Four Questions on Reading and Writing

My daughter Lilian is a dancer. She’s curious about the human soul, insightful and intelligent. But she doesn’t read books. It’s a bit heartbreaking, and believe me, is not for want of me being encouraging/nagging/moderately unhinged about it. She is mildly dyslexic, primarily affecting the way she is able to deal with large blocks of text, instructions and information. She panics about missing things, misunderstanding, forgetting. This makes reading books a trial. We had a long talk last week that left me with questions and I said I’d take them to other writers and readers here and on Twitter. 

Lilian hates being unable to distinguish characters easily. She asked why writers couldn’t be more emphatic about some characteristic, a description or a trait that would act for her as a marker. It made me curious about how much work we expect readers to do. Lilian feels it is too much, she is annoyed by all she is expected to remember, especially when the gaps between reading can be long. (I haven’t yet asked her how many similar compromises she would be prepared to make in her own art form of dance and choreography [#notmany] to make it more easily understood. It has only just occurred to me that she has the same issues in a different form.)

As writers don’t necessarily want to keep dishing out way-finders, I asked her if a list of characters would help instead. She thinks it would. I forget who characters are too and sometimes get lost. When I read Life and Fate by Vassily Grossman, I referred constantly to a family tree that I found online, and would’ve been lost without it. Using a Kindle offers a search function, and some books do have a list of characters, but:


1) Could this be expanded so a list of characters become commonplace? Are there reasons not to do this? 

I also wanted to ask for some recommendations. Because reading is a struggle, she gets bored of background information and scene setting. We had a discussion about all the different readers there are, how some want more, a whole world, a context and a history. I love books where not much happens, but Lilian wants magic, pretty constantly, throughout. So, as a starting point, the last books Lilian read as a young teenager were the Ingo books by Helen Dunmore: 

2) Have you any recommendations for shortish books for a now twenty four year old dyslexic dancer who loves the human heart, life’s dark mysteries, brutal honesty and subtle manipulation, and gets irritated by too much down time in a story?

This has made me think about accessibility. And the lines around what we want and try to do. It is absurd to try and write for all people. I think, though she loves passages I have written, Lilian might find my books tedious (she hasn’t read them!) and though I regret that, happily accept I don’t write for all, and don’t want to. I like books that drift and roll on unexpected, lurching paths. I like a certain lack of clarity, I like the space for uncertainty. But it seems interesting that we have no easy way to access books according to those kinds of needs. And it made me wonder what other issues around accessibility writers deal with:


3) What issues of accessibility have you come across in relationship to books and reading? If you are a writer, have you ever modified your writing on that account? 


I wish there was a dyslexic reader version of some of the books I have loved. Like a Lamb’s Tales of Shakespeare. I know how much Lilian would get from Wuthering Heights, Titus Groan, We That Are Young, Ducks Newburyport, Beowulf. But there is no chance she will read them. Even audio – the time commitment is tricky for someone with a creatively over-busy mind. Abridging books is doubtless a fraught and heavily dissected (elsewhere) topic. But:

4) Would it be such a bad idea? For emergencies?


This is a genuine question. I really can’t decide. I think I’d rather my daughter read a half-length version of Jane Eyre than miss out, but I can’t say the same of Ducks, Newburyport. I would be glad to hear your thoughts, please do leave a comment, or give me a shout on Twitter: @luluallison77

If you would like to see Lilian’s dance work, her company is calle Callous Affection Dance.  here is a link. to one of her pieces.

One thought on “Four Questions on Reading and Writing

  1. Brilliant post because it addresses all that can be complicated about reading which should be no more than reacting to interesting (not necessarily enjoyable, so could be challenging or thought provoking communication, the choice is the reader’s) written material. There isn’t a right or wrong as I see it, why should a magazine, romcom, or online article about whatever be deemed as less valid. The importance is the power and wonder of the written word … so basically communication offered with which we communicate as we will … but words come in all sorts of ways, graphic novels for instance, and Shakespeare which is so live and compelling on stage and immensely difficult on the page. Philip Pullman is my hero in this respect, a champion of graphic novels, oral storytelling and wonderful written stories … the Ruby in the Smoke series say, Northern Lights is wonderful but more dense. Ali Smith short stories, or long ones (!), Roald Dahl, Kiss Kiss etc bit dark but compelling, Daphne du Maurier … Rebecca … and dear ‘olHarry Potter … kind of wordy bless him and the publishers but compelling … xx


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