What she said.
No, really. CJ’s post pretty much summed up my own slightly deformed reading habits. Is it possible to read for pleasure? Sure. But if I’m keeping one eye in willful suspension of disbelief, the other is surely dissecting and deconstructing the prose. And if that metaphor strikes you as particularly obtuse and, well, cross-eyed, imagine how disconcerting it can be for me.
I know, I know. Woe is I, reader of fiction.
See, the thing of it is: I’m actually doubly doomed. I have two barriers to overcome when reading a novel. The first is the aforementioned inevitable judgment of a colleague’s craft. The second barrier is my master’s degree in English. Some of the finest professors in the state of New York trained me to suck the juices out of literature so as to better analyze the marrow along any series of literary theories.
Yes, while reading the new Harlan Coben missive, there is in fact a part of my brain critiquing its socioeconomic worldview a la Terry Eagleton or its objective correlatives a la TS Eliot.
Have sympathy for me. I’m a damaged boy.
As far back as I can remember – and as regular readers of my column here can testify, I alas can remember pretty far back – I’ve read literature as a writer. And I’m sure every regular writer who is reading this now has too. How better to learn craft than by studying those who excel at it? It’s the same dictum I apply in my creative writing classes. But, like knowing how a magician performs his tricks, it does take a little bit of the joy out of the experience. Do I miss being able to read a novel purely for pleasure? I wouldn’t know.
Don’t get me wrong. I still can appreciate the aesthetics on display in a great work of escapism. I am currently reading Catherine Jinks’ Evil Genius and it’s a really fun ride. But would it be even more fun if a part of me wasn’t, at the same time, wondering how Ms. Jinks constructed her novel or if this particular character was created to serve as the protagonist’s foil or why she chose this particular chapter and not the one before it or the one after it to introduce a specific plot twist? Maybe. Although there is a certain joy in admiring another craftsman’s work, isn’t there?
Case in point: I just finished reading Sophie’s A Bad Day for Sorry. I loved it. Her protagonist, Stella, is a glorious woman, full of all-too-human contradictions and good humor and righteous motivations and, as I told Sophie, I want Stella to be my new aunt (and I’m still waiting for you to make that happen, Sophie). Stella is fully realized and so is her client, Chrissy, a woman whose child has been abducted and who at first appears to be little more than a sobbing, slobbering mess but is in fact…well, read the book. I’m glad I did. And surely, one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was because I also read it as a writer. It takes a lot of effort for writing to appear effortless, and Sophie achieves that here and we, as writers, are burdened, yes, by our knowledge of “trade secrets,” but we’re also blessed by them, as they allow us to appreciate a great novel not only on the superficial level of what works but also on the subtextual level of how and why it works.