|Reading as a writer: seeing the wood for the trees?|
I’ve noticed quite a few advertisements recently for classes in how to read as a writer. I know what they’re getting at, and it’s a useful skill. It can – rather like the critical eye an English literature graduate cannot help passing over fiction –distract you from immersion in a novel or short story, but it also makes a second reading of a book fascinating.
I was chatting to my fellow writers last night after our critique group, and one of them asked what I was reading. After trying to summarise Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox (a very difficult thing to do!) he asked what it was the author was doing in the novel. This might sound an odd question, but it is one I have held in my head throughout the book, looking for the joints, for the deliberate construction behind what can be a hallucinatory read at times. Of course, I am looking for the particular techniques that I can learn from and apply to my own writing, and so my explanation of what the author is up to was shaped by that.
Oyeyemi has taken tales such as Bluebeard, Fitcher’s Bird and Reynardine, and used them as a jumping off point to construct stories containing real (as in realistic) and imaginary (as in figments) 20th century characters in real settings (England, New York, Cairo). The fairy tales are there in themes, in patterns of human interactions, but she also seems to create new, modern fairy tales. I’m writing interconnected stories myself, and Mr Fox is ripe with interesting ways to create these threads between tales. I can’t claim to understand how Oyeyemi is doing this all of the time, and as a writer reading, I know I need a second, and probably a third, reading to learn more.
When I asked what my writer friend was reading, he said he had returned to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, having read it fifteen years ago. He too, is reading it as a writer, at least this time, and his first comment was that a lot of the text would get ripped to shreds if subjected to the kind of critique we give each other’s work in the group. The repetition was driving him mad, for a start. On the other hand, he said, Hemingway gets away with a lot of it because the opening of the book is so strong. Again, this is something we all seek to emulate as writers: the trick of drawing in a reader so firmly that you can take risks and keep them with you.
After two years of critiquing work in a weekly writers’ group, it’s difficult to switch off the critical eye when reading for learning or pleasure. Constantly I find myself asking, would this character really think in those words? Could the author have demonstrated this instead of telling me about it second hand? Is this detail doing any work in the story? Is the style supporting the content? It can be an irritating querying voice in my head when reading, but constant analysis can teach a writer a lot. The next step, though, is to be able to apply the same critique to your own writing, and that’s another learning curve altogether.