Reading Like a Writer

Black and white photograph of a woman looking out from a clock tower for Reading Like a Writer post by Malin JamesI’ve been thinking about how I want to approach writing about books. I used to write fairly standard reviews and that was fine but, honestly, there are so many good review blogs at this point that adding my opinion doesn’t feel particularly necessary. I can talk about what I liked or didn’t like about a book, but it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. And who knows, maybe there is nothing new to bring, but I want to try.

The fact of the matter is that my opinions aren’t unique – they’re personal and informed by my experiences – but so are everyone else’s. Generally speaking, my opinion doesn’t carry much weight for a person who isn’t me. That’s why I’m going to avoid the temptation of giving a general opinion and focus on something specific instead, something informed by the way I read.

The way I read has changed a great deal over the years. I used to read purely for entertainment. Then catharsis. Then curiosity. Then entertainment again. At this point, I read all across the board for a lot of reasons and, while I’m attracted to a different kind of book than I used to be (more on that in a post of its own) the fact is that I read widely from all sorts of genres and styles for all kinds of reasons. The only through-line in my reading is that I have an agenda. In addition to reading because I love to read, I read to become a better writer.

Even when a story has completely gobbled me up, part of my brain is whirring away, deconstructing and noticing and trying to figure things out. I love the craft of writing. I love technical elegance and subtle, inventive structures. I love the little mechanisms that make, or fail to make, a piece work. Sort of like a person who disassembles clocks, I love to dissect stories to see how they tick.

I’ve always done this to some degree, but the habit got formalized in college and grad school when I started applying theory to what I read. Later, when I started teaching myself how to write fiction, I applied the same principle. I found writing books that emphasized reading for different aspects of craft, from characterization and structure to pacing and voice. Slowly, I habituated myself to noticing these thing regardless of what I’m reading. That was more than twelve years ago, and that anatomical approach is just how I read now.

That’s why I talked about the structure Sarah Waters used in Night Watch and noticed the different way Muriel Spark manipulates the reader in The Driver’s Seat. It’s why I love Helen Macdonald’s use of a loose narrative style in H is for Hawk (there’s a post coming up on that). It’s not about me being all Miss Fancy Pants – it’s just the way I enjoy books.

So, rather than blog my general opinion, as scintillating as it may be, I’m going to write about the book from a writer’s perspective, hopefully in a way that isn’t totally boring for non-writers too. If nothing else, it’ll give me a chance to talk about two of the things I love most – stories and how they’re made.

Advertisements

The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark

Cover image of The Driver's Seat by Muriel Spark for Mean Fiction by Malin James

On Mean Fiction

It took me all of an hour to read Muriel Spark’s novella, The Driver’s Seat. It’s lean and  incredibly mean in the way children can be. There’s something viciously natural in the way adolescent social politics play out, with mutable hierarchies determining social life and death.

That same, subtle viciousness underlies The Driver’s Seat, not in any textually obvious way, but in how it engages the reader’s sympathies, as well as that adolescent sense of assumption and judgment. I’ll be honest – it’s not a comfortable read, but it’s also why I loved the book. That subtle, dark, destabilizing meanness is what makes the story so very wrong, and so very good.

I don’t like doing plot summaries, but in this case, I think a brief one is important. The Driver’s Seat is about a woman named Lise who goes on holiday, ostensibly looking for her “boyfriend”. Lise’s goal for the trip deceptively simple and she executes everything with mad sort of meticulousness. It isn’t until towards the end that the reader fully grasps what her goal actually is.

What makes this book brilliant, is that the entire book hinges not so much on what happens, but on why and how it happens. In fact, Spark reveals Lise’s fate within the first few pages, but it doesn’t actually matter. The narrator drip feeds the reader a string of seemingly random oddities in Lise’s behavior, and she does it so effectively that you almost feel safe in what you’ve been told is going to happen. In fact, there were times when it felt like the narrator wants the reader to pass notes behind Lise’s back. After all, it’s obvious that Lise is unhinged but…not in the way Spark wants you to expect.

So, how does Spark play with the reader? She does it through Lise and how we’re meant to engage her. Lise’s oddness compounds itself in unsettling and somewhat ridiculous ways, from her hysteria at being told that a dress is stain resistant, to her single-minded search for her “boyfriend”. Spark plays on the reader’s empathy (or lack of empathy) in a very personal way, tapping into those early adolescent social experiences and memories – the ones that might prompt the reader to either feel sorry for Lise or laugh at her (or possibly both).

Everything in the way Lise interacts with people is not quite right. She’s a very deliberate portrait of what happens when a normal woman becomes unhinged, and the reader becomes complicit in that portrait. Our reactions to her are, in many ways, the reactions Lise has most likely experienced for a great deal of her life. We become part of the world she navigates, if only for the sliver of her life that we witness.

As a character, Lise feels dangerous and unpredictable, but only because she subverts our expectations of what a lonely spinster should be. Spark gives her a dismissable, almost laughable veneer and then slices it away to reveal an almost terrifying degree of personal agency in Lise. It’s that determined, single-minded agency that is, in fact, the novel’s central threat.

That trick of drawing the reader in and then destroying their expectations it what gives The Driver’s Seat it’s deep, satirical bite. It’s also what makes it such a marmite book – people either love it for its meanness, or they hate it. Becuase it isn’t a comfortable read – I knew that going into it (thanks to this awesome discussion) but I was still shocked at thoroughly I was manipulated, even as I admired Spark’s subtlety in pulling it off.

The triumph of all of the darkness and bite is that the reader becomes complicit in Lise’s fate, and her fate is not nearly as simple or straightforward as Spark implies at the start. It’s what makes this novel an experience as much as it is a story. In the end, it’s a tremendous portrait of a woman’s desperate, single-minded pursuit of autonomy, but whether or not she’s successful is left unclear. I may need to read it again to sort that out.

51FB7KX99ML._SX303_BO1,204,203,200_Side Note: 4/12/16

I just finished Aiding & Abetting, also by Spark, and it’s another example of author manipulation and reader complicity, though in a totally different (completely hilarious) way. Ultimately, in both novels, as different as they are, it’s Spark’s brutal lack of sentimentality that makes the dark, serrated edges work. She has razors in her fingers and I love it.

She once wrote that she “aims to startle as well as please” and, for my money, so manages both like a boss.