I recently enjoyed a book so much that I was going to post a review up on Amazon and noted that someone hadn’t quite enjoyed it as much as I did. So naturally you have a look to see what that reader thought was wrong with it. Then you check out the many other reviews out of interest, the massively wide spectrum of opinion… then your eye snags on a phrase that keeps cropping up.
‘An easy read’.
I confess when I saw that placed as the title of a review, I expected it to be a bit sniffy. On the contrary, the review was very complimentary. But my head had gone down a side-street with this one. Why was I conditioned to think that ‘easy read’ was a bad thing?
I think of an ‘easy-drinking wine’ as one that’s a bit insipid, that it’s not great, it’s not going to set my tastebuds on fire… something I could just drink without bothering to savour it, because it’s there. ‘Easy listening’ music to me is music that I hear but don’t necessarily listen to. It’s in the background, non-demanding of my attention. Easy has somehow become synonymous with ‘bland’ for me. I can’t remember ever using it in a complimentary way to describe a book.
I did a bit of digging. It seems that we have quite different views of this two-word phrase. ‘Easy reading means anything that you’ve enjoyed’ said someone. But could I honestly say that about Stephen King’s book Pet Sematary, a book I couldn’t stop reading and consumed in a single day? I wouldn’t call it ‘easy reading’ though I’d golloped down every single word.
Here’s what some said about the phrase ‘easy read’ and you can clearly see the conflict.
…suggests the writer has just churned it out with no effort
…takes skill to write an easy read
… means low brow. An insult
…means the reader was engaged and kept turning the pages
…insinuates it’s an ‘easy write
…better than being described as difficult which would put readers off
…is a compliment though I have to caveat it in case people think I mean it’s not well written
…means it’s a book I will probably read all day because I’m so caught up in it
…I get called this all the time and it’s hard to take as a compliment. I feel more as if they are saying, ‘next I will attempt joined up writing in a sentence’ (Ha!)
…it’s flattering. It means people can really engage with my books
… I often think it’s intended as a diss
… it means something not too challenging
… it’s an insulting term, as if the book is of a lesser quality to others
…I find the term slightly condescending
…’If you’re thick’, is how I hear it
… easy read suggests to me that the use of language is simple, the plot is basic and the themes are weak
…I’m always accused of being an easy read – or a guilty pleasure. One reviewer said ‘She’ll never win a literary prize, but I couldn’t stop reading’
…I suppose it’s better than being described as tricky, arduous, difficult read
(I’d argue that ‘easy read’ and ‘difficult read’ aren’t true opposites…)
… I don’t think anything, apart from Ladybird books for three-year olds, should be classed as easy reads. It’s insulting
Is ‘easy read’ the equivalent of Dolly Parton saying ‘it takes a lot of money to look this cheap?’ asks one writer. Books that flow are hard to write – like Katie Fforde says, ‘…it’s a funny one. I do find it a bit sniffy, but I do always aim to be easy to read. I reckon I do the work so my reader doesn’t have to’.
So it seems that ‘easy read’ doesn’t necessarily mean it as an insult to the writer. They’re not saying it’s taken no effort, maybe even they’re insinuating quite the opposite. But then again, it can be taken that way, the phrase is a little loaded. It’s that word ‘easy’ I think. It has too many negative connotations that you find without having to mine too deeply. If someone (mainly a woman – yawn!) is easy, that’s far from a compliment. Easy = no effort. Sometimes things can be so easy there’s no fun in them. They’re no challenge at all. Brain baked yet?
Maybe it’s a contextual thing, as someone said, ‘depends what comes before/after the phrase.’ And they’re right, because the sentence in which it’s couched will determine if it’s a compliment or an insult.
‘An easy read which is instantly forgettable’
…is a world apart from
‘An easy read that I devoured whole’.
Maybe it’s a perception problem. Those of us who have seen that word ‘easy’ too many times as a negative will read ‘easy read’ as a negative (like me) and vice versa for others.
It seems that many authors see it as rather dismissive while most reviewers use it as a compliment, though – as is clear – not all. Plenty of authors accept it as a positive, some reviewers use it as a deliberate slur. But ‘page-turner’, ‘unputdownable’ and ‘compelling’ don’t seem to have any of those negative connotations; you’re in no doubt that you’re turning those pages or can’t put the book down because you can’t wait to get to the next bit. That’s a really good thing, no ambiguity, no sly insult.
I’ve had the ‘easy read’ thing levelled at me more times than I can count. It sits in the same family as ‘light read’, ‘a beach read’, ‘a cosy read’. Out of all of those the last one would be best for me, but when I put it out there, I was met with the comment: ‘that’s like one of those specific cosy mysteries that I’d avoid’. I’ve read a lot of books in my genre that may have that old happy ending, but in the pages leading up to it there is domestic violence, abuse, cruelty, emotional breakdowns… everything short of buggering a Shih Tzu – and yet it’s as if everything is judged on the final scene of two happy protagonists so it’s okay to dismiss it as a ‘light read’. Likewise ‘beach read’. My idea of a book to take on the beach is a psychological dissection of a serial killer. Yet I’ve never seen ‘Beach Read’ on any review of ‘Killing for Company’ or a biography of Fred West.
I have no idea why I picked up on all this. I have no idea if it even really matters, but something drew on those two words in mental highlighter: ‘easy read’ and my brain started to fry.
But I did see this too.
‘If an easy read is where the words and meaning fall off the page so the reader doesn’t register the process, I’m all for it,’ which I thought was utterly charming.
And of course we are living in strange times where everything is totally tits up. On that theme a couple of people – both readers and writer said that the term was…
‘…Sniffy if in a review, but conversely, if someone recommended to me a book as an easy read, I would grab it with both hands right now.’
Maybe it’s wrong to put those two words on trial with all that’s going on around us. Maybe if what is really meant by ‘easy read’ is a book that transports us away from the cloud of gloom which is not only above our heads but has descended and is swirling around our feet. A book that drags us into its pages and keeps us as willing captives because the story flows ‘with ease’, and leaves us with a sense of peace that's as ‘easy as Sunday morning’ is a quite nice judgement. Easy Read: a phrase which can be used for slight or praise, but if used as the latter at the moment, in this climate, maybe it’s really not that bad a tag to have after all?
But I’d still rather have ‘unputdownable’. You know exactly where you are with that.