First, a happy dance: NPR just put out a list of 100 Best Ever Teen Reads, and guess what ended up at #84? I’m scunnered. Happy, but scunnered. It’s a fabulous reading list; check it out. And thanks to anybody out there who nominated or voted for my books.
Accessibility is one of those aspects of fiction that lots of people talk about (especially in the SF field), but nobody ever seems to define adequately. (I hope it’s obvious that I’m not talking about physical accessibility here, that is, whether or not someone can get their hands on a book.) Furthermore, in some circles the term “accessibility” carries considerable baggage, usually because “accessible” is equated with “commercial” (as opposed to “literary”) writing, and is therefore automatically assumed to be undesireable, lowest-common-denominator writing.
I’ll do the rant about commercial vs. literary some other time; for now, let’s just mention that I don’t think accessibility has a lot to do with that particular argument. I also don’t think accessibility means a story can’t also be complex, layered, or nuanced.
On an individual level, accessibility seems relatively easy to recognize: any book that a particular individual can pick up and sail on through without wanting/needing some kind of outside explanation or pause for thought is accessible to them. Or, to put it another way, any book that contains barriers that block a particular individual’s understanding of the story is less accessible to them, and the more barriers there are, the less accessible the book is.
Expanding this definition at first looks easy: you just judge a book by the number of readers who find the book accessible on an individual level, and the more of them there are, the more accessible the book must be. Unfortunately, looking at it this way can lead to a number of problems, the first and most obvious of which is the “accessible equals popular/commercial equals bad/lowest-common-denominator” equation mentioned above.
This equation is a problem because hardly any writer I know aspires to write lowest-common-denominator fiction, especially if you phrase it that way, and no writer I know wants to write badly.
The second problem with the expanded definition is that it doesn’t recognize that a book can be highly accessible to one group of readers, while being virtually incomprehensible to everyone else. Advanced mathematics textbooks come to mind. (OK, they’re not fiction, but all of you got the point right away, didn’t you?)
The definition also doesn’t recognize that a book can be accessible (or not) on multiple levels. Take children’s books. Alice in Wonderland is, on one level, a splendid adventure for a 13-15 year old; on other levels, it’s an acid trip full of sophisticated word play, parody, mathematics, and political satire, or a parable about losing the wonders of childhood. Many, if not most, of the best and most lasting children’s books have multiple levels, some of which are not fully accessible to their most likely readers…at least, not on their first read-through at age eight or ten or fifteen. One of the reasons such books last is that they stick in the memory, and when one comes around, as an adult, to read them again (for oneself, or as a read-aloud to a child), one finds new levels have become accessible by virtue of one’s adult knowledge and experience.
So the definition is flawed, but it’s the best I could come up with. And it does allow for a way of looking at accessibility that can be useful to writers. One can examine the kinds of things that can be barriers to different individual readers, and try to take out (or leave out) as many of them as possible.
Most of the barriers I can think of – vocabulary, syntax, lack of the background knowledge or personal experience that the author is assuming his/her readers have – can be summed up as a level of unfamiliarity with something in the story that is uncomfortable to the reader.
This is a really tricky thing to judge, because one of the reasons readers read stories is to encounter new things – new characters, new plot twists, new places. Furthermore, every reader has a different point at which he or she gets uncomfortable with the “newness” of the story. The writer is left to balance between imitating “real life” so closely that the readers get bored (because they’ve seen it all before) and scaring off half his/her possible audience by throwing too much unfamiliar stuff at them, too fast.
The classic way around this problem, for fantasy, is the one used by both Alice in Wonderland and the first Harry Potter book. Both Alice and Harry begin the book as, to all appearances, perfectly ordinary children in the real, familiar world; as they move from the familiar to the fantastically unfamiliar, so does the reader. They don’t understand the new places in which they find themselves any better than the reader. The writer can then explain things gradually to the reader as the main character begins to explore and understand…or if the main character is floundering, at least the reader has some company in a frustrating situation.
Making use of multiple levels of accessibility is a little trickier. This isn’t like a plot-braid, where the writer can have a scene from Plotline A and then one from Plotline B and then go back to A. Doing that with different accessibility levels means that the reader who only gets Level A will be completely lost for an entire scene as soon as he/she gets to the Level B part. What one needs to do is mange both levels at the same time, in such a way that the reader who doesn’t get Level B will not even notice that he/she is missing anything unless someone else calls it to his/her attention.
An example: I did a reading of Calling on Dragons once to a mixed audience of adults and children, some of whom were quite young. I got to the point in Chapter 2 where the enormous white rabbit is explaining why he is late for something: “It runs in the family; my brother even got himself a big gold pocket watch, and he still can’t get anywhere on time.”
All of the adults and older children laughed. A six-year-old in the front row immediately looked around suspiciously and demanded in a piercing voice, “Why is that funny?” She obviously hadn’t seen or read Alice yet, so the joke wasn’t accessible for her…but the reference goes by quickly and looks like just the sort of throw-away line that somebody in this situation might say (even if the somebody is a giant rabbit), so if she’d been reading it alone, she wouldn’t have realized that there was a joke she wasn’t getting.