Saturday, August 13, 2005

Reader and Critic

I've noticed that people who are passionate readers and don't know me, or don't know me very well, often regard me with some suspicion when I mention that I write lit. crit. or literary anaylsis as I prefer to call it... Criticism has such incredibly negative connotations, that I've begun avoiding the term myself, in order to deflect some of the suspicion. I am not interested in wirting negatively about books - if I don't like a book then I certainly don't want to waste my time writing about it, when I don't need to (ie. there's no one obliging me to write a review or a college essay). I'd much rather write about what interests me in a book/series - and I like to compare and contrast books by different authors, such as looking at the different ways authors have created and written about the use of magic in their works, or looking for the influence of one writer on another. Of course, such comparative analysis, if I am to do it properly (and I'm not interested in doing it half-heartedly), requires much re-reading and copious note-taking, so that I sometimes worry that I'm so busy analysing books, I am no longer simply reading and enjoying them.

Fortunately my brain seems to work on two levels when reading - what I call my inner 6 year old and my inner critic. Sometimes the inner 6 year old takes over completely - she snatches up the book and reads furiously until it's finished, determined to find out "what happens next" - and the inner critic has to wait until she's done reading and calmed down, before taking another look at the book and noticing that actually, the book isn't that original or clever or witty as the 6 year old thought - after all, the 6 year old isn't versed in themes, archetypes, tropes and all the rest of the literary critical paraphenalia that the critic understands. Equally, it is occasionally the case that the inner critic takes over and the 6 year old hardly gets a look at the book, before the critic is ruminating and analysing. The best situation is when the inner critic reads to the 6 year old: when that happens, the 6 year old gets to find out what happens next, and at the same time, the critic is observing use or subversion of themes, archetypes, tropes, etc. I hope this doesn't sound pompous or crazy - I'm not talking about a split personality here, this is just a metaphor for my ability to read on two levels simultaneously.

What I always tell people who are intimidated by the idea of talking to someone who writes literary anaylses, though, is that I am, first and foremost, a passionate bibliophile - I love books, and I am quite certain that I will always be a reader more than I am a critic. For the best part of 30 years, in spite of doing an English o-level (the public exam one took at the age of 16 back when I was 16 - these days they're called GCSEs), I was a reader. It's only since I did my degree, which I started at the age of 30, that I developed my skills of literary analysis to the point where I can spot the themes, tropes and archetypes in books. But, just like so many other Harry Potter fans, I couldn't wait to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince when it came out, and I was desperate to find out "what happens next". If I enjoy a book/series enough to write about it, then you can be sure I care about the characters almost as much as if they were real people, not fictional people trapped in the pages of a book. This is what I tell people, in greater or lesser detail, when they puzzle over my status as a writer of non-fiction... Hopefully it makes them feel less suspicious - certainly they go on to have conversations about favourite books with me, so I imagine it does help.

No comments: