Saturday, 1 August 2009

Discriminating Reader

When I was a kid, I was a discriminating reader. I loved choosing which books I would check out. I always read the very first paragraph to decide if the story was worth my while. I can still remember the wonderful sense of power I got as I pictured the author watching breathlessly, waiting to see what I would do: That skinny kid there with her finger in my book, is she going to read it? Is she actually going to check my book out and take it home? I even pictured his or her disappointment on the occasions I decided the book wasn't interesting enough, as I snapped it shut and put it back on the shelf. I was merciless too: no matter how sad the author looked in my mind's eye, if the book didn't suck me right in, I didn't want it anywhere near me.

I used to run through a list in my mind whenever I picked out a book. First and foremost, the book had to be fiction; I had no interest whatsoever in anything that had really happened. Up until I was about thirteen, the book had to be about a girl or girls. When I mistakenly picked up a book with a male protagonist, it went right back on the shelf. Next, I couldn't be bothered with fantastic plot features unless the author sneaked them in after I'd gotten hooked. So if I opened a book and right away saw that there were going to be dragons and fairies, I dropped it fast. If the book started out in a world I could believe in, the odd dragon or fairy was fine, once I was well into the plot. It really helped if the protagonist was unhappy about something or in trouble -- or had to go on an adventure -- and my very favorite plots featured a kid who was a misfit or bullied. Best of all was when there was any kind of travel involved, especially if the protagonist had to travel alone or without adults. Madeleine l'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time ticked all the boxes, and so did Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.

When I first moved to Japan, finding books in English was a problem. Within the first week, I read everything I'd brought with me. A visit to Kinokuniya Book Store shocked me: books in English were expensive and it wasn't easy to find the less popular titles. Over my first year in Japan, I combed through the books left by other expatriates and we traded back and forth. I learned to reread books I'd especially enjoyed too; after six months, I found I could reread a really good book and invariably find something I'd missed during my first read.

During the next five years overseas, I reread hundreds of books. I also learned to love non-fiction: one dark December day I picked up Rachel Carson's Under the Sea's Wind and was bowled over by the beauty of her prose. I started reading other non-fiction, including memoirs. I was shocked to learn what I had been missing all those years. Whatever I found in English, I would read, even books I might never have touched back in the States. I read detective stories, translated novels, adventure stories for boys, pulp fiction, literary fiction, Harlequin romances, memoirs, comic books, biographies, war stories, travel guides, do-it-yourself books, cook books, and classics. My only criterion was that the books had to be in English.

In short, I became an undiscriminating reader; I knew I couldn't afford to be fussy. I was the reading equivalent of a Clean Plate Club star member: whatever I got my hands on, I finished it. Even when it was God-awful.

For the next several decades, I did this: I read just about every book that came my way. In some respects, this eclectic reading has stood me in good stead: I discovered writers and genres I might never have gotten to know. But it kept me from concentrating on quality, from thinking about what I was reading and how it might have been written better.

Then I started to write myself. I started the hard way, making stupid, classic beginner mistakes: telling, not showing, meandering, rambling, being inconsistent, putting in unnecessary details, leaving out essential information, and so on. And writing has entirely changed the way I read.

It has taken me a long time to get to this point, but I now begin books and don't always finish them. A few months back, I got to the end of a novel and threw it across the room. It was didactic, pretentious, rambling, and unfocused, and I didn't know who I was more irritated with, the author for writing it or myself for actually finishing it. Last week, I stopped reading a novel after forty tedious pages: all of the characters were having too good a time. Everybody was getting along, lessons were being effortlessly learned, and I was being bored rigid. Three days ago, I picked up a book, read three paragraphs, and put it right back on the shelf: the dialogue was stilted and unbelievable. Lucky me, I've got a pile of books up to my knees, and time is too short for books that mediocre.

I've become that fussy kid again, standing in the library, holding a book, a frown on my face as I think Is this really good enough for me? Do I really want to invest my precious time in reading this? Yes, I've become that fussy, discriminating kid again.

And that's definitely the kid I want to write for.


Chris Eldin said...

I love this post! Especially the beginning--the details about what you would and would not read as a teen.
Writing *does* affect what you'll put up with as a reader. Absolutely!!

Robert the Skeptic said...

I rarely read the same book twice - but one: "Roughing It" by Mark Twain. I don't know why but it resonates with me quite personally. Maybe because it is autobiographical and humorous at the same time. I identify with that philosophy.

I read mostly non-fiction, but I have incorporated some core ideas into my life philosophy from "Shogun" by James Clavell. When confronted with real life troubles I often think, what would Lord Toronaga do? wakarimasu

Charles Gramlich said...

I was a very undiscriminating reader when I was a kid, although I typically didn't read books with girl protagonists. And I loved, loved loved a fantastic element.

MG Higgins said...

Really interesting post. I love how you've come full circle. I find myself becoming especially frustrated with adult fiction after reading and writing for children/young adults. I often find myself stopping in the middle of an adult "literary" novel, frustrated by too-long descriptions and rambling plot.

