The Critical Reader

Before I started writing as consistently as I’ve been doing the past three years or so, I would read for pleasure only.  I chose books I would enjoy and rarely ventured outside of the two genre’s that resonated with my taste, generally commercial or literary fiction, many of the stories set in the south.  Books like COLD MOUNTAIN, BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA, ELLEN FOSTER, THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES, AVA’S MAN, ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN’, MUDBOUND, CROSSING BLOOD, and AS HOT AS IT WAS YOU OUGHT TO THANK ME, etc.  If I read stories outside of the southern region, I found I enjoyed Alice Hoffman, Joyce Carol Oates, Ursula Hegi, Ann Patchett, Alice Sebold, and Andre Dubus, III to name a few.

Before, I didn’t pay attention to writing style, think about the underlying theme, dwell on the premise, or analyze the plot and it’s plausibility.  I didn’t pay much attention to how the author chose words to describe a scene, how they managed dialogue or if there were any slow, dull moments.  I only thought; this is good, or this isn’t as good as I thought it would be.

A couple of things have changed since I started writing.  For one, I’ve “broadened my horizons.”  I’ve started reading anything that gets tagged as “literary suspense.”  That means I’ve re-read Dennis Lehane’s MYSTIC RIVER.  I’ve purchased GONE GIRL, BENT ROAD, THE SILENT WIFE, I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE and most recently UNTIL SHE COMES HOME.  I’m reading as much of those types of books as I can because they are similar to what I’m trying to write.

And the other thing that has changed is how I read.  I can’t help but dissect everything an author does to create tension, pace, suspense, characters, and a believable, intriguing plot.  I still get enjoyment out of reading, it’s not all about analyzing, but if something is off, I tend to notice it even more.  In the past, I might have skipped over it, thinking it was a mistake during printing, or something not in the hands of the writer.  Now, I wonder why they didn’t notice it, or at least why their editor didn’t.

I read on a blog the other day that as long as a “public” critical comment about an author’s work is fair, no one should have a problem with that.  By fair, I mean that you aren’t saying something bizarre like, “I hate their writing because they like lemon pound cake and I detest lemon pound cake.”  It’s even okay to call them out by name.  I bring this up because of one book I purchased recently.  The book  left me really questioning what was going on with the writer.  In posting this piece, I decided it doesn’t really matter who the writer is, because what I’m talking about isn’t meant to be a critique their book, it’s to point out what I perceive as a difference in my way of reading.

Anyway.

I bought this book because the author’s books are international best sellers I have several of his other novels and I enjoyed them – one in particular is an all time favorite.  He’s had several turned into movies.  He is a grand success.  So, the book arrived and with much enthusiasm, I began reading it.  After the first few pages, I became agitated – which isn’t good since I read in bed.  Agitation + spouse =  1 agitated person and 1 irate person.  I read a little more and found it a bit of a slog.  I finally put the book down, wondering if it was just me, or did anyone else notice what I was noticing.

I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt.  I mean I was only thirty pages in.  I read the next night, and the next.  And I kept right on thinking the same thing.  And that was; this book isn’t all that good.  It doesn’t read like someone who’s had several best sellers under their belt.  Matter of fact, it’s sort of cheesy.  He spent too much time on explaining every move the protagonist is making/will need to make – due to the protagonist’s profession.  He’s introduced so many characters, it’s not easy to keep up with them.  I counted. There are over twenty and I’m only halfway through.  More will probably come.

He’s used one particular word I can’t stand, and one I was surprised at.   Sneer.  As in, he sneered, she sneered.  If someone is sneering, or saying something in a “sneering way,” writing 101 says, the dialogue should do the heavy lifting, and he said/she said, should suffice.  Right?

He also portrayed some of the characters in a rather strange manner, and this is pinpointed by the internal dialogue of the protagonist, who is bordering on sounding sexist.  Maybe that’s intentional, but it’s making me dislike this character…, and I’m thinking, I’ve got to put up with his crazy, backwards thought processes for several hundred pages?  I wondered if was part of the character’s persona.  (???)  If so?  I don’t like him.  To add to my worries, the spouse of the protagonist struck me as shallow.  Intentional again?  But…why?  Aren’t I supposed to like them?  I want so much to like them!

