by Rebecca Hunter
What makes an “easy read” easy? Why are some books that are labeled “low-quality” still so popular? The answers to these questions lie in the concept of accessibility.
An accessible book is one that is easily understood and appreciated by a wide audience. The idea itself is straightforward, but it can be harder to identify what makes a book accessible and where your books fit into the equation. Accessibility levels are an under-examined factor in reader tastes, so it’s worth taking the time to understand yours. Planning your books and your career with this topic in mind can help you reach the widest audience with the kinds of stories you love to tell.
What’s the difference between literary fiction and genre fiction?
Before we explore our own literary accessibility, we should examine the lit fic/genre fic divide. What’s the difference? This a surprisingly wily question, and before I answer it, I’m going to discard a couple alternate answers that I see floating around since they can act as a distraction to examining our own work.
Myth #1: Literary fiction is about thinking and genre fiction is about feeling.
I see this one often, and I’m guessing it’s for lack of a better answer. But the dichotomy it sets up has a lot of holes. While romance, for example, does excel at feeling, mystery is a genre based on piecing together clues to solve a puzzle…which sounds like thinking to me. On the other side of this supposed divide, we have plenty of literary fiction titles that focus on feeling—most notably, lit fic romances.
I think good books in both literary fiction and in genre fiction are about both thinking and feeling. And when combined with Myth #2, this first myth echoes a centuries-old hierarchy of the rational (thinking) over the emotional (feeling) that has been used against women and many other groups too often. So let’s move on to Myth #2.
Myth #2: The difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is quality.
Now this answer is just plain insulting. Plus, it also ignores the fact that quality is a social construct, not an objective measure.
This can be difficult to get your head around at first. For a straightforward illustration that quality standards aren’t objective measures but, in fact, are constantly evolving cultural ideas, look at how poetry had changed. Before the twentieth century, “high-quality” English-language poems had to rhyme. Now, most English-language poems that win awards and book contracts don’t rhyme. In other words, quality standards reflect values, and they change. Therefore, what I think of as a “high quality” poem (or a “high quality” novel) is actually a reflection of me: my cultural background, the time period I live in, and the poetry I choose/am assigned to read.
My point: the concept of quality as it’s used in the context of Myth #2 is riddled with problems. I wouldn’t waste the space on bringing it up if it didn’t help us uncover a real divide between literary fiction and genre fiction.
Every effective insult grabs a hold of some truth and twists it. In this case, something is being mistakenly labeled as “higher quality” and “lower quality,” problematic and value-laden terms, when what we’re really looking at is different approaches to storytelling. And here’s what I think this something is: accessibility. Myth #2 is grounded in the assumption that a certain set of values—denser, more open-ended books with pessimistic endings—is high quality. I call foul. These qualities make a book tip more heavily to the literary fiction side of the accessibility scale, but these factors don’t necessarily make the book better.
Accessibility: The real divide
Now that we’ve set aside common myths, let’s look at how accessibility defines the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction: Literary fiction expects the reader to come to the book, while genre fiction books come to the reader. I’ll explain this idea in a little more detail.
Literary fiction expects the reader to work to access the book. Lit fic readers might not know where a book is going, and the genre asks readers to be content with this kind of ambiguity, to think about the possibilities in it, knowing the answers might never come from the author. Literary fiction readers have to enjoy this ambiguity.
And in this struggle is where another false—and harmful—hierarchy in quality is born, favoring the densest of books: If I’m having trouble getting into (read: accessing) the book, I’m supposed to keep reading, keep trying. If I don’t connect with a literary fiction book or (gasp) DNF, there’s a chance I’ll be told that I just didn’t get it. In other words, the problem is with me, the reader, and not the book. This judgement of readers is tangled up with literary judgements about “low-quality” books.
In contrast, genre fiction authors are expected to make accessibility a priority. In the first chapters, genre fiction authors are looking to hook the reader. If someone thinks my first chapter is boring, it leaves me wondering how I could have better written it to engage that reader. Maybe you’re better than I am at ignoring those kinds of critiques, but the expectation from readers still stands: the responsibility for engagement falls on us, the authors, and not the reader.
But this article isn’t just about giving talking points to genre fiction writers for your next cocktail party. Understanding the responsibility for accessibility that we take on when we write both literary and genre fiction and understanding how we do it both have very practical uses.
Getting to know the accessibility levels of your books
I spent some time tearing down harmful myths to give you more space to explore your own writing style without judgement—or, at least, with a lot less of it. Our writing tends to have a general accessibility level, embedded in what we call our voice. What factors affect our accessibility levels?
- length of sentences
- balance between action, atmosphere, and ideas
- breadth and variation of vocabulary
- use of clichés, idioms, and other familiarities
- amount of emotional complexity spelled out for readers
- moral clarity/ambiguity of each character
- how closely characters meet expectations set in the beginning of the story
- clarity of plot, from start (expectations) to finish (execution)
Considering the above factors, where do your books fall? Try to give yourself an overall rating on a 1–10 scale, 1 being the densest, most difficult tome out there and 10 being the most straightforward, unambiguous read in fiction.
You may be able to answer these questions yourself, and you can also learn a little about your accessibility level through looking at your reviews. Key words like lyrical and thoughtful can suggest less accessibility and more complexity, with more emphasis on lit fic strategies, while words like fast-paced and light, for example, might hint at a more accessible style. Sometimes, close author friends can provide feedback in this area, too.
It might sound like I’m setting up yet another hierarchy in accessibility scores, but, really, I’m not. For example, I have gotten about equal entertainment value from the movies Elf and Apocalypse Now, though these movies have very different accessibility levels. I like both these movies, though I admit I’ve seen Elf more often—that’s just my taste; you might feel differently. But there’s room in most viewers’—and readers’—lives for many accessibility levels.
Plus, everyone’s taste in accessibility is different. Clichés are familiar shortcuts to emotions, as is the dreaded “telling, not showing.” As an English major, I was told in no uncertain terms to avoid both of these, and yet…frankly, there are lots of readers who like this familiarity and clarity. While some readers lose the connection with books that use many clichés or a lot of telling instead of showing, other readers like this easy access to what characters are thinking and doing. We see this all the time when so-called “low-quality” books hit lists and stay on them, alongside so-called “high-quality” books. Each reader’s preferences are different.
In short, when exploring your own style, don’t worry too much about where on the spectrum of accessibility you fall—there are readers for all accessibility levels. No judgement. Really. It’s much more important to clearly understand all the factors that make your books more or less accessible. Getting to know where you tend to write on this continuum can give insight into how to find good-match readers who like what you do.
Your path forward
Most of us authors want to gain readership, and understanding the role of accessibility in fiction can give us some important tools to do this. The very first step involves letting go of some of the myths about quality and what “good” books should look like. Instead, we can ask ourselves, which kinds of books sell in different markets and why? Putting judgements aside makes it easier to assess what we are doing and where our books and our voice fit into the market. Looking carefully at the accessibility levels of the books we pitch and write can light different paths to success, and our careers can grow by exploring them.
Rebecca Hunter is the award-winning author of sensual, emotional adventures of the heart…which usually means romance novels with a side of wanderlust. Her book Best Laid Plans won the 2019 NERFA and the 2019 HOLT Medallion contest and earned a starred review from Library Journal. She’s currently writing more super-sexy books for the Harlequin Dare line