Friday, 9 April 2010

Reading like a reader

I took up writing again exactly six years ago. There had been a spate in my twenties when I wrote like a man possessed and brief relapses in my early thirties when I pushed out a poem or forced myself to clock in for the dawn shift advocated by the likes of Dorothea Brande. I still have megabytes of folders called “early morning writing” to which I will probably never return.

It was six years ago that I finally fulfilled my life ambition by racing through the first draft of a novel. I know the date because it coincides precisely with meeting Jessica Baker, and we will have been together for exactly six years this Sunday. Pause. Somehow meeting that person rekindled my propensity to write – when I found her I found my pen.

The rest is a story of hard graft and learning. I signed up for every writing course and studied every manual. And in all that labour, I lost my faculty to read. For the last few years reading has been a matter of analysis rather than immersion. When I was a boy, I hid under the blankets with Robert Arthur’s, The Three Investigators detective stories. I had so little interest in what the author was doing that I believed they were actually written by Alfred Hitchcock, who appears in the stories. I swallowed Enid Blyton too, with not a critical thought in my head, just wonderment and, to be honest, envy for the ginger beer fuelled lives of those carefree country children. How I longed to go to a public school. In my teens I slid into Gavin Lyall, by now longing to be a secret agent. Even when I graduated to Beckett and Joyce and set out, in my twenties, on a frantic and fanciful attempt to surmount the entire black wall of Penguin Classics, I was still reading with an innocent eye.

The love of books evaporated when I became a serious writer. As soon as I started learning our craft I couldn’t stop looking backstage. How could I keep my eye on the heroine descending gracefully into her lover’s outstretched arms without peering round to see the stagehands manipulating a pulley mechanism in the wings? One of my favourite writing books is Reading Like a Writer by the fittingly named Francine Prose. She deliberately leads you to a prospect from which you can enhance your writing and destroy your enjoyment of stories. It has taken many books before I can let myself go again, and even now the scalpel is never far from my hand, to dissect the author’s technique. This reminds me of the character in Heller’s Good as Gold, who knew everything about art except what he liked.

Last week I took myself off to a book club for the first time. Down at The Drayton Court I bumped into people who read but don’t write – at least I’m guessing – we had no time for a full exchange of CVs. What I encountered was the strange and dimly recalled appreciation of a novel as though it were true. Real readers, unlike the freaks around here, engage with fictional characters as people and debate their behaviour as if they were actually guilty of murder or betrayal. They don’t notice changes of tense, let alone consider why. Slips of POV are invisible to real readers whereas they jerk my head away from the page as violently as the deliberate breakings of frame in Good as Gold, “the thought arose that he was spending an awful lot of time in this book eating and talking”.

When everyone at The Drayton was discussing whether the author thought her character was to blame for what happens in the book, or was on the MC’s side, I couldn’t understand the question. What the author wanted was to create enough ambiguity to keep people reading, and to stoke a rousing debate in the pub afterwards. The result was, without doubt, a character worth talking about.

The book we discussed is an epistolatory novel. To me, after about two letters from the protagonist to her estranged husband, with no whisper of a response from him, and no explanation why the letters were chock-full of facts he would already know, it was glaringly obvious that he was dead, or at least unavailable in some way that would be revealed later. The only other explanation was that it was a crap book and I wasn’t ready to entertain that. I don’t even consider it a spoiler to mention this here. What shocked me was that virtually none of the real readers clocked that. It showed me how literary devices don’t have to be as subtle as I first thought. Not because readers are stupid, they aren’t, but because they come to the work from a different perspective. They have different needs when they sit down to read.

Now back to the reading, not just to reawaken that first love, but to understand what an audience might appreciate – I’m going to learn to read like a reader.


Ellen Brickley said...

How could I keep my eye on the heroine descending gracefully into her lover’s outstretched arms without peering round to see the stagehands manipulating a pulley mechanism in the wings?

I really love how you expressed that, it's a brilliant image.

I can still read like a reader, thankfully - I put it down to having lots of non-writing book nuts in my life. They're useful!

Rosy T said...

Are you being rude about the unsubtlety of my literary devices, Rod?


Debs Riccio said...

Crikey - this struck far too many chords for comfort, Rod! I have a pile of 'Fail' books taller than the 'to-read' pile. And precisely because of how I've (tried to)read them. And I'm exactly the same with things on telly too - whereas everyone else is enjoying the drama & humour, I'm dissecting the script and the camera angle and telling everyone 'Ah - they HAD to do/day that otherwise they'd have lost their audience.' I've lost my whimsy and found the technician in me, sadly (?).

