Tag Archives: reader

The art of reading

Books are always a collaboration between the author and the reader. This results in many different experiences of the same text. I’ve long felt that one of the key things a person does when writing, is to define the gaps where the reader will be invited to plug in their own thoughts and desires. Often it’s what we don’t know in a story that stays with us.

For me, one of the great pleasures of reading has always been the time I spend with a story while I’m not actually reading it. This is a major reason why I avoid binge reading (unless I’m ill) because I need the pauses in which to reflect and wonder. Reading a book slowly allows me more opportunities to do this and tends to enhance my reading experience. I engage imaginatively with the text, thinking most about the things that are implied. A text that makes everything too clear tends not to charm me in the same way as one laced through with ambiguities.

We get very attached to our own readings. It can be disturbing if the author comes back with reasons to think that their take on their story is not yours. We see this a lot in fandoms for all sorts of things. To read well (or watch, or listen) we need to recognise that our personal take on a story probably isn’t universal. There’s nothing invalid about a reading that doesn’t match the creator’s intent – people who have traditionally been left out of stories have to read themselves in deliberately or deal with not being represented. So we infer queerness, or disability, or a different ethnicity. But if we want our reading to be the only reading – even going so far as pressuring the creator to uphold our version – this becomes toxic. Curiously it isn’t the people who are left out who do this, it’s the straight white boys.

We don’t teach people how to read, not really. We teach kids how to extract words from a page, and we might teach them how to think about the context in which a story was written. I can’t help but think we’d understand ourselves better, and the relationships we might have with stories if we encountered fan fiction in formal educational spaces and were encouraged to think more deeply about how people read, what they bring of themselves to stories, and what the implications are.

The unavailable author

“The opinion of the author is neither available, nor desirable”. It’s a thought form that was drilled into me in my first term at university, all those long eons ago. I think something akin to it may have been said by a chap whose named could be Roland Barthes, but I might be wrong and I lack the will to google for insight. It’s the sort of statement that deserves to have its author’s name divorced from it, not least because it so often turns out true. What the author means and what the reader does are two wholly different things.

It’s not just a literature issue, either. It is an issue for anyone who sets out to write, blog, speak or teach. Your words, and their intended meaning, go on a journey. They pass through the filters of belief and assumption, the different associations other people have with words, and they land in some distant brain, not always in the form you intended. I’m pretty sure what Marx intended looked nothing like communist Russia or China. Mark Twain intended to protest against slavery, but modern readers find him racist. Pretty much every religious founder there has ever been was really clear about not wanting people to go out and kill other people in their name.

Even when the author is supposedly God, humans are entirely willing to infer what they want to find, to twist things where necessary and to generally fit the words to their plan. Even as clear a statement as ‘thou shalt not kill’ ascribed to God the Author somehow doesn’t result in people quitting on the whole killing other people thing, even when they claim to follow the book.

If being God doesn’t mean you get your authoring properly understood and respected, frankly the rest of us have got our work cut out.

I don’t really have an answer to this, but I think the issue could stand serious consideration. Humans throw words out into the world all the time with little consideration for the impact those words might have on others, and seldom much willingness to take responsibility when someone takes those words in a way we did not mean. We might not be able to steer exact interpretation, but more thought to the emotional impact could help. Are we feeding hatred and anger? Are we just wallowing in the bad stuff and facilitating emotional pornography? Or are we offering hope, ways forward, inspiration and opportunities to do better? I try and make sure I include some scope for usefully doing something, even when I’m angry or miserable. There are no doubt days when I fail in this.

Some of the responsibility lies with the reader. If we are to be better humans, learning to be more careful, precise and deliberate readers and writers, speakers and listeners would not be a terrible place to start.

An idea for a book

Doing events always results in certain kinds of conversation. So, I thought I’d answer a few standard questions, both to relieve my frustrations, and as an act of public service.

1) I have an idea for a book.

An idea may give you a short story if you are lucky. Write it, because you will learn something. Please do not walk into a room full of published authors who have been doing this for years and assume that ‘I had an idea for a book’ puts you on an equal footing with people who write books. It just makes us grouchy. Also, nine times out of ten you sound like a pompous idiot when you start talking this way in public.

2) I’m working on my first book, should I look for an agent, or a publisher?

No. It is wonderful that you are writing a book, well done for getting that far. However, get it finished, make sure you can finish a book of a good 70,000 words or more before you get carried away. Then leave it alone for a while and come back to it. Most first books are rubbish. This is fine. You wouldn’t expect to sit down and just write a symphony. For the record, it took me three goes to get a book I thought was even worth sharing and that didn’t get published. So unless you come to this as a film writer, with a huge body of short stories, or otherwise prepared and experienced, please reconcile yourself, now, to the fact that you are going to be learning a craft and that the first thing you write probably isn’t publishable. If that’s too off-putting, you are never going to survive the publishing industry anyway, so bail now and spare yourself the pain.

3) Can you read my book/recommend it to your publisher/ help me with it?

