I recently joined a brand-spanking new crit group with a couple of friends, which is great in a few ways. One, they’re both amazing, funny and outrageously talented – they entertain the crap out of me, and their pages are a joy to read. Two, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a serious crit group, and I think I’ve missed hearing about other people’s manuscripts in this much detail. And three, now that I’m back to critiquing other writers on something resembling a regular basis my critical eye is coming back into focus. You have to get that gear of constructive criticism in your cranium spinning smoothly again if you wanna be a good crit partner, after all. The process of recapturing that focus has introduced a fascinating little worm of doubt into the loamy compost bin of my mind, however, and this is what that worm’s saying: am I not critical enough as a reader?
I’m talking about when I read solely for pleasure, because (for me, anyway) reading for pleasure lacks that same imperative to apply one’s critical energies like a searing laser beam. I’m talking about a book like Jaclyn Moriarty’s THE YEAR OF SECRET ASSIGNMENTS, which I just finished reading tonight. Such a good book! Hilarious! A snappy live-wire voice, rat-a-tat-tat pacing, a balance between deep emotions and helium-light humor, it’s awesome! Which is great, right? And I thought the same thing about Laini Taylor’s LIPS TOUCH, and China Mieville’s UN LUN DUN, and Courtney Summers’ CRACKED UP TO BE, and Suzanne Collins’ MOCKINGJAY…um…huh.
This line of thought probably started when I read MOCKINGJAY, now that I think about it. There’s been massive amounts of discussion and dissection of that book, as you’d expect from the highly-anticipated conclusion to a bestselling trilogy that’s sold approximately 85 gajillion copies. And as you’d also expect, some people liked the book more than others, and some people liked it less. I found myself experiencing an odd state of disconnection from some of the things that were pointed out as serious flaws in the book, because I thought it was great. Which is not to invalidate the legitimacy of anyone’s criticism, but I dunno, I cared less about the flaws than about the stuff I liked.
Later, in one of the Twitter litchats, I saw a few comments about China Mieville’s books, and issues people have had with the depth of his world-building and a perceived lack of characterization. Again, I saw the validity of those perspectives, but I felt distant from them, and I started to think of my own experience in terms of forgiveness.
Maybe I’m just a forgiving reader. Do you think? I’m not trying to make anyone think I read with blinkers on, or that my analytical mind just curls up into a ball when I’m reading just for sheer enjoyment – I do notice things I don’t like, and sometimes I will put down a book because I just can’t get absorbed in it. (I’ve suffered a few slings and arrows for my inability to enjoy Thomas Hardy and J.D. Salinger.) But when I really like something about a book – the prose is stunning, it makes me cackle like a loon, the characters are lovable and real – it’s pretty easy to get past the stuff I don’t like. The parts I like end up meaning more to me than the parts I don’t like. I can forgive the stuff that’s flawed. My reaction after reading many books is “aw, that was AWESOME!” I have that reaction a lot.
What does that mean about me as a writer? Ehh, I don’t know, probably not much, except maybe I’m not milking every possible spicule of craft-growing nutrition out of the books I read. Maybe it just gives me one more powerful reason to be in a crit group, which (like I said) really does cause my analytical peepers to open wide. But what does it mean about me as a reader? I think it might mean something really good, actually. Maybe it means I can still get lost in the singular pleasure of reading books, and that I’m still capable of feeling a powerful, visceral connection to someone’s literary work, a connection strong enough to carry me through any troublesome patches of flotsam.
Maybe I can still be swept off my feet by a book. That’s kind of a nice thought, eh? I don’t object to that idea at all.