All writing, but particularly 'official' writing, needs to engage the audience on their own terms. This could be by mimicking health motor manuals or producing romantic sex education stories
People still love books
In the UK 16% of adults have low literacy levels. In parts of Northeast England it is even higher at 21%. However, it is interesting when looking at Experian's social market research in the Northeast to find that even among less educated groups, books are still a popular past time. 35-40% of the biggest subgroups list them. The most popular genre, with around 30% of readers, is romantic fiction.
Within the UK, Dr. Ian Banks has worked with Haynes to produce health books aimed at men, a supposedly difficult to reach group. By early 2005 180,000 copies of his book on men's health had already been sold. His secret was to present them in the same format as the car manuals that Haynes are famous for producing.
In Mexico, health educators and social marketers worked with local sex workers. They discovered the women read a lot of romantic fiction. As a result they worked with a writer to produce a fictional story about the women's lives. This not only gave information about safer sex but also tips on how to negotiate with clients. The story line was based on an important motivator for the women. This was to stay healthy so as to be able to look after their children.
Mills & Boon make heavy use of social market research. By knowing what their readers want, they sell 200 million romantic fictions a year. They have also agreed a deal with the Rugby Football Union to promote the sport in their story lines. This is mainly to change attitudes and make rugby sexier. However, books will also pass on knowledge of the rules and give readers new skills e.g. what to wear at a match.
In 2011, I spoke to the Romantic Novelist Association in the UK. They said that a novella of 10,000-30,000 words could be commissioned for around £500, plus printing costs. In the future e-books might be an even cheaper option for some target groups.
Pre-exisiting stories can also be used for health purposes. The book Hand in Hand by Judy Hunter, Sheila Phillips and Noreen Wetton shows how to teach children to become emotionally literate through engaging with works of fiction.
Distinguished psychotherapist, Irvin D. Yalom, also talks about 'a new genre - the teaching novel' in connection with his fictional story 'When Nietzsche Wept'. This is about a hypothetical meeting between the philosopher Nietzsche and Breuer, an early psychoanalyst.
Books of course can be non-fiction as well as fiction. A different approach has been tried in Cardiff and other parts of the UK. This is to make books on health available on prescription.
Perhaps there is even a place for health and well being book clubs (or film or music clubs) where people can discuss what they have read.
(For references click here and links click here.)
To read a much more full account of the topics covered on this page in the relevant chapter from my report on edutainment for health purposes click here
To download the whole 180 page report on using popular culture to tackle health inequalities click here
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