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?