Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Love it? Don't read it again

Sandra Parshall

One thing I’ve learned from moderating a mystery book discussion group for
writers is that few crime novels stand up to close inspection or even a second reading for pleasure. More than once I’ve recommended a book to the group because I loved it and thought we could learn from it, only to discover during our detailed (and merciless) discussions that I don’t admire it that much after all.

You might think this happens because a mystery or suspense novel – any novel, actually – is an artificial construct, with the clear beginning, middle, and neat
ending we seldom see in real life. The more closely we look at a novel, the more unreal it seems. That certainly has an effect, but it’s not the only reason why books we love can disappoint us on a second reading.

One explanation is that people change but books don’t. If you read a novel for the second time a month after the first, you will be a marginally different person and might see some flaws you missed initially. Wait five years and your interests and emotional life might be so different that you wonder how anything in that book could have pleased or moved you.

The books we never grow tired of, the ones we label “classics” – Jane Austin’s novels, for example, or the works of Mark Twain and Charles Dickens – stand up to repeated readings or viewings as movies or TV dramatizations because they tell universal stories that touch us regardless of where we are in our own lives.

To Kill a Mockingbird is widely regarded as the greatest American novel ever written, and it continues to sell many thousands of
copies every year. I have read it more than once and seen the movie more than once, and I doubt I’ll ever tire of it. But each time, I’ve seen it in a different light because I’m a different person. Sometimes I’ve identified with Scout, at other times with Atticus, and for a while, Boo Radley was the character I felt I had the most in common with. Mockingbird is a perfect novel –
beautifully written, cleanly structured, with characters and a message that transcend time and place. The story makes sense, however many times you read it.

Few books have all of those virtues, and the mystery genre, like romance, is the home of many novels that are intended to entertain and quickly be forgotten. If you read them a second time, your emotions won’t be fully engaged again, and your mind will rebel against any clunky writing, questionable plot turns, shallow
characters, and weak motivations you overlooked (or noticed but forgave) the first time around. Just as few novels have all the virtues, few have all the flaws, but most books have some of them.

In discussing crime novels, a major problem my group often sees is weak motivation. I’ve been surprised more than once, when re-reading a novel I enjoyed the first time, to discover the characters have little reason to behave the way they do. This flaw comes hand in hand with weak characterization. The character might be vividly depicted, we might be able to “see” him or her clearly, but if we don’t understand the person’s inner life, we can’t understand why an apparently sensible human being is doing dangerous or hurtful things. Without that understanding, the plot won’t make sense. Why didn’t I see the flaw on the first reading? Maybe I liked the writing style or the atmosphere or the suspense and let those elements blind me to the problems.

Some books, though, not only stand up to more than one reading but provide me with fresh insights each time. I’ve admired Thomas H. Cook’s Mortal Memory and Breakheart Hill more with each reading. Laura Lippman’s Every Secret Thing did not disappoint me the second time around (and it was a great book for discussion and dissection). I have a feeling that Laura's What the Dead Know will seem just as wonderful if I read it again. I’ve studied some of Tess Gerritsen’s and Lisa Gardner’s books in great detail in the hope of absorbing their suspense techniques. I’ve read parts of Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River over and over. Reading crime fiction is probably the best way to learn how to write it, but you have to choose your study material carefully.

As for my own published books, in the course of rewriting, editing, and proofing, I've read both of them so many times that I'm thoroughly sick of them. I know what their flaws are. But if you read them only once, maybe you'll overlook the flaws -- or at least not mind them too much.

Have you ever read a book a second time and wondered why you liked it the first time? What is most likely to disappoint you if you look too closely – plot, character, writing style?


Darlene Ryan said...

It's always problems with motivation that leave me feeling unhappy with a second reading of a favorite book.

I'm a huge, huge fan of Marcia Muller, especially her Sharon McCone series. I picked up The Ever Running Man this past weekend and about two chapters in remembered why I'd set the book down unfinished the first time I'd read it: Sharon's reasons for her behavior were flimsy. The villian's reasons for his behavior were flimsy. (Sorry, Marcia, but they were.)

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sandy, I didn't have an instant spark of agreement with your premise, and I think the reason is that novels with weak characterization are not the ones I love the first time around. I AM noticing weaknesses in plotting more than I used to as I improve my own craft, but it's not usually a dealbreaker for me, provided I still love the characters. My favorite McCone is Broken Promise Land, in which Rae Kelleher falls in love with Sharon's brother-in-law. I find it unabashedly romantic in a very believable way.

Joyce said...

I didn't think Ever Running Man was Marcia's best book either. I thought Sharon was being petty as far as Hy was concerned.

