could conceivably appeal to both readers?

I do have a possible suggestion, but I don’t think it would ultimately work.

C) I want adventure! Let’s have fun! Fast pace, quick wit — how about a heist? The protagonist is out for himself, but he’s good-humored about it. The world isn’t particularly gritty, but it’s not particularly safe either. An appealing character dies, but not in an especially brutal way, so there’s this element of tragedy, but not with a slasher aesthetic. The heist succeeds, and at least one character achieves something worthwhile because of that. If that’s not the protagonist, at least the protagonist supports this character. The tone is not high fantasy, but not gritty either — or if the camera pans across grit, it’s in a lighthearted way. Adventurous, fun fantasy that’s the ticket!

The reason I don’t think this would work is that fantasy written this way doesn’t actually appeal to me, even if it’s well written. AND, if the protagonist and/or other characters wind up in a better place than they started out, then I suspect grimdark fans might not find this fun heist story all that appealing either. (That’s a guess.) However, if the writing is good enough and witty enough, maybe this kind of book might hit a sweet spot between (A) and (B).

On the other hand, you know who it wouldn’t appeal to? Every reader who detests fantasy and won’t touch a book with fantasy elements.

So … I’m coming down pretty hard on the NO response. NO, a book cannot appeal to everyone. Or to most people. Or, probably, even to a majority of people. A book can only have wide appeal within the group of readers who like that kind of book.

What does Molly Templeton say?

Listening to Zevin, I thought about what makes a book for everyone. I don’t mean everyone in a bestseller list way—who knows how many of those celebrity-book-club, nonfiction-trend, famous-person memoir books ever get read? I mean the kind of book that can draw packs of teens, writers, parents, readers, and everyone else in a community into a theater on one rainy Thursday afternoon. Is it the presence of universal themes? Approachable prose? Intergenerational narratives? A certain sense of transparency, like you can see what the author is doing even as you appreciate it? 

All right, that’s more reasonable, because here we mean “everyone” as “readers from a wide demographic base.” Who is Zevin? This is Gabrielle Zevin, who has written, apparently, some contemporary YA novels, such as Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. It may be more New Adult than YA; the characters are in their twenties. This is a book with nearly 100,000 ratings and a 4.4 star average. Let’s take a look at the description:

***

On a bitter-cold day, in the December of his junior year at Harvard, Sam Masur exits a subway car and sees, amid the hordes of people waiting on the platform, Sadie Green. He calls her name. For a moment, she pretends she hasn’t heard him, but then, she turns, and a game begins: a legendary collaboration that will launch them to stardom.

These friends, intimates since childhood, borrow money, beg favors, and, before even graduating college, they have created their first blockbuster, Ichigo. Overnight, the world is theirs. Not even twenty-five years old, Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won’t protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts.

Spanning thirty years, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Venice Beach, California, and lands in between and far beyond, Gabrielle Zevin’s Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow examines the multifarious nature of identity, disability, failure, the redemptive possibilities in play, and above all, our need to connect: to be loved and to love.

***

Well, the story may be great, but “Sam and Sadie are brilliant, successful, and rich, but these qualities won’t protect them from their own creative ambitions or the betrayals of their hearts” doesn’t appeal to me at all. Sounds like they’re going to probably practically destroy their own lives, and even if they pull themselves together toward the end, this kind of plot and character arc is anti-appealing.

We’ve been looking at first pages lately; since we’re here, let’s look at the first page of this one. Maybe after reading the first bit, I’ll change my mind and decide yes, the story looks appealing and I do want to read it after all.

***

Before Mazer invented himself as Mazer, he was Samson Mazer, and before he was Samson Mazer, he was Samson Masur — a change of two letters that transformed him from a nice, ostensibly Jewish boy to a Professional Builder of Worms — and for most of his youth, he was Sam, S.A.M, on the hall of fame of his grandfather’s Donkey Kong machine, but mainly Sam.

On a late December afternoon, in the waning twentieth century, Sam exited a subway car and found the artery to the escalator clogged by an inert mass of people, who were gaping at a station advertisement. Sam was late. He had a meeting with his academic advisor that he had been postponing for over a month, but that everyone agreed absolutely needed to happen before winter break. Sam didn’t care for crowds — being in them, or whatever foolishness they tended to enjoy en masse. But this crowd would not be avoided. He would have to force his way through it if he were to be delivered to the aboveground world.

