Read like a reader

I’ve been thinking for quite a while now about the difference in reading experience between readers and writers. To my mind, readers engage with a story in a pure way that eschews awareness of the mechanisms by which it is told and enables the imagination to properly bring the characters to life, to ride-shotgun on their adventures and fully enjoy the reading experience: which is, after all, why they buy books. And I admit, I’m jealous of that. Writers (and critics too) have taught themselves to read critically, to look for and evaluate the mechanisms. This allows them to enjoy a book on the level of craft and construction, but it presents a barrier to immersion that is extremely difficult to dismantle.

To an extent, you lose touch with the reader experience.

As a musician, I had a similar problem for a long time. Any song I listened to I found myself not simply enjoying the holistic musical experience, but instead thinking about bass lines or drum production or whether the vocals were double tracked or whether this chord progression was just a little too similar to the one from such-and-such Classic Song.

It does your head in and, more importantly, it stops you being able to enjoy what it was about the music, the books, that made you love them enough to want to create your own in the first place. By listening to music as a secondary activity I eventually found a way to force myself to hear and enjoy the whole first and then dissect later if I wanted.

And I think it’s vital for writers too to unlearn critical reading in order to have a clue as to whether the things we create are enjoyable. Too often I read reviewers or critics or writers talking about books and using phrases such as “it was enjoyable enough, but…”. Now the but might be a perfectly valid criticism, but the enjoyable enough is surely of equal weight.  Too often people who “know what they are talking about” critique books using the lexicons of craft and construction on one hand and of interpretation of text and subtext and cultural context on the other, but barely mention the enjoyability. It’s almost as if the entertainment value of a story – it’s ability to immerse, to transport, to thrill – is secondary when, actually, telling that kind of story takes a highly developed set of innate skills – a natural feel for pace, drama and tension – that have to be deployed with instinctive sureness in order to give the story that most-sought-after of qualities: couldn’t-put-it-down-ability.

Writers who have those skills, will hook their readers. Writers who don’t, produce stories that may be critically admired, but never loved.

Which is why it just seems wholly wrong to me when I see reviews that identify “bad” books – bad, perhaps, because they are not particularly original in concept or are executed in a plain, unstyled manner – that are nevertheless adored by readers, bought in their thousands and anticipated and lauded by book bloggers. And it seems patronisingly elitist to say to those people, “well actually, you don’t know what a good book is”.

Which is why I’m trying, where possible, depending on the book, to read like a reader, in the hope that some of those skills will rub off. See, the stuff I write? It has concepts and, I hope, is constructed with craft, but I really want people to enjoy it too.

7 thoughts on “Read like a reader

  1. Decades ago, I was on a supposed journalism training course—in reality a way to get some people off the unemployment figures—which included access to the local press screenings for new films. On one occasion, I was actually accompanied by a younger woman, whose reactions were far more involved than mine. I was watching the film critically, noting how one character was being so obviously set up to be killed; she just went with the narrative and was using up all my paper hankies as a result. That experience made me wonder, though: who actually enjoyed the film more?

      1. It did make me realise that there are limits to a ‘critique’; and that an emotional response shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

  2. I always hope that the book will sweep me away and make me read like a reader. If it doesn’t there’s probably a reason why.

      1. Oh, absolutely. I always approach a new book hopefully. I know what you mean about the music, too, of course – not just the actual skill of the performance (or not) and arrangement, but also the wqay a performer plays the audience. Watching some performers is an object lesson in stagecraft.

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