I knew I was in trouble as soon as I finished reading Eka Kurniawan’s “Beauty is a Wound”.
Even though I think I did not fully like the book, when asked about it, I could not bring myself to say so.
It did not take long for me to realize that I was gently being 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 bring my personal perspectives to the literary work?” which in other words could also mean “Did I read the same book that you – another reader- did, even if it was the same physical book?”
There was a time when I would pick up 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.
One of them is that when I pick up a book I am curious to understand the author. I want to understand where the author is writing from.
Is this really necessary? Can’t a story exist outside of the author?
I suppose it could. The question is slightly different for me though. It is directly tied to the importance I attach to a story’s provenance. I am interested in a story’s origin story.
Equally importantly, I am interested to see what happens to the author in real life 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 an evaluation of the story’s authenticity.
To many readers, rightly so, 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 an imaginative excursion. Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle did just fine with their armchair mystery fabrications.
Some works, over time, gather enough readership, and a few of these might end up actually being quite seriously analyzed, leading to them influencing the world profoundly after their publication. 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 and the reckless consumption of reading fetishists. I admit they don’t mostly interest me. 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 setting 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 like those who have a creative degree, particularly turn me off. It is a chip I carry on my shoulder. Trained writers writing about pain and suffering ring hollow no matter how well they’ve been taught to emote.
This 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 them as self-appointed narrators of stories who choose the more luxurious option of training themselves to tell stories instead of living lives and letting stories happen to them, which if they survive, they can try and record 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, calculating, and rather boring.
Given that they all have taken time out to write something, every author, every single author, has this fault. However, 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 choosing a read.
I realize 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 personal 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 and mostly undeserving.
It also makes me shake my head at the many prolific book reviewers who lazily rate books for fame, peer acceptance, and money.
They can have their reviews. I’ll have my books.