Monday, June 18, 2012

Reading like a writer (again)

A few years ago a Venn diagram supposedly illustrating the difference between what a writer wrote and what academics – English teachers, literature instructors, and/or literary critics – said the writer meant by what she wrote. The fundamental assumption behind the joke is that the self-styled literati of the world pretend they're able to perceive depths and shades of meaning that elude the common man. It's generally held that such "experts" obscure reality beneath layers of pretentious "analysis" intended not to enlighten or discover but to make their audience feel inadequate and insensitive. Vocab without content, like wine tasters.

Whenever this author/teacher Venn was posted – and I saw it in a dozen places – the comment threads were filled with "lol" and "I know, right" and more than a few anecdotes about stuffy academics who stunted the lives of thousands of students by conditioning them to hate reading. I have to admit my initial reaction to the diagram was similar – which is to say wrong.

Of course there are literary pedants guilty of this sort of posturing - creatures of their ilk haunt every field - but to assume a writer means nothing more than the words she uses to tell the tale is to risk missing much of the story.

As I wrote last year the writer may have levels to her story not apparent at first reading. In fact, I do not know a writer who does not enjoy the use and play of language - who thinks about the shades of meaning in every word and phrase she employs.

In Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose advocates what she calls deep reading, devoting as much as an hour a page to considering the meaning and potential implications of every word the writer used. Not the first time you read the story, of course. She's describing brick-by-brick deconstruction of a work you find powerful and meaningful in order to discover all that the writer meant and how she chose to communicate that meaning. My own oft-repeated advice for reading like a writer is to read like a reader: Read for fun, read what catches your eye and entertains or enlightens you, read widely and often, read outside your comfort zone, read. If six months after you put it down a scene or story is still on your mind, if you find yourself reliving it or thinking about what you would have done, go back and reread it. Study it. Take it apart and see what the writer did that made that scene or passage or story so memorable. (Though I've never deconstructed to the level Prose recommends, I can see how that could be useful.) As I've often said, seeing how that writer did it to you is the first step in learning how to do it to others.

I suspect you will discover, as I have always discovered, that what makes a piece of writing effective is not a simple function of words spelled correctly and in order. It's the layers of nuance and meaning, the texture of the words, that give them their power.

Then you might want to go back and apologize to that middle school English teacher who tried to tell you this when you were too young to understand.


Anonymous said...

Or maybe the curtains were just f—ing blue.

When I was at school, in English literature classes, the deep analysis would kill any story stone dead for me. It didn't matter whether the teacher was right or wrong, the act of over-analysing would simply spoil things, so I'd never want to read that story again.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Love, love, love the Venn Diagram and love the post. A year or so ago I saw a review of one of my books, where the reviewer interpreted stuff quite deeply. I thought about it and realized, I hadn't even considered it on that level (the subtle psychological inuendos behind the heroine's and hero's action). But I realized that could be a valid interpretation and I accepted it.

I think a good writer simply tells the story and lets the reader interpret it however he/she wants to.

For me, there's no difference between reading like a reader and reading like a writer. As a writer, I am a reader and readers constitute my intended audience. If the style stirs me as a reader, then I'll emulate it as a writer.

Great post.

Liane Spicer said...

There is a yawning abyss between reading like a reader and reading like a writer for me. Even with literature texts, I read the story first as a reader, for enjoyment and to engage with the tale on a visceral level.

To read like a writer/English teacher/student I have to discard the immersion and engage the analytical part of my brain.

Last night I read Flannery O'Connor's A Good Man is Hard to Find for the first time and could not sleep after. The story would not let go of me; my sense of security in my own bedroom was shot. That's the immersion. Today I want to do that deep reading thing Prose (what a name) recommends. I have this need to find out exactly how this writer took hold of my imagination completely with a few pages told in simple language. Fragments keep coming back: never have I been so spooked by two innocent words: slack grin.

It's now time to read it like a writer.

Shauna Roberts said...

I have not yet learned to read a book (as opposed to someone's electronic or paper manuscript) like a writer. Even when I set a definite intention, if the book's any good, I'm caught up in it within a few pages. It's a skill I want to acquire, though.

Personally, when I finish a draft of a story or book, I see symbolism and themes I did not intend to put it.

Sometimes, I even find foreshadowing of plot twists or character development that I did not intend at the time I wrote the beginning—but apparently my subconscious had them in mind from the start.