Monday, December 15, 2008

A Writer's State of Mind

How many times have you heard it said that a writer needs to read lots, and read widely? I've talked before about reading as a writer - today on someone's blog I was reading about how if you do a lot of analysis of plot and story structure, you can predict what is going to happen in most movies. (I try not to. Predict, that is.) But the edict is, in fact, true. The more you read, the more you read as a writer, the more your writing benefits.

Trouble is, my brain often isn't in the mood for certain books. When I'm very tired, when I've read a lot of student work, when I'm totally engrossed in a current project - I often can't read literary fiction. My concentration isn't up to the task. I have books that I keep on a reading pile for months, knowing that I'll manage them one day - just not right now. I indulge in what I love - crime fiction - instead.

So this is a good time of the year for me in terms of reading. I've been working up to it. A couple of months ago, I read The Spare Room by Helen Garner. I don't care if people are arguing over whether it's fiction or not. I just wanted to enjoy her evocative, cutting prose. I also read An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England, and some literary short fiction. Now I'm reading Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. Every time I pick it up, I fall into a different world, and while I'm not reading it, I wonder what it is about literary fiction that makes it such a different experience.

A lot of readers talk about style, about voice, about language. Yes, it's all of that, but I've read (or tried to read) many literary novels that are nothing else but style and language, and it's been like watching paint dry. Endlessly pointless and mind-numbing. With a literary novel that draws you into the world of the story, there's more than language. Yes, it's a big part of it, but there is such a sense of rich detail, of depth of character, of the skill of being able to make small things and events so fascinating. I've never been to a prep school in the US, but while I read this novel I understand two things - what it's like in that kind of school, and what it's like for this viewpoint character, who is unlike any other character I've ever read about. And above all, I still empathise and understand and want to know what will happen to her.

Is there a plot? I would say it's a chronological, coming-of-age kind of story. No major crisis (so far) but there is growth and change. It gives the reader the satisfying experience of seeing a character evolve before she is aware of it herself. Yet she is aware, and is not that far behind. Will this end up being one of my favourites? Maybe not. But it will be memorable, and when someone asks me what I've read this year that I enjoyed, Prep will definitely be on my You Should Read This list, especially for writers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I can identify with your comment about being drawn into the world of the story. For instance, I seem to have a lot of favourite writers who happen to be female and Irish. Although usually set in Dublin, and I've never been to Ireland, I have been able to thoroughly enjoy them because of these authors' ability to create the world of the story with likeable characters at the same time.

Secondly, I have also just discovered Kate Morton's books, devoured her first and am thoroughly enjoying her second.

Last year I wanted to read Charles Dicken's Christmas Carol but didn't, this year I am giving it a go and it is interesting to read due to the different language used.

Prep does sound like an interesting book and I hope to be able to read it.