Tim Parks, a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books, has some great advice about how to get the most out of reading and examples of how he reads. I assigned these articles recently in my Advanced Fiction Writing class and thought they were very helpful in thinking about how we prepare for workshops. Some highlights:
“Always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. . . . We are no longer passive consumers of a monologue but active participants in a dialogue.”
“But if writers are to entice us into their vision, let us make them work for it.”
“As I dive into the opening pages, the first question I’m asking is, what are the qualities or values that matter most to this author, or at least in this novel?”
“I’m on the lookout for how each character positions himself in relation to [these qualities].”
“Getting a sense of the values around which the story is organizing itself isn’t always easy; I might chnage my mind two or three times. But let’s say that the mere attempt to do that gives me something to look for. After that the next step is to wonder what is the connection between these [qualities].”
Students had interesting responses to these articles. While they recognized they didn’t want to be “passive consumers,” they were concerned that reading a book too critically would suck the fun out of it. I get this, I do, and have talked about it briefly here, but these articles brings me to two conclusions: the books like the ones you want to write are the ones you need to read most closely and critically, and that reading critically brings its own kind of pleasure.
1) So many of my students want to write popular genre work because they love to read it, and I think that’s great, but the problem here is that these works are the ones they need to read the most closely. They know they need to read Jane Eyre critically, but if what they love is Dean Koontz and they’re not willing to read this critically, are they understanding how it’s really put together? Which is a better model for them? Charlotte or Dean?
And while I understand that they don’t want to lose that excitement of gobbling up a novel, isn’t it a different kind of pleasure to read critically? Think of a child shoving in tater tots versus an adult with a more sophisticated palette enjoying a meal bite by bite. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, but they provide a different kind of pleasure.
That said, sometimes I want to shove tater tots blindly into my mouth until my pants don’t fit and my eyes are glazed by carbs. Go for it, I say, but just make sure it isn’t the only thing you’re eating.