Ruined for Reading

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, November 4, 2005

For a dozen years, my job was to read books. Actually, as an editor of serious nonfiction, I didn’t actually read books. I read manuscripts, either those I went on to publish or, more frequently, ones I had to reject. Though I would no doubt have been a better editor if I’d reconnoitered widely in the fields I was working in, I didn’t tend to read what other presses put out.

The truth is that I was comfortable reading nonfiction only with a pencil in hand. On the occasions when I bought bound books, I couldn’t help myself. I’d look for ways to make the book better: a more thorough introduction here, some prudent cutting there. In bookstores I looked at the typeface, jacket design, and even the marketing copy of other publishers’ books, and, with an overactive editorial eye, I critiqued and, sometimes, cribbed.

Off duty, I read fiction. I have always had to carry a purse large enough to hold at least one book. My night table is stacked with teetering piles of novels. When I travel, my luggage feels like it’s filled with bricks.

I’m not terribly picky about the fiction I read. I’m as happy with the newest Michael Connelly mystery as with the latest Man Booker Prize winner. I’ll follow a reread of Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose with a chick-lit binge. Elizabeth George sits next to George Eliot in my house.

Many of us get pleasure from fiction, and not just reading it, but thinking about it. The growth of book clubs is testament to the nostalgic rewards of English class. Layers of gratification are added when you feel like you understand what the author is up to. You can allow yourself to be transported during the reading, and then, in tranquility, recollect the emotion and attempt to unlock the mysteries. But readers of literature, even many literary scholars (certain critical techniques notwithstanding), take for granted that the author’s choices are, for the most part, a given; that the text is what you have to work with.

Learning how to write fiction has wrested from me the pleasure of reading it.

When I enrolled in an M.F.A. program in creative writing, I told my friends that if they ever heard me use “workshop” as a verb, they should just shoot me in the head. Now, a year later, I can report that I’ve workshopped and been workshopped nearly to death. The workshop is the entree of writing programs. Literature classes are appetizers, sometimes dessert, but the workshop is the big slab of meat on the neophyte writer’s plate.

The best you can hope for, having delivered up your story or essay, is that someone will say, “I like it, but … .” Sometimes what follows the “but” is something like, “I just feel that this character experienced something really traumatic in her life, before the story takes place, like maybe she killed her mother and slept with her father.” You look at the story, about a 10-year-old girl learning to play softball, and think, “Hmmm.” Maybe the group will want the author to get rid of a character, even the main character, or change the tense or point of view: “This story wants to be written from the perspective of the dog.” Once you’ve been in a workshop long enough, you can begin to predict the comments of your peers. One person will always want more extraneous details. Another will say, with feeling, that he’s just not feeling it. Someone else will find a way to use the piece being workshopped to talk about herself and her own experiences.

Don’t get me wrong. A good workshop will generate lots and lots of suggestions, some of which may be extremely helpful to the author (if you can keep your hackles down). You learn about your writerly tics, having them paraded and stripped naked in public. Images and ideas that you thought were fresh as a frat boy turn out to be, to your dismay, clichés. Classmates will pick up on things you thought were trivial, and encourage you to reshape the piece in an entirely new — and more interesting — direction. But what really happens is that the workshop inculcates a different way of reading, a reading that assumes the author isn’t always making the right choices, and that you may know better how to help her accomplish her goal.

Once you turn on this critical, writerly eye, it’s hard to blinker it. There you are, reading Howards End, and you get annoyed with E.M. Forster for his use of an odd, infrequent narrative voice. You can hear someone in a workshop saying, “But I want to know more about who this narrator is. I need to know more.” You read Alice Munro and realize that she is breaking many of the rules of the short story. She’s getting away with it. How? You stop reading and start studying. You wonder how Walker Percy is able to use the first-person present, which seems almost impossible to pull off, so effectively in The Moviegoer. William Trevor manages to create a sense of threat in Felicia’s Journey by using silences and absences. Maybe he goes too far. Maybe it serves to bog down the narrative. Then you catch yourself and realize that you, you little pipsqueak, are workshopping William bloody Trevor.

It’s one thing to read great writers and try to crib from them, to steal moves, to copy techniques (especially if they work). But it’s a different experience from reading to relax.

So you pull out your airplane novels, your mysteries, your thrillers. And guess what? You’re no longer swept away by the plot, but you’re wondering how Ruth Rendell, writing as Barbara Vine, is able to set up a creepy, menacing atmosphere from the first page. How does Harlan Coben keep you turning the pages? Even when characters are poorly drawn, when the language is rich with cliché, you think about how the author has structured the plot. You pay attention to the length of chapters, to how much direct dialogue is being used. You are alert to point of view — “Ah, so he’s using third-person limited omniscient” — and notice when it slips.

So you turn to the movies, really dumb movies, for your R&R. But as you watch Bruce Willis blow something up or Russell Crowe beat someone up, you wait for the breaks between the acts. There’s the setup, there’s the disturbance that sets the plot in motion. Now it’s Act Two — the trials and tribulations stage — that culminates in the Black Moment. In the final act, you look for enlightenment, anticipate the climax, and wait for the catharsis. You can’t stop the process, even when you’re watching Desperate Housewives.

It’s a practice that is not unfamiliar. A psychiatrist friend told me that early in their residencies, baby shrinks start using their newly acquired knowledge by inflicting diagnoses on friends, family members, and strangers. A person who used to be merely a self-absorbed boor becomes an individual suffering from narcissistic personality disorder. Someone who’s easily excited is hypomanic. My friend, a tenured professor of psychiatry, said that after you’ve practiced for a while, you no longer do that. Then I reminded him that when we’d met a woman recently who seemed harmlessly eccentric, he had turned to me and commented, “You know, she could have schizoaffective disorder.” “Oops,” he said.

Architects can’t look at buildings, chefs can’t eat food, and high-school quarterbacks can’t watch football without bringing to bear their training. True. But reading is, well, fundamental.

I expected to learn a lot from enrolling in an M.F.A. program in writing, and I have. Yet the poignant, unintended, unexpected consequence is that I have traded in one of my main sources of delight for the sake of “craft.”

I wondered if it was just me, if it was my editorial training or a character flaw — that I couldn’t leave my “work” at home. Then Andrew Sean Greer, a graduate of my program and the author of the extraordinary novel The Confessions of Max Tivoli, came to town. “I can never read novels for fun anymore,” he said. Since then I’ve heard the same thing from many other fiction writers. Drat.

I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction for pleasure recently.