Like all serious writers, I’m a serious reader. My love of fiction came from the books I read when I was young. As I got older, my tastes evolved. When I began to write, I sounded a lot like my favorite authors, though in time I was able to distance myself from their voices and listen only to my own. I’ve learned quite a lot from other authors and read many books. However, I have also learned that sometimes, it’s okay to put down the book.
Over the last year or two, I’ve made myself take time to read. I write all the time, and reading for its own sake fell by the wayside. I wanted to change that, get in touch with the avid reader I used to be, while still being open to the insights and skill other authors bring to the page. In this way, I think authors work together by reading each other, and taking inspiration from their cleverness. Sometimes, we can try what they try on the page, and see if it works for us, too.
I’m not one to force myself to finish reading a book I can’t connect with. I did enough of that in college and graduate school. However, I do have a twinge of guilt when I close the cover and put the book in one of my many stacks around the house. After all, I’ve just walked away from something an author spent a long time working on, revising, perfecting, and then finding a publisher for. The guilt is lessened when I’ve paid for the book. My purchase will be tallied along with everyone else’s when that author’s royalty report is being prepared.
So, what turns me off when I read? Too much physical detail, for one thing. I prefer to imagine a character for myself. When I create my own, I provide one or two features for the reader to hang onto, usually hair color, or a habitual gesture. Some authors really go overboard in my opinion. I don’t need to know how someone’s freckles are arranged, the jewelry they wear, their favorite color, unless these facts are part of the novel’s understory, which they often aren’t.
I also don’t care much for prose that keeps me at arm’s length, that’s very reportorial, even, and balanced. That’s fine for a newspaper article—in fact I think many news media these days could stand a little more balance and dispassion—but in fiction, it’s a real turnoff. While I can spot melodrama a mile away, and don’t care for it one bit, I need to feel the author’s intensity, her laser focus into the souls she is bringing to life. In other words, I need to feel the heat of engagement. Otherwise, what’s the point of reading further?
What keeps me hungry for the next page? The mounting anxiety of a character, to be honest. The desperate search for an answer, the jittery wait for a lover’s response. In a moment like that, I’m more satisfied when the character adopts a fatalistic attitude, and accepts that she has no control over any particular outcome, but will go on yearning, just the same.
Something else I love in literature is humor. Too many writers take things too seriously. I’m not saying one should abandon gravity just for the sake of getting a laugh. But a cynical attitude, a carefully delivered sarcastic remark, or a deadpan response make for wonderfully rich reading. I wish more novels were funny, not all the way through, because that would surely wear thin, but often enough to change the atmosphere and make us glad for that lighter touch.
When I have to put down a book, I always wonder for a brief moment if the failure is mine alone. Am I so shaped by my own particular aesthetic that I can’t allow a different one to guide me through? The answer is yes. I know what I like and don’t like. I tell myself I might get back to those particular pages one of these days, when I’ve nothing else to do. Sometimes I actually do, and often find that the reason I walked away from a book in the first place still stands. Not all books are for all readers.
Which is exactly how the world is supposed to work. Not all types of food are for everyone either. My opinions are true to me, and the reasons why I put a book down or pick one up might be completely different from someone else’s. That’s what makes the book world such a rich and diverse culture, and I am certainly happy to be a part of it.