Sam wore an elephantine navy wool peacoat that he had inherited from his roommate, Marx, who had bought it freshman year from the Army Navy Surplus Store in town. Marx had left it moldering in its plastic shopping bag just short of an entire semester before Sam asked if he might borrow it. That winter had been unrelenting, and it was an April nor’easter (April! What madness, these Massachusetts winters!) that finally wore Sam’s pride down enough to ask Marx for the forgotten coat. Sam pretended that he liked the style of it, and Marx said that Sam might as well take it, which is what Sam knew he would say. Like most things purchased from the Army Navy Surplus Store, the coat emanated mold, dust, and the perspiration of dead boys, and Sam tried not to speculate why the garment had been surplussed. But the coat was far warmer than the windbreaker he had brought from California his freshman year. He also believed that thelarge coat worked to conceal his size. The coat, its ridiculous scale, only made him look smaller and more childlike.

That is to say, Sam Masur at age twenty-one did not have a build for pushing and shoving and so, as much as possible, he weaved through the crowd, feeling somewhat like the doomed amphibian from the video game Frogger. He found himself uttering a series of “excuse mes” that he did not mean. A truly magnificent thing about the way the brain was coded, Sam thought, was that it could say “Excuse me,” while meaning “Screw you.” Unless they were unreliable or clearly established as lunatics or scoundrels, characters in novels, movies, and games were meant to be taken at face value — the totality of what they did or what they said. But people — the ordinary, the decent and basically honest — couldn’t get through the day without that one indispensable bit of programming that allowed you to say one thing and mean, feel, or even do, another.

***

What do you think? I think this is definitely not a book that appeals to everyone, because I don’t like it. Why not?

A) I think the writing is top notch, and here we see all sorts of things that have not worked for me in several of the recent “would you turn the page” posts, except here those things do work. The (parenthetical) works much better for me here than it did in Tress because the tone is not arch. We have someone walking somewhere, as in Lost in Time, but here that is engaging rather than boring. The first paragraph is static, but elegant. There’s a flashback, which is also elegant. I note that the paragraphs are longer, which thank you, please, let’s have paragraphs of reasonable length, not divide practically every sentence into its own paragraph.

However,

B) I very much dislike the I’m-so-superior tone. Sam didn’t care for crowds — being in them, or whatever foolishness they tended to enjoy en masse. Oh, I see Sam is so superior. I’m sure he’s much more sensitive and intelligent than ordinary people, who I guess love being in crowds. He’s so sensitive and intelligent and superior that he is contemptuous of decency and honesty. What middle-class virtues those are, how plebian, how ordinary.

I think of this as the Steppenwolf attitude, though Sam is probably much more energetic and gung-ho than the guy in Steppenwolf. Nevertheless, the contempt for ordinary people is the same. I wouldn’t say that I dislike this attitude. No, I despise this attitude.

Sam here is no doubt supposed to be sympathetic and engaging. Well, not to me. I deleted the sample immediately after typing in the above excerpt.

Looking at the ratings, I see 15% are three star or below. I read through some of those reviews, which you shouldn’t if you want to read the story, as there are massive spoilers in some of the reviews. As a side note, please, NEVER DO A LOW-STAR REVIEW THAT SAYS: The book came in the mail with a ripped cover which was very disappointing and that is the whole review. That’s TERRIBLE and I know zero readers of this blog would ever do this, but I’ve got reviews just like that on some of my books as well. Ugh. Honestly, if the review is less than 50 words long and includes the words “ripped cover” and is under four stars, Amazon should just automatically delete it. Or at least remove it from calculations of the average star rating.

Much more relevant to the question about universal (or near universal, or at least broad) appeal, here’s a line from another three-star review: The criticism I keep coming back to seems to stem from the feeling I had that the book revels in the pain of its characters a little too much. I’m not even saying that’s a particularly bad thing, just that it isn’t for me. 

There you go. First, that line would probably kill my desire to read the book even in the absence of anything else, but second, the book is not for readers who dislike seeing characters’ lives destroyed. Those are readers who aren’t going to like the book. Of course, 15% negative reviews (minus the ridiculous reviews about the ripped cover) is a pretty good percentage. Of the nearly 100,000 readers who left reviews, 85% left four- or five-star reviews, so it worked for them. That’s not everyone, but it’s a lot.

