Generation Gap

doing homeworkI didn’t post to this blog last week because I had out-of-town company. In fact, I had out-of-province company. It was wonderful to have family come for a visit — a reminder of the special bond of kinship. I was thrilled to discover my great niece is a reader. A visit to my local book store was a highlight of the trip for her. Her brother was more intrigued by the toy store next door. 🙂 Her choices were all unknown to me. In fact, we didn’t have any book references in common. 


Co-incidentally I read an interesting paper at Writer Unboxed on the need to “explain” our use of language. The question was whether the reader would “get” the author’s references. I was astonished to learn that a seasoned author presented draft ms to young critique partner only to find the reader didn’t understand the allusion to women in the 1950’s attending university in order to obtain an MRS. degree.  That was such a common conception in my day I simply assumed it was part of our collective conscience.  Now I question all the idioms I thought were universal. How many people who hear “David and Goliath” know the Biblical story? If a rogue “meets his Waterloo,” does the average reader understand Napoleon’s defeat at that place?

My aforementioned great-niece is a “tween” and very specific about the books she reads. The Baby-Sitters Club is top of the wish list. She’s also keen on mysteries, however, despite high praise from her mother, grandmother and great-aunt, she refuses to read Nancy Drew! 

How will our generations talk to each other if we don’t have the same reference points?  If coming generations don’t read the classics like Little Women, or Anne of Green Gables, where will we find common ground for conversation let alone for reading? To be fair, I haven’t rushed off to the YA section of my library in search of Dog Man either. 

My book club meets today. The book under discussion involves a different culture and contains many culturally specific words. The author made no attempt to explain these terms to the reader, leaving us with the choice of putting the book down while we hunted up a dictionary, or skipping the unknown word and carrying on with the story. The approach did not resonate with me. I would have preferred that the author make some attempt to describe a piece of clothing rather than merely assign a foreign word and put the reader to the trouble of researching the vocabulary. Again, I must review my own writing for references that may be meaningless to some readers.

It seems authors must always be prepared for new challenges. And we must seek the balance between assuming our readers share our background and education and treating them like preschoolers who must have every word explained.

What do you think? Do you want plentiful explanation in  your fiction reading or do you just want to get on with the story?


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  1. Laura Langston

    This is a great post, Alice. And you ask a tricky question. I don’t know if there’s any ‘right’ answer. Too much explanation slows the story down. Too little leaves unanswered questions and may create confusion. Maybe it’s a matter of finding some kind of middle ground. Because I do think those kinds of references – whether they’re rooted in different cultures, social groups (tweens for us….elders for tweens) or in history – provide flavor, deepen character and setting, and simply make stories better. I would hate to lose them.

    • Alice Valdal

      Thanks for your comment, Laura. I love the richness of the English language, with all its weird idioms. Remember our high school Shakespeare texts? They came with copious footnotes and marginalia to “explain” Tudor language to Canadian kids. I hope I don’t have to resort to that while reading for pleasure. 🙂

  2. Carlene Neeve

    Hi Alice …. you probably wouldn’t appreciate my kind of reading as I skip over paragraphs of descriptions so I can get into the “meat” of the story. I like fast paced, who done it kind of stories. I belong to 3 book clubs on Facebook and can’t read fast enough from all the recommendations.
    As for looking words up in the dictionary . … even at my ripe old age… I use Google. I’m not sure my granddaughters who are 14 and 12 would be interested in reading some of the classicss that you mentioned, but I might give it a try with Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, just to see.
    Thanks for the interesting blog, Alice…. oh were you referring to Tanner’s Book Store or has the name been changed?
    Sending love and best wishes from Calgary.

    • Alice Valdal

      Tanner’s it is. The original owner sold it years ago but the new owner kept the name. Thanks for writing.

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