Sunday, September 20, 2009

Average Reading Levels and Other Forgotten Things

I’m teaching Technical Writing this fall and I came across an interesting bit of information that I can’t help but apply to creative writing. The textbook I’m teaching out of says that it is common for businesses to put out writing at a sixth to eighth grade reading level. The book cites a study that says that while 28% of Americans graduate from college (a very low number to begin with), only about 31% of college graduates can actually read at what we would consider a college graduate level. Simply put, if you’re writing very complex, highly intellectual prose, you’re writing for a very small audience.

While this is more important from a technical writing perspective than from an artistic perspective – you may decide that you don’t want to dumb your art down just so that you can reach more people with it – it still, I think, is worth thinking about. Consider what a higher reading ability your average master’s or doctorate level creative writer has compared with the average, everyday American reading public. Small presses are sometimes willing to put out the highly artistic, intellectual stuff even though it has a low chance of making them any real money, but most of the bigger publishers aren’t even going to consider your work if it can only be marketed to people with English graduate level educations.

And this in my opinion is one of the most legitimate arguments against getting an MFA. The feedback you receive at a graduate level workshop comes from graduate level writers and readers, people with advanced educations, reading abilities, and a stronger than average willingness to work hard to figure out what a text is getting at. They applaud the innovative and unique, the experimental and peculiar, and they deplore things that are easy to follow, straightforward and traditional, plot driven or with a deeper meaning that most readers in the class are able to figure out. In essence, they don’t like the stuff that is actually going to be accessible to a wider audience.

That’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with writing for a small audience of like minded individuals. But I would argue that there’s nothing wrong, either, with taking audience into consideration and actually writing at a level that non-writers and non-scholars will appreciate, too. I’m not saying you should write at a sixth to eighth grade reading level – unless, of course, you’re writing books for sixth to eighth graders. The average American who actually reads for pleasure, I’m guessing, has a higher reading ability than the average American period. But I don’t think the average reading American is at a graduate reading level, either. In my writing, I’m interested in writing stories that are well crafted and complex enough that those scholars will consider it passable – though maybe not exceptional, not perfect by any means – and I don’t want to alienate the larger reading public in the process. I think there can be a middle ground.

I believe that a lot of graduate students aim for that higher ground and end up limiting their audience. Yeah, the few people who read their stuff might consider them brilliant. But they will never have more than a few people willing to read their stuff. This, I suspect, is where a lot of the negative MFA sentiment comes from. I don’t even know how many submission guidelines I’ve read that specify that they are not interested in the writing getting pumped out of MFA programs. I think it’s true that MFA writing sometimes seems pretentious and it’s true that a lot of it is not actually enjoyable – you read it because it’s doing interesting things, not because it’s actually entertaining.

I also don’t think that getting that MFA automatically means you will become one of those writers. You can – and should! – pick and choose which of the feedback is actually going to bring your writing to the point you would like it to be, and this is true whether you’re in a graduate workshop or a writer’s group out in the real world. But there’s a lot to be said for studying the books that actually sell instead of only the books that are considered artistically interesting, and of getting feedback from other writers who are trying to write for a wider audience than from writers who value the strange and the difficult above all else.

No comments: