Thursday, May 30, 2013

Must We Really Be Dumb and Dumber?

A recent post by Susan Mary Malone bemoaned the dumbing down of books from an eighth grade reading level to a sixth grade level. After contributing a couple of off-the-cuff responses, I sat back and meditated on the long-term repercussions of such a reduction in standards and became even more concerned about the consequences of this thinking. Then I realized that the dumbing-down mentality is not new.

Think the Three Stooges, Abbott and Costello, etc. Then, nearly 20 years ago, a movie titled Dumb and Dumber was a smash hit. I didn’t see it because the title turned me off. While I’m not an intellectual snob by any means, I do like the movies I pay to see (and the books I read) to have some redeeming value. Nor am I opposed to something being genuinely funny. Humor holds an honored place in entertainment and in writing. Laughing at a hilarious joke, an amusing story, a giggle-producing autobiography, or reruns of Carol Burnett’s sidekicks (Conway and Korman) or Dick Van Dyke’s antics can be a huge stress releaser or a family fun fest. Great comedy is, indeed, an art form. However, it needn’t be dumbed down to utter stupidity for an audience to “get it.”

Several years ago I was discussing Harry Potter with a lifelong elementary schoolteacher and administrator. After mentioning that none of Rowling’s books had made my favorites list, I received a good scolding for my narrow mindedness; then she informed me that Harry had kids reading voraciously, kids who had never before willingly read any book and whose reading levels varied widely. Elle Carter Neal commented on Susan’s post that the more advanced vocabulary used in the HP books did not deter readers. In fact, the books were wildly popular despite the author’s challenging word choices.  

What’s the message here? Great stories trump dumbing down to sixth-grade reading level.  

How does this invaluable bit of information affect us as writers? We must write well—but exactly what does this mean? After all, well written pieces can be more than a trifle boring and uninspiring. Consider the following criteria for creating great stories: 

1.  Interesting plots keep story moving forward and readers turning pages to see what happens next.

2.  Strong, three-dimensional characters invite readers to connect and become friends who care or enemies who hate. Cheering sections form for threatened protagonists, and protestors rally against the bad guy(s).

3.  Great dialogue sounds so realistic that every word could be spoken aloud and accepted as actual conversation.

4.  Readers can step into story and become silent observers or perhaps even active participants, at least in their own minds.

5.  Imaginations spring to life as readers ponder the “what ifs” and expand the story beyond its current parameters.

6.  Story becomes a hiding place, a refuge, a place where life takes on meaning and interest, an inspiration to broaden horizons, a gold mine of coping mechanisms, and so much more.

Of course, many other elements contribute to a great story with potential to rival Harry Potter in creating reader interest. What points would you add to the above list?
Do you believe that we, as writers, inspire our readers to learn and grow?

Do you find any value in stunting that growth by capping your story at a twelve-year-old’s reading level?

Do you challenge your readers to rise above the occasional word that cries out for definition and head for the dictionary?

How do you stimulate readers to expand their horizons?

Do you believe a mandate to keep your writing at a sixth grade level should be honored?

Or do you think J. K. Rowling should be validated by our following her excellent example in showing kids (and adults!) how to enjoy reading while learning not to be satisfied with being “dummies”?  

Is it time to reverse this appalling trend and show the world that we are quite capable of being smart and smarter?

Linda Lane is proofing the ARC of her latest book and has begun working on the sequel. Several other novels ranging from young adult to thriller wait in the wings for long overdue attention and completion. Despite her busy schedule, she loves to help new writers (as well as more experienced ones) realize their dreams of creating press-ready books with great audience appeal. You may visit her editing team at www.denvereditor.com.

16 comments :

  1. I can't remember if Vonnegut said it, and I'm paraphrasing, but it went something like this. "Even the best literature being written today--you have to wrap it in chocolate. If you wrap it in chocolate, they will read it and once they get past the truffle, they'll see the quality." He was acknowledging that we have to entice readers, and we must keep up with their tastes. I think a similar discussion goes with "wrap" music versus more traditional forms, and colorizing classic movies. I prefer the classic forms, but it's okay to do what we have to do to get kids reading, listening to and perhaps writing lyrics, appreciating the plots and artistry of classic films. I don't think a diet of junk anything is healthy, including a diet of dumbed down reading. On the other hand you can get sick if you only eat kale all day, every day. Balance is what we need, "everything in moderation," the old adage goes. We don't want them to get sick (bored to death) of the healthy stuff. That's the competitive advantage of the Potter books--she's wrapped the quality in chocolate. We would like readers of every age to be able to compare and to be open to and appreciative of the full palette. Sorry for all my mixed metaphors. It's early and I haven't had my second cup of coffee yet.

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  2. Good post, Linda, and I agree with D.M. about wrapping the quality in the sweet temptation. I have not read all the Harry Potter books, but I did read the first one and enjoyed it. I think the writing was much better than some other popular books in the same genre.

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  3. When I was a child there was no YA category. I read adult books. We were taught "literature" (mostly by the great white males). I read Austen, Tolkein, D. H. Lawrence, and Moliere. On my own, I read Anne Rice, Stephen King,and Victoria Holt. That said, I think the current YA market encourages more teens to read because they are peer centered and like reading about characters in their age group or slightly older. My daughter and I read the Potter books together.

    I didn't dumb down the language (or the characters) in my YA series. I do believe, thanks to internet and social media usage, vocabularies are shrinking.

