Add this to the long list of "research that tells us something we pretty much knew already, but is still kind of cool."
Researchers found that how much people enjoyed movies depended not just on the content of the movie, but also on who they were watching it with.
Particularly, the combination of watching a steamy love scene with your parents proved to be most unpleasant. Hmmm, ya think?
Most of us have faced this kind of situation at some time or another, and it's actually an incredibly intuitive result for anything social. The same might be said for many experiences, not just movies. How much you enjoy a meal depends not only on the food, but also where you're eating and who with. How much you enjoy (or tolerate) an airplane flight depends on how long it is, where you're going, and who you're sitting next to. The same activity done by yourself or with others may also lead to different feelings. (For me, drinking comes to mind.)
But as I was reading about this, I couldn't help but wonder about books: would these findings translate at all into the literary world? Part of what made me think about this was remembering one of the speakers at the Writer's Digest Conference, who talked about how the social aspects of reading had always been important, but were becoming more and more so. They're a big part of why some people read, and - as with movies - can be an integral part of the marketing. Think about the "guides for book clubs" that appear in the back of some books or the fact that "Oprah's book club" is not just a monthly book recommendation but an attempt to socialize (in a way) over the books.
The difference is that, with books, the consumption of the medium has to be an alone activity. (That's one of the things that sets reading apart from so many other things, and - in my view - makes it so great!) The closest book equivalent to watching a movie with your buds (or, God forbid, your parents) that I can conjure is the ludicrous image of you and several of your friends sitting next to each other on the couch and trying to read Freedom in as much synchronization as possible (with a bunch of popcorn out, just for kicks).
But just as you can talk about a movie with friends whether you watched it together or not (and I hardly ever go to the movies because I don't like the way movies blur the alone and the together - I want one or the other but not kinda sorta both at the same time), you can talk about a book with friends after reading it. The potential awkwardness of watching something sexual or violent or otherwise disturbing together is avoided, but the awkwardness of talking about it isn't necessarily - I'd guess it would depend on the centrality of that element to the plot. It might sometimes be easier with a movie to avoid talking it (say: a movie with one or two gory or sex scenes versus a book built around a character's sexual identity).
As a writer, I'd love to give my readers something substantive to talk about and think about, while at the same time not being so inaccessible that my work can't appeal to a wide range of people. In short, I'd love to write a nice book club book and capitalize on the social aspects of reading. But what are the elements of such a book?
People's enjoyment of your book will certainly be affected by the content (let's say plot and characters not worry too much about the writing itself for purposes here), but is there an equivalent to the enjoyment being affected by who else is reading it, or who they discuss it with? Short of being predisposed to not like a book because you're forced to read it (for a class or whatever) it is hard for me to think of when this would come into play.
Anyone have any thoughts on this?