I am a susceptible reader. I love books. I love that a writer has spent hundreds of hours constructing an edifice out of words, with a premise, a set-up, characters, a hook, an arc, a climax. I love that that a writer has cared so much about her book that she’s persuaded a literary agent to sign her up on the strength of those words, and that on the strength of those, a publisher has decided to put money, time and effort into printing and marketing that book. I love that readers and reviewers have read and commented on that book. It has taken on a life of its own and for that very reason, before I’ve even read it, I’m predisposed to love that book.
I’m a total fangirl of the published word. I realised this after years of attending the same book-club, when I’d hear people say ‘I didn’t care about the character, so I stopped’ or ‘It wasn’t believable, so I can’t recommend it’ or ‘it was too heavy, so I gave up’ or ‘the print was too small and my eyes grew sore’. These are all perfectly acceptable reasons to stop reading, but a part of my heart always grieves for the writer when I hear these kinds of complaints. I think ‘But the writer set out to achieve something and within the context of that goal, he did’. My tendency is always to see where the writer is going, and even if I don’t much like the subject matter, or the book is heavy or the print small or the characters hard to like, follow her to the very end. I think it’s polite.
There are a few exceptions. The first time I read Catch-22, I threw it across the room before I got halfway. It was a maturity thing; I was 17 and when I read it again in my twenties I got it. While I love crime and mysteries, I am intolerant of gratuitous violence against women. I read two PG Wodehouse, got the formula and was unable to read any more. I recently started a crime novel set in New York where the dialect was so obtuse, I couldn’t work out if the people talking were the cops or the baddies or passers-by. Unable to get the author’s set-up, I had to stop.
I sometimes think my tendency to be an empathetic reader – empathetic to the writer’s cause – makes me less of a critic. I wonder at my willingness to be subsumed in a story. I am 160 pages into Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. His set-up has been perfect, the characters wonderfully introduced, I suspect I see where the plot is going to take us and it is not without humour, tension or aptly-chosen sentences. In other words, he’s hooked me. I’m floating safely on the tide of words, confident that Faulks is going to lead me somewhere. I am in good hands. It’s no longer cerebral for me. It’s become visceral.
My top writing resource while I was writing Balthasar’s Gift was Martha Alderson, the Plot Whisperer. Alderson talks about the rhythm of the Universal Story. She says that ‘Stories reflect the heartbeat of the universe. Writers and readers, all of us, pulse to this universal rhythm.’ This is how I feel when I read. If the author’s set-up in the opening pages works for me, I let go of my critical faculties and allow the pulse of the story to dictate. It is a luscious physical experience to be led in this way, and I think it does heark back to the days of sitting around the fire while an oral storyteller guided us into trance.
Part II: On reading my first e-book.
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