Mary Witzl said...

Chris -- Sometimes I miss being able to read without thinking and judging, but on the whole I like the way writing has made me a pickier, cannier readier. I like to think my pickiness has matured too: I've moved on to books with male protagonists now, and non-fiction is just as compelling and satisfying as fiction.

Robert -- If you lived in a place where books in English were scarce, I'm betting you'd start rereading them too! I've never read Roughing it, but I LOVE Mark Twain. That's going on my list right now. I've never read 'Shogun' either, but Lord Toronaga notwithstanding, I may wait on that one.

Charles -- You and I would never have competed for the same books!

My older sister ate up fantasy. She read both The Hobbit and LOTR way before anyone else had even heard of them. For some reason, the very mention of dwarfs and wizards got my eyes glazing over.

I did read a couple of books with boy protagonists: Old Yeller and Savage Sam and a Newbery Prize Winner called It's Like this, Cat. Oddly enough, I liked all of them.

MG -- I agree that YA and MG books are generally better and more tightly written than a lot of adult fiction. Whenever I find a really good novel, I always remember the author's name and make it a point to read more of their books.

A Paperback Writer said...

I sometimes have to remind myself that I only have to finish everything I start to read if it's required for a class. I feel guilty putting down a book I've begun, as if I'm insulting it somehow. But today I put down Shannon Hale's latest, The Actor and The Housewife because it was boring, predictable, and sappy/preachy. Yick. No matter that I'd had to wait weeks for my turn to check it out of the library. (Hale's a Mormon; her books are clean; they're in high demand in Utah.) It was pathetic and I put it down. But I feel weird about it still -- like it's somehow MY fault that the book isn't worth my time.

As for our respective library habits as children -- I loved fantasy books, so you and I would never have fought over who got to check out what.

Kit said...

I think we would have liked the same books as kids, but I was Ok about a boy protagonist as long as there were girls in the story too! I've always re-read my favourites again and again. Still do.

I've just been reading an old novel that made me think of you and a blog post you wrote about Turkey. This is by Ann Bridge who wrote in the Fifties. Called The Dark Moment it is about two girls - one English and one Turkish, before during and after the First World War in Turkey and all about Mustafa Kemal. It's my favourite way of learning about history, made digestible in a well written novel!

Kim Ayres said...

I find I absorb language and its use and it goes into the mix.

Occasionally this begins to irritate Maggie as certain words, like "gotten" find their way into my vocabulary. Even worse, was when I returned from Canada and had adopted the habit of using a D sound in place of the T in the middle of words - sidding at the compuder, for example.

So if I read too many poorly written novels, they begin to influence my writing style and it goes down hill. If I ever decide to try my hand at serious writing again, I'll have to be on a strict diet of gramatically perfect, highly literate novels for at least 6 months before hand (and only well written blogs too)

kara said...

i get pissed off at how many mediocre writers get published with huge followings. the whole paranormal romance genre makes my heart cry. at the same time, i want in on it. if them then why not me, right? what i'm saying here is sometimes we just need to embrace crappy novels. but not physically because then you really might get asked to leave the library.

Kappa no He said...

I sooo know what you mean. It was also in Japan that I first watched Little House on the Prairie. I thought I'd never watch that show. I actually really enjoyed it... every last one of the episodes.

Mary Witzl said...

APW -- That is exactly how I feel: as though it is my own personal failing that has kept me from slogging through a book I'm reluctant to finish. Now I'm determined to get rid of my hard-wired guilt complex. Just because someone wrote a crappy novel and someone else decided to publish it doesn't mean that I have to torture myself. Bad enough that I bought it in the first place.

I feel a little ashamed for not liking fantasy books. I incorporate fantastical elements into my plots now, so I also feel hypocritical...

Kit -- The Dark Moment sounds great. I will look out for it. If you're interested in another historical novel about that time, check out Louis de Bernieres' Birds Without Wings.

Reading historical novels is one of my favorite ways to learn history too, as they make it meaningful and interesting. The only thing you have to make sure to do (and I speak as one who knows) is to follow up on what you read by reading related historical non-fiction. That way you get a better balanced view of history instead of one writer's personal prejudices. But I find that after reading a really good historical novel, I want to do that anyway, and I'll bet you feel the same.

Kim -- I have been known to do that too! In fact, maybe that's what happened to my writing, over those years of mindless reading: maybe all the awful stuff I read seeped into my psyche and turned my inner Dostoevsky into a Harlequin pen pusher. Wish I just had the discipline and commercial success of a Harlequin pen pusher...

Kara -- You really do crack me up.

I feel exactly the same: How can all those other crappy writers get their schlock published when I'm just as crappy but much more amusing and hard-working? I want in on it too!

Kappa -- You know what this feels like, don't you?

