What Do Readers Want?

Janet Grant

Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant

Recently I watched a TV interview with Ann Patchett and Daniel Pink on their favorite books of 2017. You can read the interview or watch it here.

I enjoyed the entire book-review approach to the segment. But Patchett pulled me up short by a statement she made. As not only a best-selling, very talented writer but also as the co-owner of a popular Nashville independent bookstore, Parnassus, she has her hand on the pulse of readers. Speaking as a store owner, she said:

The number one thing that people come into my bookstore and ask for is a book that is smart and funny and has an uplifting ending. And those books are few and far between.

The interviewer, Jeffrey Brown from the PBS Newshour, seems surprised by her statement. “Really? They come to you for an uplift?”

Like, wow, imagine not everyone wanting to read a book that takes him or her to a dark and empty place and then leaves the reader there.

Let’s unpack Patchett’s statement.

Readers want a book to be smart

When is the last time you read a book you could describe that way? To me, this would be a reading experience that explored a complex issue in a compelling way. That opened up the world to me from a perspective I hadn’t seen before. I would add that the exploration of the topic should be layered. No off-the-top, surface stuff but soul-deep pondering.

One of the books I’ve read this year that fits the bill is the memoir Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, who is a geobiologist and pursues independent research about plants. The book opened to me the world of plants, the world of scientific research, what humans don’t “get” about plants, what it means to a girl to have a mother who doesn’t know how to connect emotionally with a child, what it’s like to be a geeky-looking girl who wants to pursue a career that only guys venture into–and so much more.

Jahren is genius, and her book is one smart cookie, too. Totally loved what an intelligent read it was.

Readers want a book to be funny

Hm, humor seems in short supply in books nowadays. I have to come back to Lab Girl on this point as well. Jahren connects with an equally geeky plant guy while on a research trip. He doesn’t talk much; he just digs. That’s what the research trip was all about. But he doesn’t talk even during breaks. Eventually these two odd ducks discover that they enjoy each other’s oddities. Lest you think they fall in love, nah, it doesn’t happen. They become like siblings. Every time a scene occurred between the two, I was on high alert for their verbal high jinx yet heartfelt care for one another. Way fun to read!

Readers want a book to be uplifting

Those who read Christian book can feel fairly confident that the journey through the pages will be filled with light and hope. We’re a people of light and hope. And I love that.

For those who read more in the general market, you can understand why the Parnassus bookstore patrons are on the hunt for an uplifting book. As Patchett said, they’re few and far between.

Since I’ve used Lab Girl as my example so far, I’m sticking with it. Jahren ends her memoir by talking directly to the reader in the Epilogue. She exhorts you to plant a tree every year. It could save the earth. Really.

But she suggests you do so much more than that. She wants you to live with your tree. As she says, “Take your children to the tree every six  months and cut a horizontal chink into the bark to mark their height. Once your little ones have grown up and moved out and into the world, taking parts of your heart with them, you will have this tree as a living reminder of how they grew, a sympathetic being who has also been deeply marked by their long, rich passage through childhood.

“While you’re at it, would you carve Bill’s [the geeky guy who loved to dig] name into your tree as well? He’s told me a hundred times over that he’ll never read this book because it would be pointless. He says that if he ever gets at all interested in himself he can damn well sit down and remember the last twenty years without any help from me.”

Yea, an uplifting paean to plants, our need to relate to them and appreciate them, and to our quest for knowledge of not only our surrounding world but also of ourselves. That would be Lab Girl.

What does this mean to you?

How can you make your WIP smarter, funnier, and as uplifting as heaven?

What book have you read this year that fits the bill of Ann Patchett’s description of the perfect book?

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Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

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At a writer’s conference, when an editor …

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