The funny part about all this is, my mother in law just finished reading it.  She didn’t know I was reading it as well, and before I even mentioned that fact, she brought it up and said, “If that man wasn’t already a big hit with his other books, I doubt this one would have done well.”  And here I was, thinking I was being an overly critical reader.  Either way, I will finish it, even though I’m disappointed.  I will finish it because this is one of those “fussbudget” things I do.  (like refusing to wear the race shirt from a road race if I haven’t run the race)

So tell me, when you read, do you find yourself analyzing everything along the way?


COMMENTS

  • Jen Donohue

    February 8, 2014

    Reply

    I’ve found a couple of international best sellers whose novels I can’t stand. As in, cannot make it through even one of them (as I’ve long since implemented my “if I hate it, I don’t have to finish it” personal rule). There are times I find myself nitpicking, or wrinkling my nose at word/stylistic choices, and those things can really jar me out of a story nowadays. Things I admire, though, I don’t notice until after I’m done, since the reading was still so immersive.

    • donnaeve

      February 9, 2014

      Reply

      Yes, same here – there are several I wouldn’t buy because their stories wouldn’t do a thing for me. What’s unusual in this case is I actually do like this writer – I’ve really enjoyed at least four to five of his other books. My thought as I keep reading is, his writing took a step backwards. (or several) I thought by now, there wouldn’t be these annoying writerly tics that stand out. IDK. I guess everyone is allowed a bomb, but this is more about the craft of writing rather than him choosing a poor story line or something outside of his usual genre. I almost wondered if he had a ghost writer.

      • Jen Donohue

        February 9, 2014

        Reply

        There are two authors I can think of whose early work I loved and then who, book after recent book, have left me disappointed. You just have to wonder what success wrought for those guys, and I agree, if they had a ghost writer or something.

      • donnaeve

        February 10, 2014

        Reply

        I think after a while, they can only do so much with their “style.” Stephen King was one, and then he started writing differently – still sort of bizarre, but different. Another one I can think of although I’ve only read a few of her books, is Jodi Picoult. She had cornered the market on writing about strange bizarre medical issues, but her characters began to read like the same people, book after book – only with different names.

        • Jen Donohue

          February 10, 2014

          Reply

          Yes, Stephen King is definitely one I was thinking of, and also Chuck Palahniuk.

          For me, Jodi Picoult has great ideas, and then screws the ending. I more or less really loved My Sister’s Keeper….until the end, which completely erased the point of the rest of the book. I then read Plain Truth, which was aggravating in a somewhat different way (the whole career woman who can’t hold herself together without a man trope. Plus murder!) and then I was done reading Jodi Picoult.

      • donnaeve

        February 10, 2014

        Reply

        MY SISITER’S KEEPER is one I read – and YES, that ending. UGH. I’ve read HANDLE WITH CARE – another shitty ending. I read NINETEEN MINUTES – and honestly? I’m not sure I remember that ending…LOL! But I hear you…and totally agree.

  • Carolynnwith2Ns

    February 9, 2014

    Reply

    Reading for me is like being the room-mother who gets to go on a class field trip with the kids to a favorite museum. I want to enjoy myself but because it’s supposed to be educational I have to always be on guard for the learning experience.

    If a book is really, really good I become aware of the brilliance and it throws me off because I notice. If it sucks I simply – abandon the students. They can find their own way back to the buses and I drive home alone, a failure as a parent, again. I have always learned best from the teachers (and museum displays) I like.

    Because I have so little time to read for enjoyment I read what appeals to me. Call me a snob but I cannot force myself to read a story I do not like or writing I do not respect.

    • donnaeve

      February 9, 2014

      Reply

      My finishing has a lot to do with curiosity. Will he improve or will the aforementioned “tics” continue and drive me nuts all the way to the end. I suppose some of it is that I bought the darn thing and I at least feel compelled to finish because of that – if nothing else.

  • Averil Dean

    February 10, 2014

    Reply

    Yes. It makes it really difficult to read for pleasure anymore. I’m always on the make.

    • donnaeve

      February 10, 2014

      Reply

      Ha! That’s what my mother asked me…how do you read for pleasure anymore? But, I do…like I really, really enjoyed GONE GIRL even while I was in awe and blown away by what she did with her plot, etc.


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