Saturday, November 5, 2016

Does Writing Ruin Reading for You?

I recently received the following email from one of my readers:

Dear Ed: 

How do you think that writing affects you as a reader, both personally and in general terms? Could you discuss this? 


Good question. Let me begin my answer with a metaphor—a real-life metaphor.

During my adolescence in the early 1980s, I took guitar lessons for a few years. 

(To answer the inevitable question: I can still play a few chords if really pressed; but I never had the makings of a serious musician. The guitar was one of my youthful false-starts.)

One day I asked my guitar teacher teacher if he liked AC/DC, a band which is still a going concern, but was then at the height of its popularity. 

I was almost certain that my teacher would be an AC/DC fan—because all of my friends were AC/DC fans. And my friends were high-level connoisseurs of music, right?

Boy, was I wrong.

My teacher replied somewhat disdainfully that AC/DC was one of his least-favorite rock bands. 

Why? I asked.

He explained: AC/DC songs were musically simplistic. They relied on a small number of chords. Structurally, they were extremely repetitious.

As noted above, I never became much of a guitar player. But I did learn enough music to discern the simple from the complex. And yes, I did find it much easier to churn out a passable rendition of “Back in Black”, versus something like Rush’s “La Villa Strangiato”. 

“If I didn't play,” my teacher went on, “I would probably like a lot more music than I do.”

What my music teacher was saying, essentially, is that a musician can’t help but listen to all music with an analytical ear. To the rest of us (including me, for the most part), a particular piece of music is the artistic equivalent of a “black box”. Who cares how simple or complex it is? If it sounds good to us, it sounds good!

I’m not sure that writing fiction has narrowed my tastes for the fiction of others. If anything, writing fiction has broadened my interests as a reader. I read everything from Clive Cussler to Saul Bellow. 

To be sure, I like some popular bestselling authors (John Grisham, Michael Connelly) better than others (Dan Brown). But that much can be said about any reader.

I do, however, read almost every novel with a critical, analytical eye nowadays. I do the same thing with movies. I’m always looking at what other people are doing with plotting, pacing, etc. 

So I suppose that yes, once you start seriously writing stories, it’s hard to read them without taking them apart. 

But I don’t think that makes them less enjoyable, on the whole. Reading fiction is still one of my main sources of recreation.