Author v Reader

Posted on September 1, 2011


When you’re a musician you learn very quickly to listen differently. You break a track down, listen to individual instruments, how they’re balanced, how they’re played, what production techniques have been used. The song? It has to be really strong to allow you to glimpse it at others hear it, a complete entity instead of a combination of working parts.

Same for authors and reading. When a book is really, really good, when it works its magic, you read like you’re supposed to, like you used to when you were a teenager. You get sucked in, you live the book. The story takes over. If the book isn’t *quite* as immersive as it should be, as an author you start looking under the bonnet. This, of course, can be enjoyable in and of itself, but unless asked to review the book critically it’s usually not what you’re looking for, is it?

I’m thinking about this especially at the moment because both of the novels I read in August had elements about them that had the internal author complaining: “oh, I wouldn’t have done it that way”. “What does it matter?” the reader in me who wanted to get on with the story replied. “It works well enough. Just ignore it and get on with it.”

With apologies to both authors (there’s every chance they would have similar reactions to my work), and without meaning to criticize unduly (I’ve already noted that I enjoyed both books), I thought this was a good opportunity to illustrate how the reading experience is different for authors. In both of the novels, I just couldn’t get past the feeling that the authorial voice subsumed and suppressed those of the characters. Yes, a consistent narrative tone is desirable, but I felt in both cases that it leached into the voices of characters to the extent that I never really fully believed in them. In the Neary, a first novel, the writing is a bit on the lush side, and the characters have a tendency to come across as…a bit wordy. Which is okay, but I wanted at least one to be spare and simple by contrast. In the Stross, you *could* make the case that the narrative needs to come from a single (sarcastic) voice (which for reasons of spoilers I won’t elaborate on), but that gives rise to a secondary problem – that of novel being told entirely in second person. Which for me is an unforgivable conceit that serves to distance the reader from the characters in the service of not very much actual payoff at the end (the same story could easily have been told in third person omniscient without lessening the impact at the end of the book particularly).

And that was what was going through my mind during these reading experiences. To readers who are just readers this might sound like nitpicking, but they don’t know how lucky they are.  Sometimes I’d give an arm or a leg to be able to just read a book and enjoy it for all its faults.

I’m assuming it’s not just me that has this problem. I’m interested to know if other authors are able to “switch off” when reading for pleasure. Or if those readers that I so envy actually read more critically than I imagine.

Posted in: Books, Writing