I don't read too many books twice. If I'm really blown away by a book, I'll read it again to see how the author did it.

To Kill a Mockingbird is my all time favorite book. Definitely one I could read over and over again.

Anonymous said...

Terrific insight. I've often felt the same way on rereading books I've recommended to my mystery book club. A good questions to ask ourselves and our clubs: which books *do* stand up to 2nd and 3rd readings; i.e., which ones truly stand the test of time.

Sandra Parshall said...

The only books I read all or part of more than once are those I'm rereading for a book discussion and those that impressed me the first time. Recently the Mystery Analysis group I moderate discussed a book I had absolutely loved when it came out seven or eight years ago -- my hardcover copy still had Post-Its marking passages that I thought were especially good. When I read the book again, I couldn't remember what I'd liked about those passages, much less the whole book. What a disappointment! I'm a much more critical reader now than I used to be, and plenty of books disappoint me on first reading, but if the writing and the mood are above average, I'll be swept along and will dismiss the problems.

Two books -- not mysteries but memoirs -- I could read a million times are Isak Dinesen's OUT OF AFRICA and SHADOWS ON THE GRASS. Amazing books -- and gorgeous writing from an author to whom English was a second language.

Darlene Ryan said...

Joyce, I'm not sure if you've been reading the McCone series from the beginning, but if you have, do you like the way Sharon has gone from the lone wolf investigator to married woman running her own firm? I don't know that I'd want Sharon to never change a la Grafton's Kinsey Milhone, but I never pictured her running a big firm and owning three houses.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Darlene, neither did Sharon. I find the evolution from child of the Sixties in her poverty law commune to more part of the system than she ever intended to be perfectly convincing. On the other hand, Hy has never quite come to life for me. BTW, I have read the McCone series all the way through again more than once, also Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott books, Julie Smith's Skip Langdons, and a number of others. Sandy, when you said you DON'T usually reread, I realized we're talking about apples and oranges--it's like the outliners and the into-the-mist writers: totally different perspective. That said, I had to smile last night when, dipping into an old Patricia Wentworth Miss Silver book, I found a police detective saying it was a shame they couldn't tell exactly when the victim had dinner, because the servants were off and had left a cold supper. Didn't they do autopsies and analyze stomach contents in 1948? I guess I'm finally becoming conscious of forensics. But I'll keep re-reading Miss Silver when I want a comfort read.

Julia Buckley said...

I have all of Mary Stewart's books and they stand up just fine with the passage of time. When I'm having an off day, I use one of her books to cheer me up--way less calories than a chocolate chip cookie.

I do know that some books disappoint upon re-reading, but aside from Stewart, my all time fave, I don't do much re-reading these days.

But as a TEACHER, I have to teach basically the same books every year, and I never tire of those. I've taught Mockingbird, but also The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, Jane Eyre, Huck Finn, Macbeth, The Tempest, The Stranger, Crime and Punishment. Every time it's a different adventure.

paul lamb said...

I think you're right about some books only being intended for a single reading (and not a very close reading at that), but there are other books that deserve multiple readings. I've often said that I can't really begin to understand a novel until I've read it the second time. I guess I don't understand Philip Roth's novel The Ghost Writer at all because I've read it more than 15 times.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, I reread several of Mary Stewart's recently after hearing her discussed on DorothyL, and what didn't hold up for me were the prefeminist assumptions and generalizations about men and women that made me wince, even when the women were being spunky and intrepid. I was very disappointed: I used to love them, especially The Ivy Tree.

Joyce said...

Darlene, I have read almost all the McCone books. If anyone has asked me when I read one of the early ones if Sharon would have evolved the way she had, I would have said no. But now I think it's been a natural progression. Like Sandy said in her post, everyone changes. I guess even our favorite characters!

By the way, does anyone else see Sam Elliott as Hy when they read these books?

Sandra Parshall said...

Julia, the books you teach are usable as teaching material precisely because they stand up to close scrutiny. That's the definition of a classic, I guess -- a book that can be read many times, by different generations, and never lose its meaning and resonance. How many other books were published the same year Gatsby was and have disappeared forever, while Gatsby never goes out of print?

Julia Buckley said...

You're right, Liz, but I guess I can still read it in the context of the time, just as I can watch old movies and still forgive those same assumptions as "unenlightened." But it's all the more reason that I admire Stewart's heroines for being smart in a time when perhaps women were not encouraged to be so, and being brave because it was their moral obligation. And of course I like them because they're all literate, and, unrealistic as it may be, they quote great literature with their lovers. :)

And it's true, Sandra, that some books are just plain timeless, and they can't be lauded enough for that very reason.