Here is where Molly Templeton was actually going with this post:

I suspect, though, that a lot of SFF readers have thought about this, or about a topic in this general vicinity. Who hasn’t found themselves trying to explain—with a mild to severe level of exhaustion and/or frustration—that not all SFF is like the one disagreeable book a friend read and did not like, causing them to back away from the genre forever? Who hasn’t heard a genre skeptic say, “I don’t usually like fantasy, but I liked this book?” Haven’t we all tried to find just the right book, the one that would demonstrate to a doubter exactly why the genres we love are so big, so brilliant, so compelling? And what a task that is. Do they want happy stories or stories that spring from a deep well of trauma? Ensemble casts or chosen ones? Secondary worlds or magic at home? Hot villains or trustworthy paladins? Should we make a survey, try to figure out what the best book to convert someone to SFF is? Is there one true SFF novel for everyone? (I kid. Mostly.)

No, of course there isn’t, see above, so it’s good this is (mostly) not serious.

I know of readers who are fine with contemporary world fantasy, historical fantasy, and alternate history fantasy, but won’t touch secondary world fantasy. I’m sure there are plenty of readers who like paranormal romance with werewolves but would be bored to tears by something like A Winter’s Tale by Helprin. At the moment, I’m off paranormal and UF except for books by Ilona Andrews — I just got tired of those subgenres and that hasn’t worn off yet. Tastes differ. It doesn’t matter how many surveys you do; there isn’t One Great Novel For Everyone; there isn’t a Top Ten Fantasy Novels Your Non-Fantasy Reader Might Love, nothing like that. No, there’s no choice but to say, “What do you actually like to read right now? In that case these novels here might appeal to you.” Without the initial question, there’s just no way.

And, even for books “everyone” loves, some readers won’t love it. But, is 15% “meh” about typical? Or is that proportion high or low? Out of curiosity, I went back and looked at The Fourth Wing. You know what the percentage is for three stars and below? Just 3%. As candidates for “everyone loves it” go, it’s way, way above Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow.

Given that The Fourth Wing is YA secondary world fantasy with (it looks like) an edge of dystopia, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow is maybe YA or “New Adult” contemporary fiction with an edge of literary ruining-your-life, my guess is the overlap of readership is not that great. But of course, I don’t know. It would be interesting to find out, but I don’t know how one could.

One final note:

I am sure (very, very sure) that there are nigh-unto-infinite novels that should be massively more popular than they are. What is ONE book that leaped to your mind that fits this category? I’ve asked that before, I bet, but hey, it’s 2024, I bet some of you have new contenders.

My pick: I’m going for something really out of the ordinary here, something that is practically unknown, and something which is not SFF. We might call it positive literary. It’s kind of YA, but not really? Anyway, it’s Thursday’s Children by Rumer Godden.

Especially recommended if you are into dance, especially ballet; and also like school stories; and also like historicals. This book would be the perfect intersection in that Venn diagram. However, speaking as someone who knows almost nothing about ballet, is just okay with school stories, and prefers historicals set much longer ago than this … it’s still just a lovely story. This is the old cover, the one I’ve got, which I like better than the new cover, though I’m happy to see that it’s been reissued and is in print. And it’s not (apparently) available as an ebook. But I really love this story. I wonder what proportion of readers would appreciate it today, and whether it might turn out to have broad demographic appeal if you dropped it into the hands of a million or so modern readers. I think it could definitely appeal to readers of almost any age, so that’s a start.

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12 thoughts on “Can a book be for everyone?”

  1. I agree there’s no one book that everyone loves. There are books that have broader appeal. When I was in high school, I had a job as a page shelving books in the children’s room at the library. A parent came in and asked for a recommendation. We were supposed to refer those questions to the children’s librarian, but she wasn’t in. The other page and I already knew that our tastes were very different, but we put our heads together and suggested Half Magic as something we both liked.