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  4. D.M. Solis, I heartily agree that we must make our stories palatable. "Chocolate" as an enticement? What a yummy idea! Kale, however, is not on my favorite foods list. As you note, the secret is balance -- like wrapping the quality in a goody. The is the best of both worlds, really, and perhaps the key to raising the bar on the reading level to everyone's benefit.

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  5. Maryann, two of the beautiful perks I find in this blog are the quality and diversity of our contributors and followers. Despite the efforts of some in the publishing industry to lower standards with (perhaps) the misguided hope of selling more books, Blood-red-pencilers hold fast to the concepts and rules that create above-standard works. This doesn't mean we never break the rules; we just have learned when to do it so quality doesn't suffer.

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  6. Diana, I have issues with the Internet and social media, and yet I have praise for both. They're a mixed bag, especially when vocabulary is dumbed down to obscure (to me) abbreviations and sentences are short and choppy. On the other hand, the shorter and more concise the message, the greater the likelihood that it will be read, right? Hmm.

    I think it's great that you and your daughter read together. And kudos to you for not dumbing down the language in your YA books.

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  7. I'll stick to my belief that spare and clear writing is often more powerful than text cloaked in self-important language. Too many people try to sound smart and end up communicating nothing (except that they are full of themselves). Depending on topic and audience, simple is often best. Even if you don't sound all fancy-schmancy. ;)

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  8. My high school English teacher always said "Say What You Mean." I don't think you need to dumb down the vocabulary to get the story told. As long as it's appropriate to the characters in the story so they sound like real people.

    As I recall, when I was teaching for the Adult Literacy League, we were told that newspapers are written on the 5th grade level. Can't be 100% sure I remember that correctly, though.
    Terry
    Terry's Place

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  9. Dani, I think we're on the same page here. I believe in simple and straightforward in almost all aspects of writing and life. "Fancy-schmancy" writing isn't necessarily good writing, just as plain and to-the-point doesn't guarantee a quality piece.

    Simple and dumbing down are not synonymous. Wordiness is equally annoying, whether the words are sixth-grade or college level. Any story takes as many words as it takes to pull the reader in and effectively tell the tale.

    If your target audience is scientific, medical, technical, or otherwise highly educated, your work will use a vocabulary that would certainly be over my head -- and I wouldn't be buying the book. Dumbing it down to my level, however, might negate its value for its intended audience.

    As you suggest, some authors tend to put their expansive vocabularies on display in their writing. We each can decide for ourselves whether we want to read their books. It wouldn't be my choice to do so.

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  10. Terry, you hit on a good point. Newspapers are designed to appeal to the masses. To address all reading levels, they have to aim at the lower ones. As writers we target a more select audience and can choose our vocabularies accordingly.

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  11. I like Dani's approach. I also agree with Terri, that it isn't so much a choice between the dumb word and the intellectual's word, but the wrong word and the right one. Case in point: A sentence in my forthcoming novel about a dancer in the hospital being sensitive to the fact that a dance critic is in the room, looking at her covers as if "seeking some remnant of that dancer within its hilly landscape." My editor suggested that I come up with a simpler word than "remnant," as it seemed wrong to her. The word I came up with was actually less common: vestige. I apologized that I'd moved in the wrong direction and she agreed that vestige was the perfect word!

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  12. Vestige: a great choice and an interesting word picture, Kathryn. Yes, indeed, it's all about the right word.

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  13. It's across the board.
    The History Channel's once excellent shows have been replaced by Pawn Stars and American Pickers. The Golden Age of Hollywood was replaced by movies that tried to trump the last one with more sex, more violence, more nonsense (such as your Dumb and Dumber example). Top 40 radio once presented talent ranging from Elvis to Sinatra (Frank and Nancy) to the Beatles to the Supremes to Ray Charles to Johnny Cash to the Beach Boys (do a web search for Billboard and look at issues from 50 years ago. Scan the Hot 100 for a complete list of artists). Now "music" consists of who has the most flash, best dancing, and most exposed flesh.
    The ultimate insight was when I read someone from traditional publishing who wrote that the pulp fiction of 1900 to 1940s was better written than the best sellers of today.
    She was right.

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  14. Sad but true, Anonymous. Newer is not necessarily better, as can be seen clearly from your examples. Quality always holds the winning hand in my opinion, and it extends far beyond word choices in books.

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  15. I absolutely love this post, Linda, and all the discussion. A great point here as well is that the words we use need to "fit" what we're writing. Which of course again speaks to audience, and where you have to find that balance. That's where it can get tricky. So often words stick out for the opposite of what Kathryn was saying--it's obvious some editor dumbed down the original to fit the market. But Kathryn and her editor worked so well together! That's what a great editor is supposed to do--spur you to find something better, not just different.
    I posted a blog on my own website yesterday about genre vs. Literary, and did one have more merit. The truth is, in the hands of a skilled writer, great prose, insight, compelling characters, a meaningful (and entertaining) plot all come to pass.
    Thanks for this, Linda! All great food for thought. Which I am gonna go now and wrap in chocolate.

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  16. You know, Linda, I've honestly never given a thought to the reading level of my stuff ... so if it's capped at a sixth-grade reading level that would indicate the author's reading level. Oh, and while I do appreciate sophisticated satire, I'll double over with laughter at seeing someone get hit in the head with a wrench.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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