I’ve learned a lot about the techniques of writing, since returning to creating stories six years ago. I’ve admired many authors, from boyhood, savouring how they transported my imagination. I like how they did it, as much as the story they told.
As I aged, I decided that life was too short to waste it reading badly written books. Persevering with novels that annoyed me, seeing them through to the end, made me disappointed in myself and contemptuous of the author. I tend to avoid writers who don’t engage me in some way. That’s not to say that they’re second-rate, for there have been bestsellers and literary prize winners that simply leave me cold.
I’m suspicious of the hoopla that surrounds authors who are household names, and of challenging novels of literature that takes a committee of eminent writers to decide which is best. I’m glad that books are getting recognition, but not so gullible as to believe that reading these much-lauded authors will be a pleasant or character-improving experience.
It’s possible to admire a work of art, but not like it very much. I admire the movie Citizen Kane, but don’t enjoy watching it. I admire the technique of Paul Auster, but don’t get any pleasure from his novels.
I recently started reading a highly-praised crime novel You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott, an author new to me. The opening chapter was bewildering, a confused hotchpotch of one sentenced conversation between partygoers, as witnessed by a drunk mother. I didn’t know who any of these characters were and had to read paragraphs a couple of times to get an idea of what was going on.
I immediately recognised what Megan Abbott was trying to do, by introducing an unreliable narrator, but it came across as a poor copying of Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. I scanned pages further into the story and was similarly confused and unimpressed. Considering how much we’re advised by writing gurus to grab the reader’s attention with our opening five chapters, this was a dismal failure.
I gave up on it, turning to one of my favourite authors Dennis Lehane. Reading his World Gone By was like entering a beloved restaurant where I knew I was going to enjoy the meal. Then, I noticed signs of a run-on sentence, which Lehane had rewritten, to make three shorter sentences. It still read clumsily, but…hang on, I’ve forgotten the storyline…what was it he said? So I reread the paragraph, annoyed with myself for dissecting writing technicalities rather than enjoying the whole.
So, does being a writer spoil your enjoyment of reading?