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Occupational hazards: can writing ruin your love of reading?

Today’s guest post is kindly provided by Margaret Yang and Harry R Campion

Lewis Carroll Occupational hazards: can writing ruin your love of reading?

Lewis Carroll, perhaps musing on how writing can ruin one’s love of reading.

We are going to tell you a secret.

All writers know it. None of them talk about it.

The secret is this: writers hate a lot of the books we read.

Not all of them, mind you, and not in a malicious way. It has nothing to do with jealousy or spite. It’s just a horrible side-effect of being a writer. We see every plot twist coming, know why characters can and can’t do certain things, and see every subtle bit of foreshadowing as a huge neon sign. We understand how stories are put together because we put them together ourselves. We always see the support structure underneath the pretty prose.

It sounds arrogant, doesn’t it? As if novelists think they are too good to read other people’s fiction. But it’s not that. We just see behind the curtain, and it doesn’t matter if we’re reading master writers or untalented hacks. There is no pride in this. It’s actually really sad.

All of us wanted to be writers because we love books. We grew up losing ourselves in fictional worlds. The more we write, the less those worlds have the power to draw us in. Ask any writer when was the last time she lost track of the outside world while reading. Ten years ago? Twenty? Her answer will tell you how long she’s been a serious writer. Most of us don’t enjoy movies as much as we used to, either. Same reason.

We all have our personal work-arounds. Some writers do their pleasure reading in a different genre—science fiction writers reading mysteries, or romance writers reading thrillers. Some read more literary fiction, hoping the unique turns of phrase will compensate for the predictable (to us) plots. Some read only indie authors, hoping to find something quirky—something that hasn’t been homogenised by big publishers trying to appeal to a mass audience. Others re-read novels they loved when they were younger, hoping to recapture the wonder.

In the most ironic twist of all, many writers start reading less. Some watch massive amounts of television, getting their fiction fix through a different medium. Or, they read only non-fiction because the fictional worlds they loved so much are no longer welcoming. Some of the writers who produce the best fiction no longer consume it.

But not all of us. Most of us still read fiction. And every so often we come across a book that’s different—a novel that buries the superstructure of the plot, crafts seamless characterisation, and disguises the exposition so well its own mother wouldn’t recognise it. Those are the books that surprise and amaze us. Those are the books we want to read.

And here’s an even bigger secret. Those are also the books we hope, someday, to write.

About the authors: Margaret Yang and Harry R. Campion are the authors of The Caline Conspiracy, Fate’s Mirror, and Taking the Highway, all published under the shared pen name M.H. Mead. The authors live in Michigan, where they are hard at work on their next book. To learn more about them, visit their website www.yangandcampion.com

21 comments

  1. Seems very true, maybe even for people who are very heavy readers and not writers, but it makes sense that this excess knowledge about the nuts and bolts of writing helps you admire all the more those books that surprise you!

    • Stephanie /

      I think it’s true that the way that an author reads may be different from how a reader does so, but I tend to find myself caught up in a story if the author is doing a good job. And even those things that I find myself assessing I tend to find that I do so in an appreciative way: seeing how things are put together can really add to a story for me. Often I don’t tend to muse on the craft behind a story until after the fact–unless it’s something that’s very clunky and that can’t be ignored!

  2. This post is spot on. Although I read more indie than other books, I am overly critical of typos and incorrect word usages.
    Una Tiers

    • Stephanie /

      I agree: poor craft can definitely pull a reader out of the story, and certainly breaks that promised suspension of disbelief, and typos and glaring errors are probably the worst for that.

  3. Great post and the words are so very true… I write poetry and occasionally try a short story and they are almost always aborted due the reasons stated above. I can’t read as many books as I do and write a finished short story and vice versa…. thanks for informing me that this is quite common with readers/writers. I was wondering if something was wrong with me…

    • Stephanie /

      I think that perhaps writers read for different reasons and with different goals from non-writer readers, and just as something isn’t always going to be the taste of a reader, it isn’t always going to be to the taste of a writer. I think that our personal preferences just become more overt when writing is our profession. For example, I read largely for beautiful writing, setting and character, so I tend to notice when those elements aren’t quite there, whereas plot issues I’ll happily let slip. Those same things have always bothered me as a reader, but they’re just more noticeable now as a writer. :)

      The flip side of the coin is that you appreciate something done skilfully so much more than you might have otherwise! :)

  4. I have to say I do not agree at all! I’m a writer, and I take my writing very seriously indeed. Yet I love to read. I read hungrily, voraciously, all the time. Yes, I can often see the plot twist coming … yes, I am annoyed sometimes by lazy repetitions or poor grammar … yes, sometimes I need to work a little harder to suspend my disbelief. However, more often than not, I am swept away by the story, brought to tears and laughter and gasps of surprise, and sometimes, moved to awe and envy and the wish that I could write so well. There are so many amazing and wonderful writers out there, creating works of such beauty and originality, that enrich my life every day – I feel so sorry for anyone that cannot enjoy books any more and have to say that perhaps it has something to do with the quality of the books you’re choosing to read. Because a truly great writer can always surprise and move you

    • Stephanie /

      I think you make a very good point, Kate. I agree with the authors to an extent, but I find that craft issues are problematic only if they break my suspension of disbelief when I’m reading. Often I tend to find issues with a work after reading, or even if I do notice them while reading, I tend to sort of set them aside to deal with later. It’s only when something is so clunky and glaring that I can’t enjoy the story that I find myself reading with an eye for seeking out errors rather than for enjoyment.

      Reading good books definitely has a huge amount to do with it. Next year I plan to decline most review copies so that I can read only the books that I wish to read rather than those I’m asked to read–I expect that my reviews will be a lot more positive as a result, as I’m the one who best knows my own reading tastes!

      • I must admit I only read books for pleasure – I choose my own books and never promise to review any unless I know the author well and am sure they won’t let me down. Life’s too short to waste on books you don’t enjoy!

        • Stephanie /

          Oh gosh yes! I had a “wake up” moment after I calculated how many books I have left to read before I die. It’s still over ten thousand, but that’s barely a drop in the ocean when you think about it!

  5. I fall somewhere between you, Stephanie and Kate. I can still lose myself in a story, but it’s only the best ones that do that to me now. I don’t know whether this is really different from before, except in that before, I might not have been able to name what wasn’t working for me, I just would have put the book aside.

    What’s different for me now is a certain, unworthy, unwelcome and hard-to-admit-to, resentment of books that others have raved about that I don’t like. I get really irritated when I pick up a book expecting to be swept away and I’m not. It’s ridiculous, but I think that’s a causuality of writing. Previously, I would have just given up on it without caring. Now I resent it for disappointing me!

    The upside is that when a book does take me away I fall hopelessly in love with it even more than I would have before.

    • Stephanie /

      Great points, Imelda. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response. I wonder if it’s less a case of finding certain types of books unenjoyable *because* of our writing backgrounds, and perhaps more of a case of finding them unenjoyable because our reading tastes and expectations have changed as a result of learning more about writing craft (and reading craft at that).

      I think that voracious readers, in comparison with casual readers, tend to have more sophisticated reading “ideals” in that they know the directions in which their tastes run. I’d argue that they’re probably also more likely to read to read a *book* as opposed to reading in order to be a part of the discussion around a particular book. After all, a casual reader is probably going to pick up a currently talked-about bestseller rather than some obscure tome due to a mix of availability and awareness. So I think that’s a factor as well.

      I do think that reading so voraciously does result in us becoming a little jaded as readers at times. There have certainly been moments this year when I’ve thought, “my goodness, yet another book about topic X?”, and I do find myself cynically musing on whether something has been written for the market rather than because it has some inherent value that allows it to exist in its own right.

      But I think that you’re completely right when you say that the highs are so much more striking. When you see what an author is trying to do, and they pull it off so beautifully, it’s a wonderful feeling. I had that a few years back with Cassandra Golds’s The Three Loves of Persimmon: that book felt almost as though it had been written specifically with me and my tastes in mind!

  6. Sorry, just realised that was a guest post! Sorry Margaret and Harry!

  7. Great article – and, sadly, so very true.

    • Stephanie /

      I’m both pleased and sorry to hear that it resonated with you!

  8. Boy can I relate to this. I still read a lot but I set a book aside for another one on the stack much quicker. I’m one of those picky editors that sees the issues with repitition, poor grammar, etc. and it drives me crazy…sometimes it is the seasoned best sellers that end up getting short-changed on their edits. I will never be able to simply enjoy a book again. I’m sad about that…but it comes with the territory. Karen

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for visiting, Karen. Do you find that those experiences play out with everything that you read, or that certain genres happen to be exempt from it? I find that I tend to be more critical of the genre that I write in, or genres that I feel should have excellent mechanics. I’m more forgiving with other books that fall outside these genres, I think.

      Hopefully in amongst the issues that you pick up, though, you manage to find some instances of writers striving for new literary heights and achieving them with remarkable fluency. :) I love feeling that thrill that I get when I read something truly extraordinary. What a privilege!

  9. Dottie Hoopingarner /

    I am not a writer, but I wonder why the same phenomenon doesn’t occur with listening to music. As a musician, I can analyze a piece of music’s melody, harmony and form, and still be moved by the beauty of it. It seems that a writer might be able to do the same thing with a well-crafted piece of writing.

    • Stephanie /

      Thanks for visiting, Dottie, and for sharing your experiences from a musician’s perspective. I’m curious to know whether you find that your appreciation for music persists across all musical genres, or that it’s with certain pieces (and standards) that you really find yourself engaging with the music. I think the key point here is “well-crafted”, although I do think that readers/listeners will let matters of craft slide a little if they have different ideas about what to expect from a given work. For example, if I’m reading a mystery, I expect an excellent mystery plot, but may be a little more lenient on other elements. But if I’m reading literary fiction, I expect stunning prose and exquisite thematic and characterisation depth–and plot is secondary.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  10. Reading all these comments from writers puts another nail in the coffin for me. I honestly thought I would be able to write something cohesive and non-embarrassing one day but now more than ever I’m enjoying my reading. I’m just a reader and I’m happy to stay that way for now.

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