Friday, September 25, 2009

What I wonder

My mother and I were talking last week about Memorable Reading Experiences, and she had all these memories of where she was, and what she was doing, and what the weather was like, when she was reading certain books. Whereas my memorable reading experiences were more me thinking, Oh, you can do that in a book. Like with Rumer Godden’s books, the way she interjects brief comments from other characters in the middle of describing an event, or that dialogue thing she does where she contrasts what one character is thinking with what another character says. Like, Jenny thought that football was dull, but, “We’d love for you to stay and watch it with us,” said Aunt Becky. I love Rumer Godden.

Or when I first read Agatha Christie, and previously the only mysteries I’d really read were Nancy Drew and the Boxcar Children, and I got to the end, and it was like, bam! You weren’t expecting that, were you? I remember being so fascinated by the idea that someone could be the killer all along and everyone else didn’t even know. (Yes, as an adult, I realize this is how mystery novels work. But Nancy Drew telegraphs its punches! So it was a new sensation to me, with Agatha Christie!)

Or – hey, I know – when I first read Sorcery and Cecilia, the idea that you could have an epistolary novel, a novel that was a proper novel but at the same time it was made out of letters (I just typed “made out of win” on accident, so you see I feel strongly about this) – well, that idea filled me with almost more rejoicing than my brain could handle. It still does actually. One of these days, my friends.

Do these examples work? I mean that when I read books, I like for writers do something I hadn’t thought of before. Unless it sucks. Like the first time I ever read a stream-of-consciousness story, I expect I was all, Blech. Where is the punctuation? Punctuation, everyone! Punctu-fuckin’-ation. (To make that remark slightly less lowbrow, let me pause and mention that it is what is referred to as tmesis, a literary device of which I have always been fond. Wikipedia gives a rather sexy Latin example. The fact that five years out from my most recent Latin class, I am still excited about tmesis in Ovid suggests to me that I maybe missed my calling to be a Latin teacher.)

Anyway, when I said this to my mother, she said, “Well, you really are a writer.” But I am not sure that the above-mentioned thing is proof of that. And I am wondering now, when a book does something nifty and new, do other people have this reaction? Where they are like, OH HOORAY OH THE GLORIOUS VISTAS OF OPPORTUNITY? Or do they not notice at all? Or do they slightly notice but not pay attention because they don’t care? Or what?


tim said...

I notice. The greatest revolution in my writing style occurred when I read Anthony Burgess (in middle or high school?) and realized that sentences and paragraphs did NOT have to be explicitly linked to what preceded them - you did NOT have to put in transition phrases to make everything perfectly clear. Sometimes you could just finish one thought and begin another, and if your diction was graceful enough, it would sound perfect already.

Other things I've noticed: you can be describing a broad period, such as the year you were twelve ('I always used to do this or that charming thing'), then bring in a quotation ('"Blah blah blah!" my father said') and subsequently narrate a scene, without having to say 'One day my father said' or 'Sometimes my father said'. (This can be done well or badly.) You can patch together observations from many times and places and points of view to bring a scene to a whirling finish. (My favorite example of that is the last sentence of Chapter 24 of Lolita.) You can tell instead of showing, if you're witty in the telling. You can write incredibly long sentences.

Anyway, you would make a kick-ass Latin teacher, if only you didn't hate teaching.

anna said...

I can assure you that never once have I ever read a book and thought oh, what an interesting writing technique or felt any sense of liberation such as you describe. If a style is distinctive enough, I might notice that it exists, but I never bother to label it. I do catch and remember the atmosphere of a book if the writing is good.

I'm in the mom category. My memorable reading experiences are all very tied into place and event and emotion.