The Adventure of a Writer Reading

vino drinker seeks good read.

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In the novel IF ON A WINTER’S NIGHT A TRAVELER, Italo Calvino writes about a woman who is a pure reader. The act of being immersed in a story is the totality of the experience for the pure reader. According to her, “There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other side those that read them, so I take care always to remain on my side of the line. Otherwise, the unsullied pleasure of reading ends…”. Later in IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT, Calvino introduces a writer who echoes the pure reader’s sentiment, saying “Since I have become a slave laborer of writing, the pleasure of reading has finished for me.” In Calvino veritas, indeed!

A writer reads to learn how to write. The psychological distance presupposed by the act of analysis is what makes it difficult for a writer to be a pure reader. To be a writer is to inherently dull the ability to read for reading’s sake.

This doesn’t mean that being a pure reader is impossible for writers, just that they’ll have to be reading an incredibly well-written work to get into that zone. Even then, once the afterglow of the read wears off, the writer will be picking through passages to try and understand how it’s possible that a story as seemingly bloated as Joyce’s THE DEAD can deliver such an emotional climax. Works of lesser quality do not even transport the writer; she will observe the story rather than be absorbed by it. The analytical chatterbox in her mind will note every infraction of grammar, characterization, and symbolism. More egregious than badly written books are books where the author makes the decision to include heavy-handed metafiction or some other self-conscious and purposefully precious element. Authors who do that break the sacred contract with the reader by eliminating any chance at the transcendental experience of becoming a pure reader. I’m with Calvino’s pure reader. All we want is to read a novel that “pile[s] stories upon stories, without trying to impose a philosophy of life on you.”

We want to be absorbed, subsumed, enraptured.

It has already been two years since my last experience as a pure reader. The book? AFFINITY, by Sarah Waters. I was skeptical at first because I tend to find books written in diary format to be too contrived to enthrall me. However, Waters’s writing is amazing, and AFFINITY had enough supernatural, sexual, and mysterious elements to keep me coming back, despite my initial reluctance. I read the end on a lunch break; I was sitting in the kitchen at work, seething with emotions. Fury. Betrayal. Horror. Stupidity. Shock. Sadness. The sense of having been used. I was gasping for breath and in tears – in the company lunch room. I didn’t care. In fact, because Waters did her job very, very well, I became a pure reader. There is no lunch room or co-workers for the pure reader. There is only the story.

AFFINITY had serious wow-factor. I was awed, and not certain that there was any place left for novels to go, since perfection had already been achieved. Then the writer in me took charge. She decided that what the world needs are more books like AFFINITY. She started the analysis. She sent the pure reader packing.

What about you, when was the last time you experienced being a pure reader? What book did it for you? The holiday vacations are coming up, and I would love, Love, LOVE to have to have a stack of juicy reads!

  • All quotes are from the 1981 Harcourt Brace & Company (Harvest Book imprint) edition of IF ON A WINTER’s NIGHT A TRAVELER.
  • I cannot take credit for my the phrase ‘In Calvino Veritas;’ that’s all over the web.

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My Review Process

Reviewing is an honor.

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Writers labor alone.  We strive to bring forth the truth of the tales that have chosen us, but no matter how close we get, we know we can do better.  How?  By seeking out literary comrades, by enlisting the aid of other laborers who will not flinch from telling us what they see.  A good review is the product of care, attention and compassion.  There is no piece of writing so bad as to have nothing praise-worthy.  There is also no piece of writing so good as to have nothing deserving of criticism.  The good reviewer will recognize both and write an honest critique that is neither sycophantic nor cruel.  It is an honor to be permitted to review a fellow writer’s work, and it is a task I take seriously.

When I review another person’s writing, I read the work three times.  The first time I just read.  The second time, I read and make notes.  The third time, I go back through the work and my notes to compose the critique.  I find that this is the minimum number of reads necessary to provide an honest, useful, and through review.

The first reading allows me to  experience the story as it is.  I apply as little judgment as I can with regards to mechanics, quality, point of view, or any of the other ten thousand things that go into a literary work.  I read the story in the spirit it was intended, allowing it to transmit its own unique truth.

In the second reading, I switch from being a reader to being something more like an editor.  I pay attention to as many of those ten thousand things as I can.  I hold a pen and put my judgments in the margins, in the space between lines, on the back of other pages.  Often, the second read is the one that takes me the longest.  If something troubles me or delights me, and I cannot pinpoint why, I re-read sections until I can draw conclusions.  It is good to be able to explain why something is wrong, especially if that ‘wrong’ is more an aesthetic or intuitive ‘wrong’ rather than a quantifiable R-O-N-G.  It is also good to be able to explain why something is working.  This may tell the author a bit about their own technique, but it serves the secondary purpose of helping me learn what does and doesn’t work.  A good review teaches the reviewer as well as the reviewed.

The third read is the capstone.  I go back through my notes and arrange them in some less spastic order. Often, many of my comments condense into a few higher level points with various supporting examples.  Now I am not not reader or editor, but reporter.  I use my computer instead of a pen.  Where care and attention predominated in reads one and two, compassion is dominant in the third reading.  I consider how I would feel reading my comments.  I recall that no matter how kindly put, no one enjoys the realization that the bit of sloppiness they thought they could get away with was noticed.  I write and I revise until I get a version of the review that I would want.  Not the all glowing, you are Goddess of Writing review.  No.  I revise until I get to the honest review that has both deserved praise and deserved criticism.  I may not always be spot-on, but I guarantee you that I have tried my best.

I am very excited to be reviewing my first collection of indie horror stories.  I linked up with the author via an online writer’s group, and he was kind enough to provide me the Kindle format of his collection. I am in my first read, and had to drag myself away from the book to write this post!  This is my first Kindle review, so I’m wondering how I’ll manage the second read.  I know I can type comments and highlights, but I think I’ll still use pen and paper and some sort of notation system to tie my comments back to the text, since there are no page numbers on a Kindle. I have no doubt I’ll be able to bridge the technology gap, though!

What about you?  How do you review?  Do you listen to music, use a special pen, or sit in a particular place?

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