Friday, August 14, 2009

Reading for Pleasure?

One of the most irritating things about being a writer is that, whenever I'm working hard on a project, I can no longer read for pleasure. Every book I pick up is something I treat as a textbook of some kind. I'm looking for hints about craft, for ways of doing things well. I also find myself being overly critical of whatever I'm reading, and having one-sided internal arguments with the authors when they've done something I wouldn't have done. Clearly, I am going insane.

I was trying to read "Moby Dick" because I'd read excerpts in college and I liked what I saw then, so I thought I should read the whole thing. But Melville apparently just wanted to write a nonfiction treatise on the American whaling industry, and thought he should wrap that in a dramatic story about Ahab and the sinking of the Pequod. It does not work, and his fictional story, which is a good story, is buried so far behind a wall of whaling lore that it's a struggle to find it. "Moby Dick" is 450 pages long, and should be divided into two books: the 150-page story of Ahab's vengeance and the 300-page book about whaling. I've put it back on the shelf. Maybe someday I'll finish it.

I also tried to read Junot Diaz' "The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from last year. Diaz is a professor at MIT and I get the feeling that this book is more a lecture about the history of oppression in the Dominican Republic than it is a story. It's dressed up in an aggressive, urban hip voice that I found immediately off-putting, and it starts with a clumsy prologue that even has footnotes. I blame David Foster Wallace for this sort of book. I put it back on the shelf, too. It's supposed to be brilliant, so maybe someday blah blah blah redux.

It used to be that I could read simply for the pleasure of being told a good story, and I didn't so much care how that story was told. But as I concern myself more with the craft of writing, the nuts and bolts of storytelling, the less often I enjoy anything. This is not a good thing, and it's apparently a contagious condition. Mighty Reader is curious about my writing process and progress, so we have long, in-depth discussions about writing and structure, and she reports that she also now more readily sees possible flaws in books she reads, and her own enjoyment has diminished some. Happily, she still reads a lot more than I do, and more broadly, so hopefully the effects won't be so bad in her case.

My hope is that, when I'm done with my current revisions and am no longer worried about my own technique, I won't read everything with an eye to craft and the author's shortcomings. Because otherwise, being a writer will just suck and ruin one of the great joys of life.

Am I alone in this? Is anyone else getting diminishing returns on reading for pleasure as they focus more on their own writing?


  1. Alone in this?!? No! I've often said that having been both an editor and a writer has killed reading for me; I've heard many other writers say the same. And this frequent lack of reading enjoyment depresses me more than any other aspect of having worked in publishing and then writing seriously.

    Turning off my internal critic isn't easy. But I've learned how to live with its existence. And I think the best way is: stop having expectations before reading something.

    On that other blog I'll no longer set foot in, I once discussed that I think people have too many reading expectations (especially of fictional works making "sense" and being "believable" when fiction basically means fake) based on traditions of reading, based on having read other works that follow the same traditions. However, to me, each work exists in a vacuum--this is my focus. No other work exists while I'm reading a particular work, and I try to determine what that creator intended and how that ultimate execution matched up with that creator's intentions.

    I think that today, too much emphasis is placed on writing craft while reading. Writing craft should ideally only be applied while writing. An end-product is an end-product; it's finished. The chances of it being rewritten are slim. Writing craft becomes irrelevant then, especially because a reader probably has no accurate idea how (and if) the creator specifically applied craft.

    Craft is something mostly writers seem obsessed with; most non-writer readers probably aren't psychologically, consciously and obsessively tearing fictional works apart because they aren't trained to articulate this the way writers are. I think the more logical parts of reader minds will meld all their complaints into an "I don't like this, this is dumb, this doesn't make sense" kind of complaint.

    At some point writers must let the worlds they've created take over; they must stop injecting their creator selves in there. And they must do this as readers too, even as readers of their own works....

    What you said about MD--that's actually one of my main complaints about most of today's writings (I'm forever yelling about this!): the actual stories are buried beneath lots of stuff I don't want to read; most of these works are overwritten. Even their first sentences have nothing to do with the actual stories. Their writings are too "look at me, the author!" showy.

    I think great story ideas are a dime a dozen, but great executions of those ideas aren't. When they fail, most writers fail on the execution end. But then I'm such a picky reader.

  2. I hear you! But if the book is good enough, it will suck me in and the inner-writer will shut up for a while.

    A book I would recommend reading is The Book Thief. It has lots of great reviews, (but that usually is a turn off for me.....never lives up to the hype and all that.) However, I started this book, was immediately distracted by the inner-writer, stuck with it and WOW. That's all I'm gonna say about that.


  3. I try hard not to critique the writing style of the book as I am reading. Every now and then, though, I do come across the sentence where I think, 'oh, no, if I'd been writing this, I would have phrased it....' Rarely do I come across something that is distractingly bad. (I won't name the book, but I once stared at a page for about ten minutes thinking of how I would have redone a sentence. Then I slapped myself and told myself to just read the book and not edit it.)

  4. For sure. It's easier for me if I'm really into the book to just ignore the nuts and bolts, but if I'm trying to get into a book too hard, all I start seeing are areas I would have done differently.

    I wind up reading multiple books at a time because I'll often start a new book before I finish an older one.

    Lately, dialogue tags have been my personal obsession. I used to always skim over dialogue tags while reading, but now I study them carefully.

