Author v Reader

When you’re a musician you learn very quickly to listen differently. You break a track down, listen to individual instruments, how they’re balanced, how they’re played, what production techniques have been used. The song? It has to be really strong to allow you to glimpse it at others hear it, a complete entity instead of a combination of working parts.

Same for authors and reading. When a book is really, really good, when it works its magic, you read like you’re supposed to, like you used to when you were a teenager. You get sucked in, you live the book. The story takes over. If the book isn’t *quite* as immersive as it should be, as an author you start looking under the bonnet. This, of course, can be enjoyable in and of itself, but unless asked to review the book critically it’s usually not what you’re looking for, is it?

I’m thinking about this especially at the moment because both of the novels I read in August had elements about them that had the internal author complaining: “oh, I wouldn’t have done it that way”. “What does it matter?” the reader in me who wanted to get on with the story replied. “It works well enough. Just ignore it and get on with it.”

With apologies to both authors (there’s every chance they would have similar reactions to my work), and without meaning to criticize unduly (I’ve already noted that I enjoyed both books), I thought this was a good opportunity to illustrate how the reading experience is different for authors. In both of the novels, I just couldn’t get past the feeling that the authorial voice subsumed and suppressed those of the characters. Yes, a consistent narrative tone is desirable, but I felt in both cases that it leached into the voices of characters to the extent that I never really fully believed in them. In the Neary, a first novel, the writing is a bit on the lush side, and the characters have a tendency to come across as…a bit wordy. Which is okay, but I wanted at least one to be spare and simple by contrast. In the Stross, you *could* make the case that the narrative needs to come from a single (sarcastic) voice (which for reasons of spoilers I won’t elaborate on), but that gives rise to a secondary problem – that of novel being told entirely in second person. Which for me is an unforgivable conceit that serves to distance the reader from the characters in the service of not very much actual payoff at the end (the same story could easily have been told in third person omniscient without lessening the impact at the end of the book particularly).

And that was what was going through my mind during these reading experiences. To readers who are just readers this might sound like nitpicking, but they don’t know how lucky they are.  Sometimes I’d give an arm or a leg to be able to just read a book and enjoy it for all its faults.

I’m assuming it’s not just me that has this problem. I’m interested to know if other authors are able to “switch off” when reading for pleasure. Or if those readers that I so envy actually read more critically than I imagine.

4 thoughts on “Author v Reader

  1. I haven’t written much at all, but I am very interested in the forms of storytelling and I’ve looked at them enough to where I think I can analyze them decently enough. There are some books that I absolutely love despite their having flaws. If a story is engrossing enough, I won’t even notice some of the problems a book may have unless I really make myself stop to analyze the writing. On the other hand, if I’m not enjoying the book, I’ll notice most of the problems that the book has.

    I agree that many times first novels are much less streamlined than later novels, and in many cases it can be noticeable. But there are many other things in later novels that can be irritating. I personally hate any time there is a dialect in a book (unless of course it’s done extremely well, I’ve read 1 short story where the author didn’t misspell any words, but through their word choice and word order they got the accent across, it was very well done). As for a book being written in the second-person, I don’t really know if I could even get through that book. First-person and third-person are fine, but second is just weird. I get irritated when a book is written in present tense rather than past. But again, it’s only if I’m not engrossed in the story and have time to notice it.

    1. Funny you should mention dialect, Adam. There’s quite a lot of it in the Stross book. There are a couple of representations of Edinburgh dialect in there that I’d have written differently, but I wonder if the discrepancies are simply down to the fact that the author isn’t an Edinburgh local. Which isn’t a criticism – I’m pretty open to the idea that a Yorkshireman would actually hear the vowel sounds (for instance) differently to a Scot. And although I complained about the second person narrative, it’s actually remarkably readable. If you’re interested in how stories are put together, I’d actually recommend reading it as an example of how that approach can be made to work.

      And present tense. I don’t mind a short story written in present tense, but there has to be a really good reason for doing so in something longer, otherwise it grates. Coincidentally, the Neary novel, was written in present tense, but again it kinda sorta works. Again, I’d recommend it as an example.

  2. It’s hard to switch off when you’re a writer yourself, but I also think that not switching off can be helpful in analyzing and understanding a story more so than other readers! You can see different perspectives and gain a different appreciation.

    1. Totally agree. But that’s not useful if you spot more flaws than things to admire.

      When it comes down to it, sometimes I just want to get lost in a good story.

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