Monday 26 September 2011

Does writing affect one's love of reading?

By Candy Gourlay

Kuper's piece in last Saturday's FT Magazine

In this past weekend's FT Magazine, Simon Kuper wrote a piece entitled How I lost my love of reading - the illustration by Luis Granena was of a man struggling to carry massive tomes on his back. Kuper writes:
My daughter (age five) simply lives the book. Better, she doesn't know yet that books are both status symbols and good for you. For children, reading is an uncomplicated pleasure, like eating chocolate ...
What Kuper thinks he's lost is the ability to be totally immersed in a story ...
The problem was that I learnt to read like a literary critic. I learnt not to lose myself in a book Reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory now, I get distracted musing on Dahl's socialism (rich kids bad, poor boy good), and his colonialism or anti-colonialism (the Oompa Loompas). Read the article
I meet so many enthusiastic adult readers that I can't believe this is a universal adult problem - but I have to admit that writing novels has definitely spoiled some of the joy of reading for me.

When I read any book, I study the first line of the first chapter and think, "Ah, good opening - that will hook the readers!" I read some more and admire the fact that the author placed an inciting event so close to the beginning. Then I search for set ups - "okay, this means such and such will happen later." I identify the doorways of no return, saying to myself, "right, we're in the second act now." I make a list of what I think are plot red herrings and what plot points will pay off in the end. As the story peaks to a crisis, I look out for the rug pulling moment. And instead of bursting into tears at the end, I nod and say, "Well done, that ending may have been expected but it was emotionally satisfying."

Instead of reading books like this:

This is how I read:

A psychiatrist friend of mine once opined that one of the differences between men and women was that women as they get older increasingly lose their ability to play whereas men don't.

In the case of writing and reading - has the mechanics of writing made me lose my ability to "live the book"?

What a tragedy. My love for reading was what made me want to become a writer in the first place. But maybe there's an antidote ...

Last summer I attended a talk by Shaun Tan (best known for his worldless book The Arrival). I was going to blog about the talk but I'm afraid I couldn't understand my notes, one month on.

What I can do is share the one thing that really stuck with me.

Shaun autographed one of his books for me. He used his thumbprint to create a robin.

Shaun said he hoped his work made people take time to look. He said people these days no longer knew how to look, the multimedia generation just skims over everything. When I heard that, I almost leapt to my feet, shouting "Guilty!" Everyday I skim through so much - emails, blogs, Facebook - I click 'like' or leave a quick comment, then move on to the next thing.

Is it time to get off the fast lane?

I thought, Shaun was right. Not looking was not quality of life.

After Shaun's talk, I tried to take the time to look at things, really LOOK.

Sketching helped. And sitting still helped. And not doing two things at the same time helped. And actually, turning off Facebook helped a lot too.

I've hung this sign up on my Facebook profile

And an odd thing happened. After months of struggling with a manuscript that wouldn't come to life, I began to hear the voices of my characters (And hurray! Writing is now going well!)

And because I was not skimming, the books I was reading developed an emotional quality that I had not noticed before.

It will be very easy to slip back into rush rush rush mode again of course. It's not easy to stop and look. I'm still learning.

Just stop.

My takeaway? Yes, writing will affect your love of reading. And it can't be helped because you can't become a better writer without learning the technicalities of story.

But you've got to make the time to restore your wonder. How can you hope to inspire your readers if you yourself have lost the joy?

Besides, writing books is not just about writing books, it's about living a creative, writing life. And if the best thing about living a writing life is the writing, the next best thing is the reading.

So stop, look and listen. Allow yourself to live a book again.

Outside looking in ... or inside looking out? My new novel may be telling a new story - but the themes in Tall Story - of being 'other', of being different, of being someone on the outside - continue to persist. Read my latest post on my author blog

I also blog on the brand new DFB StoryBlog - which features authors and illustrators (some of them extremely famous) of my lovely publisher David Fickling Books. Check us out!


  1. This is me and I fear I am becoming a book bore. On reading the first page of my book club choice this month, I sighed heavily saying 'well that's a cheap devise to get me hooked.'

    Spoiled. Mind you, when a book does suck me in, it's all the more magic for it!

  2. Interesting, Candy. For me, this problem happened years ago - doing an English degree and then PhD meant for a while that I analysed books rather than enjoying them. But after a while, the analysis part becomes assimilated and the enjoyment returns but is enriched by understanding and knowledge. It means you can work out why something works - but you don't have to, after a while you just know why it works.

    The enjoyment has not gone, it is just undergoing a sea change. And certainly slowing down helps!

  3. >Mind you, when a book does suck me in, it's all the more magic for it!

    Well that's the amazing thing isn't it ... the books that can surprise and delight readers as jaded as us are real treasure! I've read a three books like that recently, couldn't put them down, read under the covers by torchlight ... so satisfying.

  4. Ooh, Candy, tell us what those three books were!

    Great post - I think the advice to slow down is spot on. I left the first draft of my book alone for the whole of the school summer holidays, although sometimes I was itching to pick it up and read it. The first draft had been a rush to get the story down on paper and see if it made sense. But in those seven weeks spent doing other things, somehow I got to know my characters and settings, so that when I went back and reread the story I could see what needed to be done to make the story richer and more layered. (Now I've just got to actually do it!)

    Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  5. Oh lord, and I thought it was just happening to me - I am so glad I'm not alone. Both a degree in English literature, and now writing, seem to have dulled my appetite for books, or rather, books that are anything less than excellent (which, I acknowledge is entirely subjective). With many, I struggle to get past the first chapter, if I'm not engaged, I find it hard to continue, I find I get easily irritated, picking holes in what I read.
    So now, Candy, you have reveal the three books that sucked you in - I need books that suck me in, otherwise I will just continue to lament the loss of reading purely for pleasure!

  6. Well it's very subjective - what I love might not be your cup of tea ... but for what it's worth - Fifteen Days Without a Head by Dave Cousins (in manuscript form), Moon Pie by Simon Mason and The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan (I read this 19 years ago through the night while at the bedside of my first born in hospital ... picked it up recently and couldn't put it down).

  7. xo xo
    Keep playing --- it's good that you can jump on the trampoline with your kids!

    miss you!

  8. Candy & I have had this conversation before! But this blog reminds me what law school did to me. I spent so MANY hours reading cases - reams and reams and reams... - and having to pick out the important points. Usual with a highlighter in one hand. I went through literally years when I just couldn't read for pleasure any more, couldn't even read at a normal speed.
    When I started writing more seriously I likewise went through a time that I found it hard to read and just get lost in the story: either picking holes in things, or thinking 'oh this is so much better than I can write'. I'm getting better.
    But I find it hard to read adult books now: they're too slow!

  9. My daughter (17) and a fair few of her mates are still in love with the world of Harry POtter. They reread and play on Pottermore because they LOVE the characters.
    I do find that I can suspend my critical faculties fairly easily which probably says less about the books and more about me.
    Interesting post, Candy. Thanks!

  10. what a coincidence, my family is re-watching all the HP movies and last weekend we watched The Prisoner of Azkhaban - what a brilliant ending! JK Rowling deserves some kudos for making us suspend our critical faculties! (It's not just you)

  11. ah - that's my favourite apart from the last one. I love a good Potter fest me!

  12. That man, Tennant, has good taste.

  13. he sure does. i was going to ask brad (pitt) to model for the photos but i decided he isn't as hot as david tennant.

  14. And there are some books that just take you beyond all of that nevertheless. One or two will stop Chunterhead. (That's what I call my perpetual inner editor) Occasionally one of my students will do the same. Recent e.g. "The Horses" by Elaine Walker. Recommended.
    But even so, I don't think Chunterhead matters all that much. it allows me, in a perverse way, to enjoy some books I would otherwise not enjoy.

  15. I've been through phases like this before, but happily I still seem able to immerse myself in fiction without any side effects. One thing I have noticed though, is that I've become harder to please over the years. I enjoy reading lots of books, but very few hit that magic spot. I think that's probably why I started to write my own stories.

  16. >I enjoy reading lots of books, but very few hit that magic spot.

    I'll bet everyone's got a different magic spot. When I was younger, anything with time travel or amnesia was cool. Now I can't get into a book unless I really care for the characters.

  17. I can still immerse myself, though the book has to be pretty good - but perhaps unusually, I'm willing to read more than one page before making my judgement about reading on. Trouble is, while immersed, I'm also feeling guilty that this is writing time going awol. And like most of you, I also stop occasionally and think aha that's what is happening. I try to make it a learning point when that happens. But it's definitely harder being a reader *and* a writer.

    In my own latest post, I've been cogitating on my new chapter one, and I'm now thinking, so what? It doesn't have to be perfect so long as the story is great - but an agent might think otherwise! What a dilemma.

  18. Gosh and I thought it was just me!

    So interesting to read others thoughts on your topic Candy. I think that we edit our own work to the point of nearly going crazy and then start 're-editing' and dissecting the books that we have bought for enjoyment!

    I hasten to add that I didn't re-edit Tall Story!

  19. Yes, I have become hypercritical too. In fact, when doing critique I have to do my first read-through while sitting on my hands, otherwise I'm in there marking up mistakes without even getting into the story.

    I do find I'm much less critical with books written by people I don't know. I think there's a competitive pressure that surrounds work by my peers and it makes me analyse their choices and language to a far greater degree.

  20. I also felt alone with this problem. None of my writer friends had it, and they still learn from what they read, I believe that many of my writer friends being more pragmatic about their reading and writing processes helped there.

    I'm not comfortable being intensely pragmatic about my writing, but especially my reading, and the more I feel I won't improve unless I am, the harder it is to back off.

    For me what you said here is so important-

    "It will be very easy to slip back into rush rush rush mode again of course. It's not easy to stop and look. I'm still learning."

    But the fact that I STILL HAVE IT, after years of laboring over my craft, however necessary, it didn't erase what "Fun" feels like when you experience the joy of reading books that spoke to you for the first time is priceless.

    Yes, it does change when you go from admiring reader to writer, maybe not for all, but for me that change was real and it still hurts, but just knowing that it doesn't have to die all together is so hopeful for me.

    I'm working through this myself. It takes me a long time to reconnect with something I lost touch with that's as multifaceted as reading can be, and while that's not always bad, as you illustrate, that pressure that comes from your inner critic ruling your reading does take a heavy toll on you.

    But eventually I get that twinge of excitement from a book, and I can care less how "commercial" it is or not, and enjoy the gift of adventure and escape I've been given.

    I'm never going to be a child again. But that doesn't mean I have to live a life of misery and malice.

    In my opinion, adults who believe fun's a "useless luxury" are the real "brats", that's how I feel on my good days, at least.

    Hope you don't mind, but I'm borrowing your "Facebook Hiatus Image" I need it now. Thanks for sharing.



Comments are the heart and soul of the Slushpile community, thank you! We may periodically turn on comments approval when trolls appear.

Share buttons bottom