Reading Like a Writer

I’ve mentioned previously that Reading Like a Writer by the aptly named, Francine Prose was one of the best set texts from my MLitt course. It taught me how to have a better appreciation of what I read but the one downside is that I now find it hard to switch off my writer’s eye when reading a novel. This means that I’m constantly analysing the characterisation, pace, POV, structure etc and failing to lighten up when I’m supposed to be reading for pleasure.

I wish I could buy the body to go with the T-shirt!

The result of this critical approach is that I’ve just given up on my 4th book in a row. My reading habits have changed over the years. I’ve always been an avid reader but for some unknown perverse reason, I made myself keep reading a book until the end whether I was enjoying it or not. I doubt if I’m alone in suffering from this affliction but somewhere along the line, I had an epiphany (just for the record, there were no angels involved or speaking in tongues, and it wasn’t after a few large voddies) that life is too short and my ‘to-be-read’ pile is already too high to bother sticking with reading books I don’t like.

This new ruthless approach has got even tougher in the wake of a house move and the knowledge that my TBR pile would either have to be read quickly or packed and carted off to my new abode.  Several books had been gathering dust on the TBR pile for various reasons, and many had made it on to the list due to being classed as a book I felt should read (but who says so and why should I care?).

The first one to be tackled was Lanark by Alasdair Gray. This book is hailed as a modern classic, Glasgow’s Ulysses, but I’m not embarrassed to admit that I just couldn’t get my head round it. The semi-autobiographical parts based in Glasgow appealed but the surrealism of Gray’s vision of hell was far too sophisticated for my wee brain. The next couple of books will remain nameless, let’s just say I might cross the paths of these writers in the future and I don’t want to have to run and hide from them if I dared to air my feelings publicly .

The queen of ‘tragi-comedy’ writing.

After a hat trick of failed read throughs, I went for a safe bet. Even although I rarely read crime fiction, I love Kate Atkinson’s novels in the Jackson Brodie series, I really enjoyed Human Croquet and rate Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my all-time favourite books. The only one of her books I’d still to read was Emotionally Weird, so I felt sure that I was on to a winner, but I’m sad to say that for the first time ever, Kate let me down. For my tastes, the book seemed too self-consciously ‘literary’, with no plot to speak of involving unlikeable caricature characters and in no way lived up to my high expectations.

So I’m on to number five, with my hubby breathing down my neck to reduce the Everest proportions of the TBR whilst thrusting a packing case under my nose.  I’m quietly confident I’ll go the distance with this one, ‘Alone in Berlin’ by Hans Fallada, partly because I’ve got an interest in the Nazi regime of WW11, the city of Berlin and a love of novels based on true stories (which pander to my cynical nature).

But only time will tell if Alone in Berlin makes the grade and gets a hurl in the removal van…

Do you have a book that’s a permanent fixture on your TBR pile? Do you stick with a book until the end? Do you have a cut-off point? What makes you throw your book in the charity bag or even at the wall? And what makes a book worth packing to take to a new home?

Try telling that to my hubby!

8 thoughts on “Reading Like a Writer

  1. Helen,
    As a (wannabe) writer I believe there is no subsistute for an opening paragraph and page, I took days writing mine. Anything less than flawless attention grabbing in the first couple of pages will almost always be my reason for checking out early. Also, having a Kindle has made me lazy especially where free or very cheap ebooks are concerned; they have to have even better openings because they represent such a small investment on my part.

    I wouldnt expect anyone to keep reading something I’d written if I couldnt get them on board inside two pages. Personal rule: Avoid cliche at this crucial stage.

    Enjoy your ruthless approach!

    • Thanks for the interesting reply Tom. I agree that the opening has to grab the reader, maybe that’s why I’ve lost count on the number of chapter one versions I’ve written of my WIP! Not having a kindle, I hadn’t thought of how easy it is to discard a book, especially if it’s been free to download etc. I’ll bear your rule in mind as I work on number??? of the latest chapter one!

  2. I’m definitely in the ‘life’s too short’ camp and if a book hasn’t engaged me by 100 pages (and, I admit, sometimes a lot sooner) I put it to one side (or fling it across the bathroom, in the case of one in particular). I managed Lanark some years ago only because I had to write an essay about it. The Hans Fallada was challenging and I admit to some skipping, but was glad to have seen it through. That was one of the choices of my book group – have a look at our blog if you’d like to see what we thought about it: (you’ll need to scroll down a bit).
    Come September I’m starting my final OU degree course and will be studying lots of heavyweight 20th century texts – and will be faced with finishing them, however unappetizing I find them.
    Interesting post, Helen, as usual!

    • You’re more generous than me Janet, I’ve not managed I00 pages on the ones I’ve given up on. I might try Lanark again one day but I’m in no great hurry- too many other books I want to read first! Thanks for the link to your book group- banned books- a great theme!

  3. We have some tastes in common. ‘Reading Like a Writer’ is one of the few ‘books about writing’ that I seriously rate. Like you, I became a more discerning reader. And who knows, the book may have influenced my writing too.

    ‘Human Croquet’ & ‘Behind the Scenes at the museum’ are also two of my favourite novels. I agree 100% about ‘Emotionally Weird’ although I’m not so keen on the Brodie novels.

    I know instantly if I’m going to love a book – sometimes as soon as the first line; definitely by the second page. And I’m afraid I take no prisoners. It would never occur to me to read on if a book ceased to engage me.

    A permanent fixture on my TBR pile is, ‘Mildred Pierce’ by James M Cain. I picked it up a couple of years ago in a charity shop & read the blurb – which was interesting enough for me to buy it. But there has always been something I wanted to read more

    Excellent post.

  4. Really interesting post Helen and one that made me think! I’m so into new fiction for my blog that books on my TBR often get elbowed aside even if I’m keen and inevitably some fall off the list altogether. I am finally going to read The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst on holiday next month – have been putting it off for ages because The Line of Beauty is one of my favourite novels ever and everyone I know who’s read both says TSC is less good. I hope I disagree!

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