An interesting post at Fair Dinkum Crime (You really should be following that blog if you’re not) has got me thinking about what happens as we expand our reading horizons. Reading more widely introduces one to all kinds of ideas, themes, and authors that one wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It also gives debut authors and authors who are less widely known the chance to get their work ‘out there.’ So I for one think it benefits readers, authors and the genre (in this case crime fiction) when readers stretch themselves. Of course, let’s not talk about what expanding one’s reading horizons does to one’s TBR list… But there’s another consequence to branching out: one sees one’s old favourites in a different light. Sometimes that’s a positive experience, and sometimes it isn’t. As we evolve in our reading habits, we do get a different perspective and that affects the way we look at the authors and books we always loved before.
For example, authors such as Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen and John Dickson Carr created memorable novels that feature mostly a focus on plotting as opposed to deep character development. Of course one can point to exceptions in each of these authors’ back catalogues but in general their novels feature intellectual puzzles. That’s their appeal for millions of crime fiction fans. But for those of you who loved those puzzles, what happened to your view when you first read, say, Ruth Rendell’s work or P.D. James’ work? Those authors certainly feature solid mystery plots but their focus is also on deep interesting characters and psychological study. Did expanding your horizons that way change your perception of the ‘whodunit’ kind of intellectual exercise?
Many readers fell in love with the hardboiled PI novel along the lines of Raymond Chandler and later, John D. MacDonald, Peter Temple, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton. It’s easy to see why too. A well-written ‘hard boiled’ novel has a solid blend of realism, action, compelling plot and suspense. And the very well-written ones also develop the characters so that they aren’t ‘cardboard cutouts.’ But if you’re the PI-novel type, what happened to your perception when you expanded your horizons to include quieter series such as Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series? Did you change your view of the level of violence and grit in the series you’d always loved? If you’ve broadened your reading to include some traditional ‘country house’ or ‘English village’ series such as Ngaio Marsh’s or Caroline Graham’s work, have you returned with the same interest to the PI sub-genre?
Very often crime fiction fans experience these ‘growing pains’ if you want to call it that when they broaden their reading to include the work of authors from other countries. Each country has a different culture – sometimes several different cultures – and that’s reflected in the crime fiction that comes from that country. So suppose you’ve been a fan of L.A. crime fiction such as the work of Michael Connelly. What happened to your perception of that sort of crime fiction after you expanded your reading to include work such as Håkan Nesser’s Inspector Van Veeteren novels or Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels? Those series reflect the cultures of their authors and thus expose readers to those cultures. After experiencing those different cultures did you return to Connelly’s work with the same enthusiasm?
There are also many crime fiction fans who originally fell in love with historical crime fiction such as Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael series. If that describes you, what happened to your perception of that context and those authors when you began to read crime fiction set in the modern day? Do you still enjoy virtually returning to medieval times? What about when you began to read historical crime fiction set in different eras, such as Rebecca Cantrell’s Hannah Vogel series which is set just before World War II? Did that change your perception of the historical crime fiction you’d always loved?
Sometimes of course we broaden our reading only to realise how much we really do enjoy the novels we’ve always loved. In those cases, returning to a favourite author’s work is like re-uniting with a dear friend. Yes we’ve matured but that doesn’t change our feelings about that author’s novels. I know I have my favourites whose writing I always enjoy. It doesn’t always work out that way though, even if the author has continued to innovate and create well-written books.
When that happens – when we see that our tastes have simply changed – it can be a little sad, especially if we have some very good memories of a particular author or series. But people grow and expand their horizons and sometimes that simply means that our favourite clothes if you will simply don’t fit any more.
Has that happened to you? What’s happened to your perception of your favourite authors’ novels as you’ve widened the scope of your reading? If you’re a writer, has your writing changed as your reading has changed? Just wondering…
Thanks to Bernadette at Reactions to Reading for the inspiration for this post. Folks, you really should be following her superb blog. I know it’s one of my must-reads.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Kenny Loggins’ Heart to Heart.