Debs Riccio said...

*ahem* that should have read "do/say"

CarolineG said...

It's funny, but I almost envy this - I try again and again to analyse what I'm reading but always get sucked in and forget to look for the joins! I've also read that Francine Prose book [she's a terrific fiction writer too]but it didn't quite break the habit. But maybe that's a good thing...

Old Kitty said...


Oh I found that the downside of doing all these writing courses is how I notice shifts of pov, changes in tenses, obvious portents... most annoying and it does detract from what I'm reading somewhat... whereas before they'd not matter!

Oh the joys of learning!

And reading.


Take care

Roderic Vincent said...

Sorry, Rosy, you've lost me. Are you referencing your own use of the epistolatory form? I've just taken down my copy of MTLL but it wasn't the book we studied for the West Ealing Book Club.

Anonymous said...

That photo was put on without my permission


Rosy T said...

That's OK, then, Rod - just my persecution complex getting the better of me!

Roderic Vincent said...

The book we discussed down at the Drayton was, "We need to talk about Kevin" by Lionel Shriver.

Also, I didn't mean to imply that the device was unsubtle. Clearly it was subtle as just about all the other readers in the group didn't spot it. My point was that I noticed it because I don't read like a reader.

Roderic Vincent said...

I also want to point out (because it may not be apparent in the original post) that I absolutely loved, "We need to talk about Kevin" and couldn't put it down. I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone and have written a glowing review for Ealing Today, where they publicise the book group (not that Lionel Shriver needs my endorsement - she's already sold a million copies of that one). I'm currently reading her latest, "So much for that".

Gina said...

This makes me chuckle. I'm reading a new book by a favourite - and I think excellent - author. However, I've noticed that the heroine shakes with fear too much. All the time in fact. I get the message she's frightened, over and over. Just hope her teeth don't rattle loose by the end of the next chapter!

Stroppy Author said...

I don't find being a writer stops me reading like a reader - but doing an English degree did. It was about three years before I could enjoy reading fiction again on its own terms.

fidelity said...

Though I did do some critical theory when at university no amount of theory would ever rid me of the idea that a book, novels and short stories, gives the reader a 'window on life'. We look through the text and see life itself. Of course we know it is an illusion and that what we encounter on the page are words but yet the thoughts and actions are those we are familiar with.

The critical approaches are interesting and it's nice to be able to analyse but the real pleasure for me will always be the sense that I've met real people. The people I've met between the covers of novels and biographies are more real than the real, even than close relatives. My current confidante is Maria Edgeworth and no one can come near her for being a friend. My respect and appreciation goes to those who tell us about the 'death' of the author, but still I think the author hovers about us day by day.

Anonymous said...

Zach, i'd charge a fee if i was you.

Great post. I had the same problem until i read the Twilight Series:) Now those books would really liven up your book club.


Gillian McDade said...

Great post, really engaging Rod - got me thinking! I too swallowed Enid without much thought in 1982 and I've just unearthed a copy of Five Get Into Trouble which I plan to read critically! :)

Strangely too, We Need To Talk About Kevin was left on my doorstep by the postman! Looking forward to that one.

Leila said...

Hah, great post, and expresses a lot of what I've experienced myself. I went to a book group too the other day and had much the same reaction to how others responded to the book. And someone there actually told me (knowing I write) that I was reading the book 'like a writer'. Really interesting.

Leila said...

By coincidence I've actually just bought the Francine Prose book.

Susannah Rickards said...

Great post Rod. And WNTTAK is fantastic isn't it? You must have such a good critical eye - I didn't see what you saw in the letters. I assumed one was writing from prison or post estrangement.

I know what you mean about not being able to enjoy books as a reader. I get cravings for a novel that will just sweep me away. Took the kids to the seaside last week and sat up all night reading one of their Alex Rider novels. It was so exciting I couldn't put it down after I'd read them a couple of chapters. It was such fun and escapist and maybe because it was written for kids and I don't write for kids, I never once thought: Oh that's how he achieved blah blah.

But didn't you squirm a bit at the book club discussions? Didn't you feel like an interloper a bit - knowing what the writer was up to but unable to start that conversation because no one there wanted to have it?

Susie Nott-Bower said...

Great post, Rod.
I find the only way to stop analysing what I read is to deliberately read books that I wouldn't be able to write. Although, now I come to think about it, the analytical eye is still about. I've been reading John Mortimer's Rumpole series with great pleasure - following the plots keeps my mind busy enough! But yes, it's sad, isn't it? Like losing your virginity.