I discovered so many of my favorite authors in Japan. I read the entire Laura Ingalls Wilder series twice while I was in Japan. Ditto the C S Lewis series and Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels. I doubt I'd ever have given any of those the time of day back in the States.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I'm so glad that you're joining in the Japanese Literature Challenge 3. You have a wealth of information to blog about/with, and I'm so glad to meet you!

Eryl said...

Unless there is a sense of jarring in the way a book's sentences are constructed I always try and read 100 pages before giving up on a novel. This because I have occasionally found that it takes that long for some really good stories to warm up.

I've just started reading Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook, I've got to page 80 and it's irritating me badly (something to do with the form but not sure what) but I'll plod on for another twenty at least because it's been recommended by so many.

I often reread favourite books and always get more from subsequent readings. I'd go so far as to say the best books have to be read at least three times to reveal their layers. I milk my novels, and short stories, for every last drop!

Adrienne said...

I liked the rundown of your childhood criteria - it triggered a few memories of books I enjoyed reading a long time ago.

Angela Ackerman said...

I was never fussy until I became a writer--I always made a point to finish what I started. Now, there's too much frustration. It isn't a time issue, but more how hard I am trying to get published, how many roadblocks I have to work past just to find someone has written dog poo and managed to get it published.

Mary Witzl said...

Dolcebellezza -- Thank you! I was thrilled to find out there was a Japanese literature challenge; about a quarter of the books around this house are either in Japanese, translated from Japanese, or about Japan. I've posted the pledge badge and I'll blog about this next.

Eryl -- This used to be me. I was infinitely patient with books and told myself that it just took longer for some writers to get going. If I was at a dinner party talking to the author, I guarantee you I'd sit there and listen for as long as it took for her to get her story out. But life is now just too short and my TBR pile is just too high -- and most of all, I'm struggling too hard to make my own work perfect and immediately compelling. I tool over paragraphs endlessly, honing down my prose and digging out junk and I'm still not satisfied and I still can't get published. And I've lost the will and the patience to wade through someone else's turgid Ain't-I-something-for-writing-this-deep-stuff prose. Or maybe I'm just getting old and cranky...

When I was 20, I LOVED The Golden Notebook. I tried to reread it not so long ago and didn't find it nearly as riveting. I'll always love Lessing's African stories, though, and her cat memoir,'Particularly Cats' (can't remember the title, but it was great).

Adrienne -- I'll bet you had your own criteria for what made a perfect book. The great thing was that even with such a list of conditions, the books I eventually selected were all entirely different. And each one came with its own charming world.

Angela -- Amen. That is almost exactly how I feel. Why should I struggle and bend over backwards to wade through all this nonsense when I'm struggling even harder to create something decent? You're younger than I am, though: for me, it's a time issue too. I look at that TBR list and wonder just how long it's going to take me.

Danette Haworth said...

Hi Mary!

That could have been me, sliding that boy book back onto the shelf. I also didn't like unrealistic or happy-happy books.

I've read lots of books twice because I remembered them fondly. Reading them a second time made me feel like I was home again.

Robin said...

That's so interesting! I've become really picky in the last year, also! If the plot starts to seem silly or inconsistent, I'm out of there. I thought it was caused by getting older and feeling like I don't have time to waste. (I'm such a doofus.) Yet now, I think it might be because I've been writing, myself!

Anonymous said...

I, too, became much less discriminating when I moved overseas. I read John Grisham and Danielle Steele, not to mention the worst of all (Christian romance!), those first few years in Mauritania when I was DESPERATE for something in English! ;) Now I'm not nearly as desperate and much more discriminating. And I love your writing.

Barbara Martin said...

When a child, I reread "National Velvet", "Black Beauty" and "The Black Stallion" series many times, savouring each reread as if it was the first. Now, as an adult, I have a few books I do reread: those by Diana Gabaldon and Douglas Preston/Lincoln Child. They contain special elements that lure my soul back into their depths.

MaryWitzl said...

Danette -- I'm so glad I'm not the only one who did this! I've got friends who are amazed that I reread books, but I've always done it. Living in Japan just reinforced it.

And fantasy bothered me no end as a kid. If dragons and mermaids and talking animals were in books, they had to creep in carefully and be DAMNED GOOD. I loved The Borrowers, though: little people just like us but entirely 'other'; what wasn't to like?

Robin -- I'll bet it is because you're writing now. The more I write, and the more I struggle to be a GOOD writer, the lower my toleration for poorly written books. And yet incongruously, I am more forgiving of different genres: I can appreciate now how much work has to go into an ordinary Harlequin, say, or a boys' adventure story.

PN -- Thank you for that very nice compliment, which I can return without any hesitation!

I've read some very good Christian romance, but for the life of me I can't remember the title -- a book my mother had, ages ago...

Barbara -- For some reason, I never got into horse books as a child, but I read my cat and dog books until the spines wore out. Savage Sam, Old Yeller, the space cat series...crazy, crazy books, but I loved them dearly and remember them still.