Adult Literacy Programs

Every winter quarter, the seniors and writing faculty give readings of their most recent opuses* to the general public at Northwestern. This past Tuesday was the inaugural event, and, along with several wonderful student readings, Brian Bouldrey was the faculty reader. In the past, faculty members have read excerpts from published novels, essays, and poetry collections. Professor Bouldrey was no different, standing up there with his bound and published book. Except his book was smaller than a chapter book, and just about as thin, too. And, in what I surmise is a typical Bouldrey move, he read the end of the novella to us instead of the beginning.

What was most remarkable about the reading, however, was his explanation of the book. The Sorrow of the Elves is a part of the Open Door Series, an adult literacy program that was started in Ireland and is now migrating to North America. According to Wikipedia, each book of this series has to follow editorial guidelines such as a standard plot, well-developed characters, simple language, and short chapters. Each book is also capped at 10,000 words.

I was astounded to hear about this series. First of all, I’m not sure what they mean by adult literacy. Does that mean there is a substantial population of adults who can’t read? According to the CIA World Factbook, the USA and Ireland both have literacy rates of 99%. The problem must then be that adults aren’t taking the time to read. Professor Bouldrey said he wrote his to make people fall in love with reading again.

This is a great cause, but it does give me pause. I always want my writing to make people fall in love with reading. For me, there is nothing better than staying up past my bedtime to finish – or try to finish – a book, and that’s the experience I want every one of my readers to have. And I think a lot of writers have the same goal. So when did we need to start a whole series dedicated to this?

I think part of it goes back to the question of literary fiction versus genre fiction. Literary fiction often tries to push boundaries, experiment with form, and imbue itself with layers and layers of meanings for the intelligent reader to tease out through long discussions, while genre fiction is more concerned with the story and entertaining people (but, as I’ve said in previous posts, that doesn’t mean genre fiction has any less meaning). I will admit, however, that even I, an avid reader and an undeclared English major, don’t really enjoy the act of reading literary fiction. I enjoy discussing it in class afterwards. But if the story is slowing and the characters are falling to the side so that the writer can play with words and form, I get bored. I put it aside. Maybe I even watch television instead.

Perhaps the problem of adult literacy is a cry to all writers who write for themselves or other writers or the elite few who actually sit around in coffee shops doing close readings of passages. Perhaps the true test of being a good writer is not throwing away all the elements of fiction that readers love in order to experiment, but fitting those experiments and games and meanings into the outline of a novel that readers will enjoy.

*The English plural of opus is opuses. The Latin plural is opera.