Tuesday, April 27, 2010


by Josh

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 bone_marrow 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 evil_genius 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.


Gabi said...

Those evil literature professors do tend to take the joy out of a breezy read. Sorry you mastered it.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

Josh -- what do they *do* to people in English programs? I always thought I was doomed as a writer because I tested out of English classes for the brief time I deigned to attend high school at all, and didn't study literature in college (linguistics, which carries its own burdens). I am still paying for the really great MFA I got in part to compensate for what I thought was a handicap! You make it sound like I could have saved myself beaucoup bucks, dang it :)

We spent two years reading as writers -- forget the social theory stuff, how the devil did Flannery O'Connor change time and place across three times and half a dozen places more than a dozen times in the opening the The Violent Bear It Away without giving us whiplash? That's one of the fun questions I tried to answer.

I became known as "that woman who counts things" because sometimes I didn't know where else to start.

Joshua Corin said...

Unfortunately, Gabi, now I am one of those evil literature professors.

*twirls mustache*

Joshua Corin said...

Mysti, MFA programs are so so so much healthier for writers than MA programs. I got one of my MA's in English because I thought I was on my way to a Ph.D. I still might someday get that Ph.D -- but after two years of literary theory I needed a breather if only to maintain any semblance of sanity.

Where did you get your MFA? It sounds like it was a fun program!

Shane Gericke said...

Josh, you need a Snidely Whiplash photo when twirling your professorial 'stache :-)

I write and read for a living, yet never found traditional literature (The Scarlet Letter, et al) fun or interesting to read. How do you teach students to like it? There surely is a way, but my professors in college didn't have it. Or, more likely, I didn't have it.

To channel Sophie, I likes me some lit'rature with smooshed-out eyeballs.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

But do you read from a feminist or a post-modern Marxist slant? Isn't what the author doesn't say just as important as what she does? Wait...stop...

Maybe there's a 12 step program.

Now that you are one of THEM, Josh, try to leave a little joy in books for the next generation. Please!

Joshua Corin said...

Shane, the secret to making difficult literature both accessible and enlightening is to find the correlation between its context and ours.

For example, THE SCARLET LETTER is about sexual repression, public humiliation, and promiscuous clergymen. If today's students can't relate to these themes, their heads are too buried under the sand and they are beyond any teacher's assistance.

Plus I tell jokes. That seems to help. "Nathaniel Hawthorne's THE SCARLET LETTER, now with a laugh track!"

Gabi said...

I suspected you were evil at heart. My people. Nathanial Hawthorne with a laugh track -- I would pay to see/hear that.

Joshua Corin said...

That's exactly what my students do, Gabi. They pay. And then I corrupt them with my sugar-infected wit. Plus I make 'em read lots of Alexander Pope, just to maintain my standing in the Hall of Evil.

Terry Stonecrop said...

Oh, sorry. That's too bad. For me, I guess ingnorance is bliss, then. I admire other writers but never learned to dissect writing. Could turn out to be a handicap as a novel writer, but I get to enjoy reading.

Loved Nathaniel Hawthorne, though. Even went up to Salem just to see The House of the Seven Gables.

Shane Gericke said...

I think I'd like to read some of the traditional canon, Josh, mostly cause the last time I read them was college and I have more perspective on life now. What do you recommend as your favorites?

And, jokes make everything better. Except rejection letters ...

Joshua Corin said...

Shane, my favorite "classics" (i.e. novels written before 1900) include Melville's MOBY DICK (which is much funnier than you'd expect), Turgenev's FATHERS AND SONS (which has so much quick dialogue that it might as well be play in novel form), Dickens' DAVID COPPERFIELD (because all writers wish our thinly-veiled autobiographies were this interesting), and Bronte's JANE EYRE (because I'm a girly-man).