No. Authors are often busy people, what with the writing, marketing, research, doing events, and many also have day jobs and families, and need to sleep occasionally. Unless you are a personal friend or we really fancy you, the odds are that we cannot afford the time. Plus, we worry that you will then decide we stole your ideas, even if we didn’t, and most of us prefer not to go there. Offer me a short story and I might be able to read that and comment. If you have a book with a publisher, it’s relevant to stuff I write, and I have time, I might be up for furnishing you with blurb – not all authors have time for this either.

4) What a great job you have, it must be like being on holiday all the time. Or, it’s not a proper job, is it? It’s just a hobby.

There’s a lot of work goes into writing. Research, planning, drafting, redrafting, edits, marketing… there is a lot more to being an author than having an idea, throwing it into a document file and waiting for the cash to roll in. The majority of authors are not well paid and work long hours. Yes, we love what we do, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult. Some of us write because we’d go crazy if we didn’t. Some of us have things we are compelled to share. The reasons are many, and creation, for some, is a tortuous act. Every author is different, it is best to assume you do not know what their life is like. But, unless your holidays reduce you to tears and sometimes make you feel like jumping under a bus, no, it’s not like being on holiday all the time.

5) My six year old child writes stories/ wants to be an author.

That’s lovely. We will make every kind of warm encouraging noises to you and your child. Just so long as you do not want us to herald your small offspring as a literary genius, or take them as seriously as we would the author at the next table. No, really.

6) I’ve written seventeen books so far but they are too difficult for most people.

Either reconcile yourself to not getting the same sales as Fifty Shades then, or change what you do, because you can’t have it both ways and there’s not much point bemoaning the uselessness of readers. Hey I’m a reader. I read stuff. No, actually after that sales pitch I am not desperate to get my hands on a copy of your seventeen masterpieces, all lovingly self-published because they were too difficult for the publishers as well, with cover art by your six year old child…

Most people at events are a delight to talk to. But there’s always one and if it’s been a long day, I fear breaking down into hysterical giggles/weeping. If that happens, you know you were ‘the one’.

Reading like an anarchist

As a consequence of feedback on this blog, and on book reviews, a thought has occurred to me. Namely, how to read to best effect? When I touch on something that is close to someone’s experience, that seems to be helpful, but mostly I’ll be off the mark for most people – I’m bound to be. But I’d like to think I could still be useful. I’ve noticed that I derive benefit from books that other people find wide of the mark (profound thanks to Lorna who triggered this whole line of thought.) And I just read a book on Zen (thank you Jo!) that, while not entirely chiming with me, was profoundly useful.

Reading is not just a case of stuffing words into your head to see what sticks. We are largely taught to accept the authority of the author (clue is in the name and all that). There is a tendency to offer as fact that which is really opinion, and that muddies the waters too. It occurs to me that there are things I do when I’m reading that it might be useful to share.

Firstly, I watch for fact statements that are really opinions and mentally re-label them, and reject or accept according to my own tastes. It is a bit of a faff, but gets easier with practice. It makes it possible, for example, to read texts from people of other religions without getting bogged down or grumpy. After all, it’s just someone’s opinions, I can take it or leave it.

Secondly, I look for the underlying ideas. I’ve been reading a lot about prayer in different faiths – the surface stuff is of no use to me at all, what I’m looking for is what underpins, what the core concepts are, what the logic is. This means some picking out, a lot of pondering, but it does mean I get useful things out of books that really were not meant for me at all.

Thirdly I have no qualms arguing with a book. If I read something that totally jars with my beliefs, experiences or expectations, I’ll sit with that and try to figure out why. It may be that I was in error in some way, in which case I learn. It may be an opinions issue. It may be that I decide the thing I just read would be wrong for me, in which case it’s then down to me to try and figure out what would suit me better.

Here’s a case in point: I loved Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry book. I wasn’t drawn to most of the poems she used and wouldn’t work with them, and disagreed with many of her interpretations, but that was fine because the core ideas were so useful, I could see how to take them and run with them, there was so much good material that our differences of opinion seemed like no problem at all.

Books are a bit like people: Opinionated, working to an agenda that is not your own, unreliable, sometimes wrong. Like people, you have to get in there, make a relationship, find out where the good bits are, take with a pinch of salt where appropriate, run off in totally the opposite direction when needs be, and so forth. Books are written by people and people are flawed and messy things, and most of us will see things differently to at least someone else.

The trick to getting the best out of reading, is not to submit to the authority of a book. Question it. Check its facts. Test its assertions. Throw it in the recycling bin if it lets you down too badly whilst quietly nicking the couple of bits you thought were useful. Take it as a model of what not to do (cough, Death of a Druid Prince, cough).

You have to get a fair way into History and Literature as academic subjects before anyone starts teaching you how to read critically or suggests you can argue with books. This is a shame. Especially when you consider the authority imbued in religious books, and those are stories made by people too, and all the same things need to apply with them, as well.