    I know it sounds silly, but try a YA book for a change. They cut to the chase, usually have a great voice that helps you overlook other problems, and I think I just plain get into them quicker. Also, you're assured that something is actually going to happen in the book, and usually by page 30. ;)

  5. I'm with you. I just finished reading Michael Crichton's NEXT. Wasn't very good, actually the worst of his books I've read. I wasn't fully dissecting the story and the prose as I read it, but I was much more aware of its strengths and flaws.

  6. I don't have this problem. Maybe this means I'm not writing hard enough. Maybe if I spend as much time and energy writing as I do, oh, being online, this will change for me.

    But I kind of doubt it. I feel like I use different parts of my brain while reading, writing, and editing. Sure, when I'm reading there are occasions where the writer didn't execute something very well, and I'll be like, "Really?" or pulled out of the story for a bit. But I just shrug it off.

    I think I'm any writer's ideal reader. I'm very patient. Most books I finish. Even if I don't like them that much. I have to HATE a book to quit reading. And I always read every word. Even if I'm in some suspenseful part and my eyes start skimming over the page to see what's going to happen, I always reign myself in and go back and read carefully. That's with books, though. Online I skim more and more.

    I agree with F.P.'s thoughts about each work existing in a vacuum. I feel I treat books that way fairly well.

    I'm sorry you're having this problem with reading! That's terrible. Maybe you can train your brain back.

  7. Scott, no worries. I go through this all the time. It's one of the reasons I'm a Lit Snob, as I talked about in my post today. It's also the reason I simply cannot read while I'm working on a novel. I can neither enjoy the book or concentrate on my writing. It's terrible. So I gave up.

    For some reason I usually don't have a problem beta reading stuff because I know it's not published. Is that weird or what?

    Once I'm not working on a WIP, though, I'm pretty patient with what I'm reading. However, if a book goes too far - like you've described Moby Dick, I won't finish it.

    The thing I've found is that this goes in cycles for me, so maybe it will for you too. Here's to hoping.

  8. I still derive pleasure from reading, just not as often. And I just realized that it's when I'm too lazy to dissect and analyze. Well what do you know, a vice turned virtuous, or at least useful.

  9. I do this when beta reading. After reading something with a critical eye I go back to my leisure reading, and suddenly this national best-selling book that I was thoroughly enjoying before is full of stupid mistakes that annoy me and distract me fom the story. I'm stuck in critique mode. It's like staring at something close up and then trying to focus on an object in the distance. It takes a while for my brain to adjust.

  10. Reading the post and comments, I thought about how we all had favorite books as children or teens that we reread and find don't live up to our memory of them. Some, of course, do. But I think what captivates kids is story, not writing. If the character and story grabbed us as kids that was good enough. Now that we know better, flaws stand out. I'm currently forcing myself to keep reading a YA hardback I paid good money for but which seems to break all the good-writing tips. Slow to cumbersome opening, nothing much happens. The real hook doesn't show up for 33 pages! Bad grammar and dull dialogue. And yet it's got a spiffy cover and prominent shelf space in the stores. Go figure. i had wanted to be enchanted. Instead I'm flabbergasted and reading with the fascination and horror of witnessing a trainwreck.

  11. An avid reader normally, when I'm truly writing, I have to put aside my books. Otherwise I can find myself writing like the person I'm reading. That's one reason I love the summer though. I don't write much that is new and read, read, read. And I am rather a snob in what I read as well. Always kick myself when I've wasted my time.

  12. i have a hard time reading for pleasure. when I am not writing, I kinda want to chill in other ways. I have to push myself to pick up a book - then I love it!

  13. This is a HUGE problem that I have. And the longer I write, the harder it gets to read for pure enjoyment! I'm not sure that I can turn off my editor. The book has to be exceptionally well written in order for me to enjoy it! So does that mean, writers make poor readers?

  14. My problem is that every single book I read I want to buy now so I can refer to it at my leisure, like a textbook of sorts, while I write and muse and rewrite my novel.

    I don't have space for so many books, so I fret and dream of a larger home with floor to ceiling book shelves. And my finished novel sitting on that same shelf.

  15. I'm jumping in really late on this, but I think it's fascinating. I'm happy to report that this is no longer a problem I face. I went through a time that lasted a few years when I couldn't enjoy other books. I was being too critical. But, now I'm able to enjoy books and turn off my internal critique. It really does feel like an on/off switch for me. When I need to dissect something, I can. When I just want to enjoy a book, I can do that too. I'll say this, though, it has limited the books that I read. I feel like only the best writers can "trick" me into reading for pleasure, and those are the ones I follow.

  16. I tell myself that my heightened criticism of whatever I'm reading will diminish when I'm finished with the revisions to my own book. These last few rewrites have made me particularly twitchy.

    Mighty Reader and I watched the 1956 film of "Moby Dick" with Gregory Peck on Saturday night (after we sanded the floor in our hallway; what larks!) and it was brilliant. Peck was amazing, and the screenplay (by John Huston and Ray Bradbury) really captured the dramatic story hidden behind Melville's whaling lore. Now I want to go back and finish the book. Figures.

  17. I completely understand what you're saying here. For me, this is an indicator of how good the story is. If I find myself being carried away by the story and not griping over this passage or noticing how cool that sentence is, then it's a verifiable good book. That's not to say I don't notice great things in great books, but I usually have to go back and re-read a section to take a good look at the mechanics of it all. Perhaps I'm lucky in that I haven't "caught the bug" yet. The only advice I could give you is to try to let go your critical reading skills when you're reading for enjoyment. That may be impossible of course, but hopefully it helps.


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