Saturday, May 12, 2007

Hey, It's Different for Me

Reed Farrel Coleman (Guest Blogger)

I envy readers. No, I really do. When I see the sheer joy my wife gets out of reading, I confess to being more than a touch jealous. Between traditional reading and books on tape and CD, she goes through two to three books a week! Not me. For one thing, I may be a quick writer, but I’m a slow reader. Second, reading is no longer just about pleasure for me. For me, reading is part dissection and part analysis. It’s difficult to lose myself in a book the way I once did. An occupational hazard, I suppose.

I remember Orson Welles once being asked, by Merv Griffin of all people, if he enjoyed movies. “No,” he said. “I know too much about the process to be taken in.” It is no coincidence that Welles was an accomplished magician. Magicians don’t say wow, they ask how. The joy of the trick is lost on them. Writers ask how too.

When I wrote Lee Child to compliment him on One Shot, his email reply was very telling and much along the lines of Welles’ view. Although this isn’t quite an exact quote, it’s very close. “I take that as high praise,” he wrote, “from someone who knows how the man behind the curtain works the machinery.” When writers read, they are always looking behind the curtain for the Wizard of Oz.

There’s yet another factor that robs me of some of the joy of reading. As a New York based author and someone who’s held high office in Mystery Writers of America, I’ve had the great good fortune of meeting and developing relationships with a broad range of authors. Some incredibly famous. Some relatively unknown. Many, like me, in that murky mythical land of the midlist. The odd thing about my good fortune is that I often get to know the writer before I have the opportunity to know his or her work. So when I pick a book off my bedside stack, it can be a perilous activity. There can be a personal price to pay if I like an author more than his or her work. I have been lucky in that I have yet to come to blows or lose a friend over this issue, but I’d be lying if I said there haven’t been some pretty awkward moments on panels and at conventions.

It doesn’t end there. These days, I am frequently asked to blurb books—though I’m not quite sure why—judge books for awards, and to act as a first reader for some of my colleagues. Blurbs are a very touchy subject in the business and there’s a broad spectrum of opinion on the issue. In fact, blurbing probably deserves its own dedicated blog. I will say that people have been very generous to me with their praise, so that when I read to blurb, I read with both a critical eye and open heart. However, a judge and or a first reader needs, for obvious reasons, to leave his heart out of the equation. I would be doing a disservice as a judge and first reader to give anything but my most critical assessment. As you might imagine, these sorts of activities don’t exactly add to my reading pleasure.

There is still the rare occasion when I lose myself in a book and enjoy the act of reading the way I did before choosing the life of a writer. In the last two years, it’s happened three times. The books were Die A Little by Megan Abbott, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, and Miami Purity by Vicki Hendricks. Although Megan and I have subsequently become good friends, we were only casual acquaintances when I first read the book. I’m also now an occasional first reader for her. I think Vicki and I have met in passing at a Bouchercon and I’ve never met Daniel. But I was so impressed by Miami Purity that I sent an unsolicited blurb to her new publisher and I sent an embarrassingly gushing fan letter—my first real fan letter—to Daniel Woodrell.

So, yeah, reading is different for me and I’m really kind of jealous of the freedom enjoyed by the casual reader or mystery fan. And those rare occasions when I can get in touch with that unbridled joy are marvelous, but they are few and far between. On balance, I wouldn’t give up my writing to regain my innocence as a reader. There are many days, however, when I struggling with a single paragraph or sentence, that it does seem like a deal I might be willing to make.

Reed Farrel Coleman's The James Deans won the Shamus, Barry, and Anthony Awards for Best Paperback Original. His new book, Soul Patch, is in bookstores now.


Lonnie Cruse said...

Yup, I agree with what you said about it being different to read as a writer. And it drives me nuts if a writer writes a poor book because he/she ignored common sense rules. Probably drove me nuts before, but then I didn't know why. Thanks for guest blogging for us, great to meet you.

Sandra Parshall said...

Sometimes the only way I can thoroughly enjoy a novel is by listening to it on CD or tape. Then I'm being told a story, and I have to listen and keep up -- I can't stop to go back over a sentence or paragraph and deconstruct it. I love books as much as I ever did, but turning off the internal editor is harder every day.