    It’s also true that some books straddle the edges of genre more than others. That is, of course, why if someone wants an SFF rec when they don’t usually read it, the first question is what else they like to read. But there are authors who, stylistically, are more mainstream and thus easier for readers new to the genre. I am thinking at the moment of John Scalzi. I really enjoy his blog and online presence, and not all his fiction works for me but I have suggested both Old Man’s War and The Kaiju Preservation Society to people. (Thinking of first page / first chapter, I almost DNF’d Kaiju in the first chapter. It felt like – was – a capitalism-sucks dystopia, not my genre. But it was setting up why the protagonist was willing to take the very mysterious job, and after they did, it became very engaging for me.) Related, while I was in high school I was reading Glory Road by Heinlein. I left it in the living room and my dad, who didn’t read SFF, picked it up, loved it, and went on to read his way through most of early and middle Heinlein.

    Your question about books we think should be better known is really interesting. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden is one of my top-ten favorite books, and I have read or tried many of her others with mixed results. Thursdays Children is one that I like a lot. I wouldn’t have thought to call it out, but I can see why you do. I have forgotten the word Jo Walton coined for it, but she said there are some books that just grab you and keep you reading. It’s not being a page-turner; that implies a propulsive plot like a thriller or a mystery. But it’s an immersion in the characters and the world. Thursday’s Children has that for me. I can’t put my finger on why. It just does. (I wonder where my copy is? I hope it wasn’t one of the ones lost to basement flooding.)

    Thinking of books I wish got more attention, one is 7th Sigma by Steven Gould. In the desert southwest, the territory, people still live despite the alien bugs that eat metal, all kind of metal. They adapted. The main character is a teen who is very competent at living there. But his job assisting a party of visitors will be more complicated than he expects. This is not a cliffhanger, but it’s clearly set up for a sequel and I would very much have liked it to be written.

    Another would be the series by Lorna Freeman that begins with Covenants. The fourth book of the series was never published and the author has no online presence. A search turns up the occasional plaintive wish for the last book but no information. Alas. Book 3 is not quite a cliffhanger, although a secondary character is missing at the end. Also, I think books 1 and 2 are OOP with only 3 available as an ebook. But well worth reading anyway. Interesting world with strained relations between humans and the Fae and other supernatural creatures. As with most books I particularly enjoy, the draw is in the characters and their relationships. The main character, Lord Rabbit, begins as a low-level military functionary but ends up in the middle of various diplomatic efforts. Some trope of the Chosen One but not obnoxiously so. Interesting shifts in trust and suspicion between Rabbit and his friends.

  2. What is a book that should be better known? Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer. Fast-paced high-tension adventure fantasy in which the two main characters eventually become friends despite starting in circumstances that make that unlikely. And then there’s the scenery: one of the two MCs is a mountaineer and Schafer really conveys her love of the outdoors and her passion for climbing, without ever losing the MC’s voice.

  3. I can’t believe someone wrote an article seeking books lots of varied people like and didn’t mention Harry Potter. I think Pratchett’s work also qualifies as broadly accessible, albeit not everyone would like the same ones.

    I have a copy of Thursday’s Children. It’s very good. Godden, in general, is neglected, which is a shame. Otter, do you know her work An Episode of Sparrows? It, along with Thursday’s Children and Brede is among my top three of her works. The ones that she often gets mentioned for (other than Brede) I haven’t particularly cared for.

    As for books that should be better known…. well, there’s our hostess’ books. :-)

  4. Elaine, I like An Episode of Sparrows but not as much. I tend to like the “nun” books and not particularly like the ones set in India, and fall in between on the others.

  5. Thursday’s Child – I started it but dnf. One of the very few recommendations from Racel that didn’t work for me. Maybe because it wasn’t fantasy? I don’t remember anything particularly wrong with it, I just didn’t relate to the main character and didn’t find it engaging.

    7th Sigma – I agree with OtterB on this one. It was fun and rewarding, interesting setting. Very much a tribute to Kipling’s Kim, which I also like.

    Harry Potter – what a good point Elaine T! Yes, this series is probably the best candidate for “fantasy books with broad appeal”. Even my parents (who never read SFF of their own inclination) admit to liking it. They even liked it better than the Curse of Challion (gasp!). I have stopped trying to force them to read my favourites. Mom and I can both read and enjoy Louise Penny, that’s the best overlap in our tastes.

