“Reading not only improves writing and knowledge but gives you an idea of the craft! It is important to read good books and retain them. You cannot absorb new ideas, improve vocabulary or writing unless you read.” (The Writing Pages)
This is wonderful advice, and I could not agree more with the sentiment. But tell me if you have experienced a similar dilemma:
You go to the library, looking for “good books” (not to study for writerly purposes but simply to enjoy). You get a couple novels that look very promising, and check them out. When you get home, you crack open the first volume with excitement. Halfway through chapter one, however, your enthusiasm has gone down several notches. You start picking the narrative apart.
Maybe poor sentence structure is making it difficult to read:
Putting clauses at the beginnings of sentences, the writer’s word order is unnecessarily complicated, or maybe the writer enjoys including multiple commas, or incorporating multi-syllable words to exaggerate his or her verbose and undeniably loquacious lexicon, or maybe they are too many run-on sentences that just won’t stop until you’re completely lost and can’t even remember where the sentence began or what the point was . . .
Maybe there is too much description and not enough dialogue:
The forest was beautiful in the afternoon, the paths speckled with sunlight and shadow that were constantly moving and swirling in complex patterns. The trees towered overhead, moss clinging to the branches, which were swaying in the gentle western breeze that flowed across their leafy heads like a caressing hand. It was almost eerily silent, the only sounds the creake of the trees and the rustle of underbrush as the squirrels and birds forraged for food. There was the sound of a distant river babbling as well . . . etc. etc.
Maybe there is too much meaningless dialogue:
“How are you?”
“Good, how are you?”
“Not bad. It looks like rain.”
“It rained yesterday.”
“I know. My newspaper is still damp.”
“What paper are you subscribed to?”
“The Times. How about you?”
Maybe the plot is awkwardly handled, giving you obnxious “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” attempts at foreshadowing that clue you in not only to the plot but also to the fact that the writer thinks you are too stupid to figure anything out on your own:
Mr. Jones almost took his gun with him. But he decided against it. There was no need to bring it. “It’s not like the mobster to whom I owe money and who I cannot pay would send his thugs out after me TODAY. I only need to walk down three or four dark abandoned alleys on my way to the office . . .”
Or maybe the characters just have no life of their own and are two-dimensional and cliched:
John Smith was tall, dark, and handsome. From his classy sense of fashion, one would never have guessed that he was actually a starving artist who spent his days on the streets of New York City. And despite his moody, brooding exterior, he was actually a romantic at heart who was looking for love.
Whatever the reason (and these are only a few), you find yourself putting the book down a few chapters in. And this process is repeated with the next book and the next and the next. The worst part is you are no longer surprised by this form of literary betrayal. In fact, you have begun to expect it and when you find a book that actually grabs you, it is a pleasant surprise.
Why is this? After all, these poor excuses for fiction got published and are obviously selling, so is it just us? Well, yes. I honestly believe it is. We are writers. We are extremely critical (and extremely competitive) of each other, especially when one of us is published and the other one is not.
Not only this: we have had it drilled into us by our parents, teachers, and/or mentors that if we want to write well, we need to read “good books”, study and analyze them, draw lessons from them.
The blog Write To Done says:
Break down the books you read . . . Why did the writer make the choices she made? How did she create the characters and convey their qualities? How did she start the book and lay out the plot? How is the theme of the book conveyed throughout the book.
This is all well and good. But this has been so ingrained in us that we cannot simply read “for pleasure” anymore. Reading is no longer a leisure activity. By habit, we are constantly analyzing, comparing, evaluating. And the problem is that nintey percent of the time, these pursuits leave us wincing instead of nodding in appreciation.
So what do we do?
We just keep telling ourselves: “I am NOT going to learn anything from this book. This book has a right to be dumb, because it is not here to teach me anything.”
Just because a book has been published does not put it in a position of authority, the same way that everyone who graduates from college is not immediately qualified for a teaching position. Once we are aware of our inherent assumption that we are going to learn something from a book, we can decide to ignore it. Yes, be aware that it is poorly written, but be willing to look past that. In essence, I am telling you to force yourself to read for pleasure.
It will take practice, but with commitment and determination, I am certain that we can learn to blind ourselves to the inadequate skill of the majority of the literary world and begin to appreciate poor fiction once again. (Just be sure to not pick up any of their bad habits.)