Reading as readers… or writers?

 

Reader

Paula’s Post #95 

Do you read as a reader, or as a writer?

Think about it.

1) Raise your hand, all you ‘readers as readers’ out there?

2) How about the rest of you? How many of you now, for better or worse, read as writers?

I’m in camp #2, where I suspect most of you reading this blog will also claim residence. Like me, you may have started out as a pure escapist reader. Or maybe you were always a more analytical enthusiast, but still, you mostly read as ‘a reader’.

But either way, the more we write, the more – for better or worse – we now, inescapably, find ourselves ‘reading like a writer’.

When you pick up a novel, do you flip to the back of the dust jacket (or the virtual equivalent on your Kindle) and think: “Wow! That was clever. That really drew me in and made me want to read this book! Gee, I better remember this when I’m thinking about the great ‘hook’ I’ll need on my own dust jacket.”

Or maybe your first impression is just the opposite. Maybe you’re sneering: “Well, that was lame! What the heck was her editor thinking, letting this book go out with such a stock description? This sounds like just another predictable P.I. novel. Ho Hum.”

Either way, you’re thinking like a writer.

Inevitably, as writers, what follows is an analysis of the ‘power’ of the first author’s first line, the first sentence, the first paragraph. We assess the ability of the author to craft prose that compels us to read on. I’m not saying we’re just critics. To the contrary, most of us, I think, read on two levels: First, on a superficial level, we strive to read like any other reader, for escapism, for entertainment… for story. We’re seeking an enjoyable read, and we’re hoping to find it.

But we don’t stop there.

No, like the tip of the iceberg, we must look deeper. We must probe the murky depths below, seeking to reveal the deeper elements of fiction that command our attention. Our subconscious is always at work, analyzing, cataloging, comparing, thinking: plot, character, structure, POV.

Is there tension on every page?

Is the protagonist a unique, three-dimensional character, or a cardboard cut-out, a stock stereotype of every villain we’ve ever read?

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel wistful when I realize I no longer read for the sheer joy of reading. For the pure joy of being entertained by story.

So what prompted all this wistful reflection?

In my world this week, January brings the ‘kick off’ of a new book club I’ve joined.

A ‘fun’ book club.

One without any rules (apparently some of the founders are ‘escapees’ from a more serious book club, a club where they rebelled under the yoke of too many rules).

No, this book club is not about pretension, or critical analysis, or tyranny. This book club is about the joy of reading. The joy of sitting with your friends and saying why you liked a book or whether you loved a character. Of simply declaring whether you’d ever want to read more of this author’s work.

In other words, a refreshing change from ‘reading like a writer’.

Initially, I was surprised when the first book chosen for us to read in this new club was revealed to be series fiction.

My, we do lack pretension!

The first book on the list? A Lisa Gardner police procedural thriller, entitled Love you More, from her D.D. Warren series.

But wait a minute, closer inspection reveals that not only did this novel belong in the realm of ‘series fiction’ this book was the fifth in a series.

This isn’t cricket, I think, as a vague sense of unease washes over me.

“We can’t read these books out of order,” I protest.

We can’t start with the fifth book in a series! What about character arc? What about watching the series’ protagonist grow and change over the course of several novels? What about the intricacy of the backstory and how it affects the character’s emotions and motivation in this, the fifth novel?

As a writer, I know the author has agonized over these details and I want to see how she ties this later novel to her early works. But I appear to be a lone voice.

As a reader, most of my fellow bookclubbers simply shrug and say it works as a stand alone read. That it doesn’t really matter if we haven’t read the earlier books.

I remain unconvinced.

You see, I’ve always been ‘linear’ when it comes to entertainment. To storytelling.

If the movie has already started, I’m tempted to turn on my heels and bolt from the theatre. I even hate missing the ‘Coming Attractions’ (although not so much lately, where the previews inevitably reveal every high point of the film to an audience raised on watching the same Disney VHF tapes over, and over, and over…). Apparently some have no worries knowing the ‘plot’ before watching the movie.

But not me. I still hope to slip into that wonderful state of ‘suspension of disbelief’.

Except it is getting harder and harder to achieve this state of ‘nirvana’ since I started writing.

This is true for both books and film. If you are familiar with Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey, then you know what I’m talking about: there, hunched down in your seat, a giant bag of popcorn cuddled in one hand, red Twizzlers in the other, you suddenly find yourself muttering under your breath, as the scenes play out before you:

“Ordinary World” you whisper, as your significant other shushes you to silence.

“Call to Adventure” you mutter, at the film’s next major ‘turning point’ flickers across the screen.

But quick as that, the words ‘Refusal of the Call’ slip to the tip of your tongue, part of the mantra you continue to chant.

‘Mentor!’ You whisper, as Gandalf takes center stage, (or Obi Wan, or Dumbledore).

But maybe you’re not a fan of mythic structure?

Maybe your tastes run more along the lines of the classic whodunnit  in the best tradition of Agatha Christie or Dorothy L. Sayers?

