Friday, April 23, 2010

Slow Reading or the Art of the Snail

Earlier this week that mysterious gentleman of the internets, Dave Lull, sent me a link to the review of a book called Slow Reading by John Miedema. The review is written by Caralyn Champa in Libreas Library Ideas. Dave sent it to me because it has a snail on the front cover which, as the reviewer says 'elegantly expresses the idea of slowness'. I like this idea, and the article is thought-provoking.. Today there is so much rush to do everything, reading a book becomes another item on the 'to do' list and thereby changes from a pleasure to just another task.

Some books are better read slowly, I feel. They are carefully written. Each word is considered, held up to the light and inspected before being tweezered into place. That is the impression I have from watching a recent interview of Ian McEwan by Melvyn Bragg on the South Bank Show. It was a compilation of earlier interviews and in one of these he described how he would write in long hand on one sheet of paper and try out sentences on another. Maybe his techniques have changed now with the advent of the computer but I think there is evidence of such consideration in Solar. Listening to it on audio book forces the listener to 'read slowly'. I hear every word and the whole process takes hours. As a result I think I appreciate it more - and I am applying this to my own writing too - at least some of the time.

I used to monitor myself in terms of words written. I used to aim for two thousand and a day and used to be especially pleased with myself if I managed to accomplish six thousand. But I am wondering now if it is a good idea to count them at all. After all, one hundred words well written are better than ten thousand in a more mediocre order. I'm wondering too if that is a fundamental difference between literary fiction and genre fiction. In true literary fiction the words are considered nearly as much as those in a poem which is why they cannot be rattled out year after year. They have to be brooded over and revised. The words are there because they accurately convey feeling and impression rather than just drive forward the plot. They have been acquired slowly and are unlikely to be appreciated in this world obsessed with the number rather than quality of tasks completed. What seems to matter most now is that an ever-lengthening array of boxes is ticked - only to be filed away and forgotten. This sort of culture precludes true art and the acquisition of craft. It devalues anything that takes time and robs us of what is important - the tasks we complete slowly with fondness, even love.


Blogger Sue Guiney said...

I think this is a very good description of the difference between "literary" and "genre" fiction, though, of course, the best genre work values use of language as well, which is why something like of John Le Carre novel is so very wonderful -- the best of both worlds. You don't get that very often now, though, unfortunately. At least not in the stuff published by the big commercial houses.

Fri Apr 23, 09:54:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, Sue I think some of the excellent genre writers do value words, but maybe do not ponder over them as much as some literary writers. I don't think they could otherwise their output would be so much diminished. Their balance is tipped more towards the plot. Some of the writers I most admire, like McEwan, are not true literary writers in this sense. I suppose, as in everything there is a gradation tending to an extreme.

Fri Apr 23, 10:39:00 am  
Blogger jem said...

I find it hard to control my reading speed, sometimes I get so whipped up in the story that I scoot on to see what happens, at other times, in other books I make myself slow down to notice the language, word choice, tone etc. Some books invite one or the other approach. Yesterday I was reading some poetry and really noticing the wonders of language and wondering how many times I miss that in the way I read prose.

The same of course goes for the output. I spend far longer over each word and line in a haiku, and get carried away the minute I shift into prose mode - as my ramblings comments will often prove!

Fri Apr 23, 11:36:00 am  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

An Australian friend recently sent me a film about the writer Gerald Murnane in which, amongst other things, he describes how he writes. Like no other writer I can think of and I mean both in style and technique. His last work of fiction (he dislikes the word ‘novel’) was recently published and it is not a book to read quickly. It was not written quickly. He writes for an hour every day. Just the one. In that hour he aims to produce three sentences never moving onto one sentence until he is happy with the one that precedes it. In the film he talks about one such sentence in an earlier novel and shows its evolution, how it comes into focus. It’s absolutely fascinating. He also reads every sentence aloud to make sure it flows. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t do other stuff in fact all he seems to do is read and write but never too much time on the one thing.

Fri Apr 23, 11:49:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Yes, I'm the same Jem - in reading and writing. This morning I have been trying to write slowly but it's all coming out in a rush. I'd like to be like Ian McEwan but I'm too impatient - I wish I wasn't.

Wow, Jim, that sounds so interesting. I'll have to look this chap up. Thanks for telling me about it.

Fri Apr 23, 01:17:00 pm  
Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I'm planning another post when I have the time but in the meantime you might find this article I wrote a good place to start.

Sat Apr 24, 11:52:00 am  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Thanks Jim, wow - very interesting blogpost and I think I need to read it again. Think I'll bookmark for now.

Sat Apr 24, 12:41:00 pm  

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