05 9 / 2014
star-skipping said: I recently read Vladimir Nabokov's essay "Good Readers and Good Writers" in which he says a good reader remains detached from the story and refuses to identify with the characters or conflict, instead reading with "impersonal imagination". Do you have any thoughts on this? What do you think makes a good reader?
I’ll bet he was a barrel of monkeys at parties!
It’s worth noting that one of Nabokov’s detractors said, in glorious metaphor, that he could “hear the clatter of surgical tools in his prose." Also it’s worth noting that I can imagine many people sneering over the idea of a cage match of Nabokov vs. Stiefvater, as I write commercial supernatural fiction, and he wrote celebrated literary novels that have stood the test of time. Further, further worth noting I haven’t read the essay, so I don’t know the details of his thesis.
That said, I think what makes a good reader is defined entirely by what your goal is as a reader. It’s subjective. If you want to analyze a book’s prose only, I suppose that is a fair way to do it. But it seems like a sterile, incomplete jury.
As a writer, I spend a good deal of time crafting chapters in such a way that it’ll make the reader feel. Tears or laughter or anxiety or even simply temperature. A lot of times, I’m doing it by appealing to experiences readers have already had, throwing out a metaphor to help them climb the ladder to whatever situation I’m trying to get them to experience viscerally. I’m relying on the reader empathizing and identifying. I’ve read that readers store emotional memories from novels in the same places as actual memories, and that’s what I want: to create a story that lives in the same place as your real emotions.
So why would a “good reader” hold themselves impartial? Because an emotional reaction clouds the knowledge of whether or not the prose was accomplished? The emotions are part of the craft!
Of course, emotions are subjective — what pushes one person to catharsis can make another roll their eyes. But I still think it can be analyzed as easily as whether or not the prose or structure is any good; I think there’s as much universality in emotional resonance as there is in style preference.
Even if my goal is to read as a writer, I don’t see the purpose of holding aside my personal baggage. Instead, I come into a novel with all my biased guns firing, and then I watch the novel disarm me or not. Then I ask: how did it do it? How did I suddenly sympathize with this character; why did I start to doubt the pacing here? I don’t think I could effectively use novels as craft textbooks without coming at it as a biased, emotional reader.
Here’s what I think makes a good reader at any level:
- read all the words. If an author fails to convince you on any point and you haven’t read all the words, the first person to blame is yourself, not the author.
- look for layers. The best books say lots of things at the same time, and you can miss out on half a book’s greatness by taking every single sentence at face value only.
- be patient. Especially if you’re reading outside your comfort zone, a book can seem dull or confusing until you learn its language.
- remember that the characters are not the author.
- remember that a flawed character is not necessarily a bad character. Please, internet, please remember this in particular when reading female characters, because it’s getting a little crazy out there.
- shoot your snobbery in the head. You’re doing yourself no favors, and you’re only going to look like a shitnozzle when you look back on yourself ten years later.
ETA: I have now read the essay. And even though he does say identifying with the main character is poor reading, that’s not all that he says, and in context he’s not even really saying that. I disagree with a lot of the language of the essay, and I think it’s stunningly condescending, but I don’t know if I disagree with the heart of what he’s saying, which that in fiction anything is possible, and the good reader remembers that.