Perhaps the elements of fiction that draw you, the writer, right out of the story and set you to clucking your tongue are the first revelations of the classic ‘red herring’? You’re like a wild cat, ready to pounce, as you spot the author’s intricately crafted deceptions, his clever plot twists. You admire his skill but all the while… sadly, you realize you are ‘reading’.

Somehow, for me, the whole experience of reading has changed. I’ve lost that blissful state of feeling totally immersed in another world.

Predictably, reading Ms. Gardener’s Love You More this past week, I found myself analyzing her opening sentences:

Who do you love?

It’s a question anyone should be able to answer. A question that defines a life, creates a future, guides most minutes of one’s days. Simple, elegant, encompassing.

An unpredictable start to a stellar thriller, my writer mind mutters. But wait, within a few lines, the author jumps out of the POV character’s head and right into the middle of the action: we’re center stage in the midst of a tense standoff.  

Sure, as a reader I’m hooked in. Who wouldn’t be? But as a writer, I’m already drawn out of the story. Already, I’m examining the ‘hook in’ to this novel.

Now, rest assured, if you haven’t read this book, I’m not one to spoil it for you by revealing too much, but let’s just say state trooper Tessa Leoni is about to have a very bad day. And then another, and another, and another.

But I’m not lost in her story.

I’m not just ‘rooting’ for her, or screaming at her to not be such a nitwit, or praying for her to succeed in her quest.

You see, I’m no longer just a reader.

So sorry, but within seconds, I’m spotting ‘red flags’ – the author’s ambiguous use of pronouns make it difficult for me to determine to whom the POV character is referring.

Deliberate?

In hindsight, yes. But at the beginning, this vague ambiguity just looks like shoddy writing. Writing that took me right out of the story. Because I can’t help it. I’m reading like a writer.

But is it really that simple? That black and white?

After my afternoon book club meeting, curious about how ‘readers’ viewed this book (which, by the way, I found to be intricately plotted, if more than a little far-fetched) I turned to the reviews on Amazon and was frankly surprised at the sophistication level of some of the reviewers of this novel.

Sure, some readers simply expressed a ‘fans’ point of view, along the lines of:

Ooooh, I read all her books…

or

this is a great one

or

I just love this series… 

or

I couldn’t put it down.

(I’m not necessarily quoting actual comments, just giving you the gist of my impressions).

But other reviewers expressed a much more complex understanding of the elements of story. I read comments that praised the writer’s gift of drawing the reader in from the very first page, complementing the author for scenes that were purposeful and right to the point, without boring or irrelevant details.

Must be a writer… I mutter, reading these types of comments.

And:

‘While the premise of the story is at first engaging, the transfer between points of view was chaotic and hard to get into, and got to be convoluted yet so formulaic.’

Another writer? I wonder.

Reading on, I soon find myself more and more confused. Are there that many writers, posting reviews?

Or maybe there is another explanation.

Maybe Oprah has raised the bar? Maybe the popularity and profusion of book clubs has made analytical readers out of more people than I first suspected. Maybe pure ‘story’ is not enough anymore. Maybe even readers are, increasingly, trained to ‘read like writers’.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Reading as readers… or writers?

  1. I sometimes struggle with this too … we’ve seen too much of how the sausage is made, I fear, to be fed our stories without tasting (and critiquing) the ingredients. In audience terms, we writers are a tough house to play. Yet I do get swept away in story, when told by a real master. I do forget to analyze and I just lose myself in the flow, the way I used to when I burned my way through one Nancy Drew a day as a kid, cursing “Carolyn Keene” for not writing faster so I could consume an unlimited number of books, day after day. When I surrender and read as a reader, that’s when I know I’m really in the presence of a truly superior writer. And the proof at the end is that I wonder how they did it — how they captured me and forced me to turn pages. That’s why I need to finish my deconstruction project … give me your secrets James Lee Burke!

  2. Thanks Silk! Where are you dear friend, and do you know what day it is? What are you reading besides James Lee Burke and is it helping you absorb the wonders of NZ. Love that you were a Nancy Drew girl too. Back to Helga’s are you born a writer: I honestly don’t know, but I do know that those who read Nancy Drew seem to have a head start!

  3. Even though I write, I still love to read as a reader and I have to usually reread a book to purposely look for tools the author used that I want to use as a writer (or not). This is probably because when I read, I’m usually doing so to relax my brain from the stress of writing…so I tend to skim and try to soak in the story plot as fast as I can to escape to another world. If it’s written poorly or flows clunky, I notice, but if the story’s halfway good, I sag into the couch and feel like I’m at the spa getting pampered (and sadly, I’m not worrying about character arc or theme–although I should probably try to train myself to do this more).

  4. I like to do both. When I stsrt reading a good book I never think about analyzing it as a writer. I just let the story wash over me and entertain me. Then I might read it again, with an eye to structure and other elements. But reading only for sheer pleasure is a luxury that is difficult if not impossible for writers.

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