Lately I've found that when I read a novel I have a deeper understanding of what the author's doing, at least on a technical level. I might also claim to have a greater understanding of themes, but theme is a slippery slope where we often bring an idea to a book that the author hasn't put into it so let's just stick with the idea that nowadays I think I have a better understanding of the craftsmanship of the novels I read. When I read Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway I was able to see right off what she was doing with perceptions and narrative-through-character rather than narrative-through-plot-action. I saw how she used that particular device to highlight the dramatic ironies of her story. When I read Graham Swift's Waterland I saw that he was coming from a postmodernist angle, where history is not linear and the narrative was a looping thing with the river Ouse as a metaphor for the circularity of history. I also saw--on a more practical level--how Swift was able to incorporate long stretches of history (nearly non-fiction writing in these chapters) into his narrative to create the larger structure against which the "modern" actions took place. I saw lots of other cool stuff in these books, but that's not the point of this post.
What I'm noticing in me as a writer (because, as Mighty Reader is happy to remind me, I'm never so happy as when I discuss myself) is that all of a sudden I seem to have a greater awareness of the really tricky things authors are doing, and I'm aware of just how difficult these tricks are to pull off. Which must point up something in the way of growth in my personal writing ability, but frankly the immediate result is that I see now just how damned much work there is to do in order to write at the same level as a Booker Prize-winning author.
I admit that I was feeling pretty cocky for a while. "I'm as good as anyone else out there," I told myself. "My books are just as deep, mature and well-written as the best books." And then a month or so back I read The Great Gatsby and saw how this short novel is better than anything I've ever written. Happily, I also saw why it's better, and I'm seeing why Woolf's book and Swift's book are better than the books I've written, so there remains hope for this egotistical author.
This reminds me, in a way, of learning to play in tune on the violin. First one has to become aware that one plays out of tune, and by how much. You do that by practicing scales (a lot) and one day you suddenly hear how poor your intonation is, and for the longest time your playing sounds absolutely dreadful to you. It's awful and humbling but it's a necessary step to playing in tune. Because it's only when you can hear the out-of-tune notes that you can tell them from the in-tune notes and so manage to hit the in-tune ones more often (it's not that simple, but that's close enough). So possibly my awareness of how much better the best books are than what I write is a form of my suddenly being able to hear how out-of-tune my writing is. I am actually listening to myself for the first time, maybe (to continue this lousy violin analogy). Anyway, as I say, on the one hand it's cool to be able to really understand a great novel in a deeper way, but it's damned humbling to see the gulf which separates my work from those great novels. On the other hand, it's nice to have concrete ideas for technical growth because that will give me something to do.