I knew I was in trouble as soon as I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s “Beauty is a Wound”.
Even though I think I do not fully like the book, when asked about it, I could not bring myself to say I did not like it.
It did not take long for me to realize that I was gently forced to analyze how I approach reading a book.
The question that I was trying to answer was simple. It can be framed this way.
“When I read a book, am I reading the book that the author intended, or, am I reading a different book, because as a reader, I am bringing other perspectives to the literary work?” which in other words could also mean “Did I read the same book that you did even if it was the same book?”
There was a time when I would pick a book, read it as a bounded entity, and let myself be happily regaled by the storytelling within the covers. There were plotlines, characters, and the usual stylistic structures that go into the making of a literary work. But over time I have formed opinions, and more importantly, some assumptions that predispose me to like or dislike a work.
When I pick up a book, I am curious to see who the author is. I want to understand where the author is writing from.Is that really necessary? Can’t a story exist outside of the author? I suppose it could. The question is slightly different for me. It is tied to the importance I attach to a story’s provenance.
In some ways, I am interested in a story’s origin story. Similarly, I am interested to see what happens to the author after the story has been told.
I do not see how the author’s life, the climate of the world, and many other attributes do not factor into such an evaluation.
To many readers, rightly, all this does not need factor into the reading experience. A fantasy novel can be just that; a flexing of one’s imagination and nothing beyond. Agatha Christie or Arthur Conan Doyle did just fine with their armchair mystery fabrications.
Some works, over time, gather enough readership, and a few of these might actually be quite seriously analyzed and influential. Such works I like just to understand how they have seeped into public consciousness.
Contemporary fiction, unfortunately, exists in a world where I also co-exist. Normal humans are transformed into authors at the click of a publish button or at the whims and fancies of the publishing industry. I admit they don’t interest me mostly. If I understand an author’s life, lifestyle and life experiences, their works become easily accessible and as a result, I tend to read it critically. I am on par with the author’s motive and spar with their work in structure and sentiment.
I do tend to browse through some just out of curiosity but they don’t fascinate me.
This is not to say I dismiss all of them outright. I just think there are better people, authoring better thoughts, for better reasons than to make a buck.
Trained writers, writers who have creative degree certificates particularly turn me off. It is a chip on my shoulder that I carry. Trained writers writing about pain and suffering ring hollow no matter how hard they’ve been taught to emote.
It is a harsh stance to take. That the process of storytelling should not be diluted with formal education on the craft, or that some stories are intrinsically more authentic than others. But that is a personal foible that I hold onto. I cannot help imagine self-appointed narrators of stories, choosing to train themselves to tell stories, when they should be living lives, letting stories happen to them, which if they survive then they can try and record it for posterity.
An MFA writer’s story is like an expat’s travel guide. Sure you gave me the itinerary, but you are a different person than the native, and as long as there is a native’s unstructured rambling, I shall always reach for the native’s untrained tale than the visitor’s sophistry. Unless I want to read a work to understand a story from someone who is trained and bleached.
I do not know how much I am justified in doing that.
I read Celeste Ng’s work, but all I could think of was “this is a tale that is written by someone who has deliberately trained herself to tell a tale”. There was no urgency to tell the tale. The tale has been born out of a carefully planned journey. A journey I find clinical and rather boring.
Given that they all have taken time out to write something, every author, every single author, has that fault. It is the opportunity cost of what the author had to give up, or had to go through, to come up with the tale that interests me.
Maybe I have lost the art of reading casually. Maybe I have complicated what should be a simple past time.
I personally find it much more satisfying tying all these aspects together when I read.
There are obvious pitfalls to this approach.
It is slightly heavyhanded in dismissing and categorizing the human struggles of the authors. Surprisingly, I am ok with that. I think there are largely objective bands of hardships for humanity. Writing without conviction under the pretext of literary license is not what I call good authorship, nor is feeling proud of reading such works good readership.
In the light of newly discovered facts about authors constantly surfacing, their works move up or down in significance. Therefore it is always a moving weight that is attached to a story.
It is burdensome.
I like that burden. I like the complex tendrils that a book exudes as I approach it. It lets me have a personal connection with works and authors and allows me to conscientiously navigate a literary ecosystem that is overcrowded.
It also makes me shake my head at the many prolific book reviewers who lazily rate books for fame and money.
They can have their reviews. I’ll have my books.