Bookshelf Landmines – a Reprisal

Peeps, Life is happening today, so I’m reposting a popular essay. If you have time, there’s also gold in the original’s responses.

I was three when I learned to read—or so my mother supposed. In reality, I had heard Old Doctor Goat so many times I had soaked up the words and could recite them from memory, moving my finger along the pages to suit.

Then I was about twelve when we drove the thousand miles to the ocean, and my mother says she had to yell at me to look at the view. “That’s nice,” I guess I said, then put my nose back in a book, where it stayed the entirety of the trip.

In short, almost from the moment I first drew breath, I have been a slave to the written word.

And from the vantage point of my forties, nothing much has changed. I cannot conceive of a day where I don’t wish to read myself to sleep, or a week that would elapse without a visit to bookstore or library. These things are as essential as eating to me, yeast in the bread of my life.

But writing — more specifically critiquing — has put some kinks in my relationship with books, and something another writer said on the weekend made me wonder whether I’m alone. See, whereas I’ve always struggled with the issues of storage and time around books, now my biggest issue seems to be one of quality. Let me explain.

I have a loooong way to go before I’d consider myself competent when it comes to craft. However, now that I have a critique group, my understanding of what makes good writing has undergone a sea change. I’m picky. Well, pickier.

The unhappy result is that a lot of books — both old favorites and newcomers I’m almost certain I would have enjoyed in days of yore — have lost the ability to pull me in to the story and keep me there. Nowadays, I’ll be cruising along, enjoying myself, and then, whammo! I’m distracted by head-hopping, irritated by dialogue tags (yes, the ones I’m extracting from my own work with the diligence of a dentist in pursuit of a diseased root), and noticing the hero or heroine’s passivity. 🙁 Grrr!

So on one hand, I feel like I’m mourning the loss of my readerly innocence.

On the other, my bookshelf now groans with books by better and brighter writers, which should be a good thing, yes? Except they’re books I dare not read.

See, my Internal Editor is alive and well, and although — as some of you may recal l— it resides in the hunkalicious personhood of Daniel Craig. Still, who really wants the IE to interrupt a moment of writing genius? Particularly when they’re all-too rare.

And that’s what happens to me if I attempt to read a book by the writers I hugely admire. It’s like I succumb to the worst case of sibling rivalry you could imagine, invoking self-doubt on a Nobel Prize-winning scale. Except on steroids. In Technicolor. It’s gotten to the point I feel like I’m walking a minefield each time I open one of my papered friends. Will I be bored, irritated and frustrated? Or blinded by brilliance, dazzled, and dejected?

But I cannot not read!

The only solution I’ve found thus far is to do one of the following: stick to reading non-fiction, or reading something so completely outside of my genre that I’d never have the ambition to write anything similar. It’s good that I’m reading more broadly. I just hate that it’s at such a high price.

So I have questions for those of you who write and are passionate about reading? Have you experienced anything like this? Or am I alone in this neurosis? And if you have gone through this already, will I improve? Can I hope to acclimate to this new level of readership and go on as blissfully as before, albeit with new literary friends? (Sniff) What say you, Gentle Readers?

5 thoughts on “Bookshelf Landmines – a Reprisal

  1. Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about, Jan! It used to make me pretty unpopular at book club to bring up such writerly annoyances, but I’ve since learned to keep my mouth shut when in Pure Reader country. 😉

  2. here is what happened to me — I did that, too – the more I read, the more I edited, the more I practiced my own craft, the more critique I did or listened to – et cetera – the pickier I became about my writing and others – but, what has happened is this: since my own books are out there, I am kinder and gentler about my pickiness; willing to forgive more – so I came back full circle! I’m back to just reading and enjoying books – even ones that may be kind of “not so good” about certain things.

    Although there are still things that drive me nuts and I have a hard time reading – and head hopping is one of those pet peeves.

    I think I came back full circle because I know the angst and terror and work and sweat and tears and worry and – well, just all of it, that goes into writing a book, then finding a publisher, and having that book go out into the world where some will love it some will not love it some will be ambivalent and some will never even know you exist.

    I began to have tender feelings towards authors. I began to see them as more Human, or humaner than human – vulnerable. Of course, I always say there are always exceptions, and there are, but for the most part, I can now once again, yay!, read all kinds of books whether they are chock full of “oops” or near-perfectly crafted (because there isn’t any real perfection out there).


  3. Amanda, LOL, that sounds like a diplomatic choice.

    Kat, I wrote this over a year ago, and I’ve improved since that time. I’m finding many books I can enjoy now. My ability to relax and let go as I read others’ work is connected to my willingness to let loose on the page. Similarly, I find that when I’m in editing-mode for my own stuff, I see more flaws externally.

    It’s very much the case of “we don’t see the world as it is, but how we are.” Weird how that works. 🙂 It’s reassuring to hear from you that I’ll likely continue to improve.

  4. I find that when I read a book that could be more spectacular, I’m in critiquing mode.

    I’m able to read things in my own genre. In fact, I crave those books and read them almost exclusively.

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