I have a friend who, amongst other writing gigs, is a theatre critic for a national newspaper. From time to time he takes me along to a show as his +1. In this way I get to see plays that I would not pay to see, not because I am unlikely to enjoy them but because I cannot be sure this would be the case. An outing to the theatre is a rare and expensive treat. When parting with hard earned cash I play it safe.
My friend comments from time to time on the dearth of new plays by lesser known writers being granted space in the large and popular theatres. At these venues musicals and adaptations of the classics overwhelm schedules. Looking back at the shows I have taken my children to see over the years – Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, The Sound of Music, Wicked – I understand why theatre directors make the choices they do. They run a business that requires a paying clientele and these types of productions have proved enduringly popular.
Most people don’t watch several theatre shows a week with a view to writing about them. It is little wonder my friend seeks variety and greater depth but he is atypical of attendees.
I have on occasion taken more of a risk with theatre tickets. My son and I enjoyed a stage adaptation of Toby Litt’s novel Deadkidsongs but it was in a small venue that charged £10 for a ticket rather than the more usual £35 (double that for London shows). We chose to go having read and rated the book. Enjoyment of a book also lead me to buy more pricey tickets for us to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, that and consistently good reviews from a variety of people, not just the professional critics.
I probably attend the theatre a handful of times in a year, including the shows my friend invites me to. I attend the theatre more than many people.
I bear all this in mind when I encounter well read, self confident, literary experts who express unhappiness at the number of crime fiction books, thrillers and romances published each year. I fully understand why they want more variety – I do too – but genre fiction continues to sell well. Publishers run a business that requires paying customers.
When I first started reviewing I was happy to read almost anything and rated many crime and thriller books highly. Like a musical at the theatre they are easy entertainment, enjoyable if not always mind stretching. It is only since my reading became a major part of my life that I have grown jaded when faced with the formulaic. What I must remember when writing about such books is that I am not typical of the majority of readers. According to a YouGov survey the mean number of books read for pleasure by adults in the UK is around 10 each year, and the median is around 4. Last year I read in excess of 180.
It is too easy, when knowledgeable and passionate about a subject, to be critical of those whose tastes differ. I have another friend who can discuss the merits of wine based on the field where the grapes were grown and the weather prior to their harvest. They would likely be appalled at my regular purchases of supermarket discounted Australian Chardonnay. Cost is an issue but I enjoy my basic bottle of plonk each evening. In down time, enjoyment is key.
There has been much discussion this week about where people shop for books and the choices they make when purchasing. That I now seek out literary fiction which is challenging, sometimes experimental, preferably character driven, is simply the direction my reading journey has taken me. I do not consider myself a more worthy reader. I choose books I expect to enjoy, as I believe all readers should feel free to do without criticism.
It is good to spread the word about a fabulous title others may not have heard of. My hope for my reviews is that they lead readers to books they will be glad to spend time with. Reading should be a pleasure more than an achievement. Remain open to recommendations but choose for yourself.