Readers and Writers

November 1, 2012 § Leave a comment

A good friend of mine argues with me about what makes a book good. My friend’s stance is that there are some books that writers like and some books that readers like. Personal taste includes this factor. I argue with my friend on this because it dismays me that I would have to pick a side; I consider myself a reader, foremost. After all, reading is all enjoyment, and writing requires work!

Joking aside, I’ve been reading for much longer than I ever thought to write down one of my daydreams as stories or songs as poems. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read. I dont’ thing that I was me until I had that skill.

This last weekend, I met up with the local mystery lovers book group. The group is very well organized, and I was impressed at how well we stayed on topic. Since everyone was given a chance to speak, I got to listen to the insights of a varied group of intelligent readers. It was fascinating to hear the authors’ works discussed by people whose tastes are not known to me. For the novel that we had all read in common (A Conspiracy of Paper by David Liss), each reader had different reasons for enjoying or not enjoying the book.

It’s not that readers don’t appreciate the writer’s craft, but that they are able to see if the craft is effective. If a person is not looking closely at the cogs and gears, that person can still tell if the machinery is working. For the readers that didn’t like the storytelling style of the mystery that we read, the reaction was “it didn’t work for me.” The perspective of a writer is more typically, “I see what the author was doing, but it didn’t come together for me.” It was a similar case with the readers who did enjoy the novel. They felt engaged with the characters, setting, and story. I realized that I my praise was for how using the first-person perspective kept the reader’s information limited, how the use of dialog enhanced the setting, and how the author created tension in the narrative. My view was, when contrasted with a “pure” readers view, very focused on structure and craft.

I know that I am often distracted by how a story is built. Sometimes this means that I want to rant to anyone who will listen about where I thought the author should have known better, where I disagree with the author’s (not the characters’) choices. More often, it is the nuts and bolts of the novel or short story that enchant me. I can thoroughly enjoy a book that I wouldn’t recommend, entirely because of its elements. I’ve also recommended books that I didn’t enjoy, because I could deconstruct what didn’t work for me and how it would be more likely to work for the other person.

This is not unlike how I feel about beadwork. I bead, and browsing through the treasures of a bead store is at least as much fun as crafting and wearing a finished piece. Each bead itself is a contained beauty. Sculptural beadwork jewelry is often, in my opinion, grotesquely overdone, yet even when I think that a piece is ugly as a whole, I like to look at it with a crafter’s eye and appreciate the components and stitches.

Or maybe a book is like a salad. A wide variety of vegetables, cheese, prepared meats, or nuts can go into a salad. If well crafted, the salad elements will be harmonious in a way that many will enjoy. Yet a salad can contain many of my favorite things, and be enjoyable because of those separate elements, even if the whole doesn’t come together into something I want to serve to a lunch guest. Readers are the guest to a meal, while writers are the ones preparing the meal.

Along those lines, I’m of the opinion that you should “never trust a skinny cook.” Someone who identifies as a writer but does not read has got it all wrong. Writing without reading is pontificating without ever listening to another person’s viewpoint. Being a reader is fundamental to being a writer, and writers who read a variety of fiction and non-fiction are those best at their craft. It’s not enough just to live in the world that we have and have experiences; reading puts us in a different window seat from our own minds. Writers of mystery, speculative fiction, and other genre can draw from classic literature, popular fiction, theater, history, hard science, social science, and more to create the world beyond the window. This is what the masters of writing do.

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