    A Brother’s Price, by Wen Spencer – This is my contribution for books that deserve a bigger audience. Though I don’t know how popular it is, I found pretty much at random, myself.
    Also Hilari Bell (I like everything by her except the Rogue & Knight series)

  6. I have to agree with A Brother’s Price, Lorna Freeman’s Covenants books, Thursday’s Child and Harry Potter. I’ll definitely pick up 7th Sigma. I’d add in Ender’s Game? Who could not like that?

  7. My pick for a book that should be more popular is actually a picture book: The Little One by Kiyo Tanaka. I think it’s just an absolutely phenomenal book, but the English translation hasn’t gotten as much attention as I think it deserves (possibly because it’s from a small publisher?). It has beautiful copperplate etchings, a magical story, and it’s one of the few books that I don’t get tired of reading even when my kids ask for it a million times.

    This is not quite what you asked about, but this discussion also makes me think of the book The Race by Nina Allan, because that’s a book that is extremely not for everyone and I think the reviews suffer for it. The back cover copy and the opening pages make it seem like a genre-typical near future sci-fi adventure, but it’s actually 4 novellas from different genres (the middle two I would describe as mostly literary fiction, the last as maybe magical realism), all of which are a little incomplete on their own, but they connect to each other in interesting ways to make a final product that I thought felt complete in an artsy way. I can see why the sci-fi section had to come first, but I think the back cover copy does the book a disservice and results in the book mostly getting picked up by people who are looking for something completely different from what it is, and passed over by a lot of the readers who would love it.

  8. Kate, I don’t have children, as you know, but now I kind of want to go take a look at this picture book.

    In This House of Brede is actually probably my favorite of Rumer Godden’s books. An Episode of Sparrows — I liked it, but not as much. I liked The Dark Horse a lot.

    It’s a shame when a book is really hard to present. I think that happens more than people realize, that it’s just hard to present a book so that people who would love it see that they should try it. That’s aside from getting eyeballs on it at all.

    I haven’t read A Brother’s Price, though I’ve liked a few others by Wen Spencer. This thing that is a tribute to KIM sounds interesting for that reason alone.

    I liked Whitefire Crossing quite a book. Beautiful scenery. You can sure tell the author knows a lot about mountain climbing!

    And yes, I personally do agree that my books should also be much, much better known!

  9. I don’t see how any one book could appeal to everyone, but will say that the grimdark genre is about as far from my personal tastes as you can manage, other than actual horror. Because, sorry, I need to be able to sleep at night.

    I often recommend the Moontide/Magic Rise duology by Sean Russell, which has a prequel duology of “The River into Darkness.” I haven’t read them in a while, but they live on the bookcase right outside my bedroom because I like them so much.

    And, one of my all-time favorites? It’s a YA book from about 1977, “Best of Enemies” by Nancy Bond. She wrote “A String in the Harp” which think was a Newbery runner-up a million years ago? Anyway, the “Best of Enemies” is a fantastic story about a junior-high-school girl who finds her town of Concord, Mass overrun by odd Brits before the annual Patriot’s Day celebrations. It’s delightful and I’ve been re-reading it almost every year since my 7th grade reading teacher recommended it to me.

  10. Sean Russell’s books are so good! My favorite of his are his Initiate Brother duology, but the Moontide books were also terrific. I read 7th Sigma, on the recommendations here, and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it would be nice if there were a sequel.
    I doubt I’ll be able to find any book from 1977! I’ll definitely try.

  11. Alison, I really liked the Initiate Brother duology, too, though I reread it a year or so ago and didn’t think it had aged as well as the others. I did not like his Swan’s War series, though–but there, too, it’s been a while!

    Glad to find somebody else who’s read him!

  12. I’ve got the first book of the Initiate Brother duology on my TBR pile, I believe. Maybe someday.

    I hate grimdark MUCH more than horror. I like horror … sometimes … as long as the important characters don’t die. Horror is actually a lot like mystery in the sense that the evil thing is usually defeated. I suppose if the evil thing wins, you’re possibly looking at a special category of “grimdark horror,” which … just no. Cthulhu, I guess, where the evil lurks and everyone goes insane and there’s no escape. Ugh. But Dean Koontz is fine. Not always believable plots, but by golly the dog never dies, and neither does any character you’re really attached to.

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