Charlotte's Web

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On Reading

13 Comments

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.

Image courtesy of hawkexpress

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

13 thoughts on “On Reading

  1. Lovely post! I love giving myself over to a book.

  2. What a wonderful description of reading–luscious–I know what you mean. I find it hard to suspend my critical reading (as a writer) so I really appreciate it when I’m carried so deeply it’s gone and all I’m doing is reading.

  3. I can see your argument that each book is the result of much time, love, and effort and therefore we should being gentle with our rejections. It is nice to know there is someone out there who is wiling to go for the long haul no matter how difficult it is for you to relate to the characters or identify yourself with the content.

    Your post made me realise that in some ways, reading a book is like partaking upon a journey and perhaps we should all be wary of abandoning ship. Yet, having said this, I give myself a 100 page limit to discover whether the captain knows the waters she or he is navigating. If not, I do jump ship.

  4. I feel exactly the same! If I have to give up on a book I always feel it’s my fault for not viewing it from the right angle. And there’s truth in that – often it’s possible to return to a book and get it the second time around (like Catch-22). I will give up a book on the same principle though – that if it’s not working for me I should maybe stop now and return in later years. That’s one of the great things about a book – if it’s yours it never goes past a use-by date.

  5. I loved this! Sometimes I feel I am too forgiving a reader, but I spent so many years being critical (pursuing degrees in English will do that to you) that I simply want to go along for the ride and enjoy.

    I started Catch-22 lately on my son’s recommendation and I just can’t get into it. Perhaps I’ll give it another shot.

  6. I so know what you mean! Tell you what too, I definitely want you reading my book when it comes out (As-I-Know-It-Will-One-Day *holds breath*)🙂

    Rach

  7. Hi Charlotte –
    I’m curious as to whether your sense of being totally gripped by A Week in December will be sustained until the end. I started the book with much the same feelings as you describe, but ultimately it seemed he perhaps had too many characters to really develop them in memorable and satisfyingly complex ways, and too thin a plot line to sustain tension. I reviewed it here, if you’re interested:

    http://athousandmiles-k.blogspot.com/p/my-books.html

    I’m also intrigued by your reflection on being highly ’empathetic to the writer’s cause’, which made me wonder, in turn, if unlike you, I err on the side of being too willing to be critical. Like some of your other commenters, I feel life is too short to persevere with a book that’s not sufficiently engaging me. I wonder if the difference lies in your having authored a novel yourself and therefore reading as one who feels particularly acutely the writer’s perspective?

  8. I love that you can let go so freely when you read and root for the author to succeed. I think I am still too invested in spotting what the author got right and wrong–I am LEARNING so I can edit my own works more effectively, and it is a very rare book in the last year that has allowed me to let go. That isn’t to say that I don’t really enjoy a lot of books; I am just reading at a more conscious level, so I see the good and the bad.

    I hope all of us have readers like you when we ‘get there’!

  9. I’m with Karen on this one. Life’s too short for a poorly told story. Although, I had a weird experience this year reading Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. I did not like: the character, his body parts, his disgusting relationships, his crooked friends, his icky country/apartment/life, BUT: I could not ignore that Shteyngart is an absolute poet. That was all. That was why I kept reading in spite of all that I did not like about the book. Its poetry with language. And I read to the end, which is the most poetic paragraph of the whole book. Now that’s writing talent.

  10. Life is absolutely too short for a poorly told story, but I grieve for the author when a well-told story gets the ‘the print was too small for my eyes’ type of criticism.

    I’m not saying I’m without the criticism gene, but I am saying that I love nothing more than being swept away on the pulse of something good.

  11. I like being swept away by a story too, abandoning the critical part of me. I used to hate literature classes even though I loved reading, because I resented the distance and dissecting you had to have, which ruined the whole story for me most of the time.

    I hardly ever abandon a book once started, though occasionally I can’t wait to get finished so I can read something else. The only thing I can remember having put down without regret was Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, but I might try it again some time.

  12. Hear, hear – I feel exactly as you do, Charlotte, and in particular I feel terrible about any abandoned or dismissed or disliked text. It takes a great deal for me to put a book aside before its final page, and it’s always a form of torture. We’re incurables, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  13. Great post! I actually think I love reading sooo much that it makes me a terrible critic. For a few years in graduate school (and maybe a few in college) when I was really steeped in readign criticism I read more critically, but for the most part, as long as I feel I am in good hands, I am able to engage a willing suspension of disbelief and go along with the author. More often than note, I LOVE the books I read,too – and I am terrible about putting books down that I am not enjoying because I feel it unfair to the author. Then again, is it unfair to me and my time to slog through a book that brings no joy?

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