Thursday, June 30, 2011

Pulling Books Apart

Sorry for the long silence. This is a recording....

I've been nose to the grindstone since getting back from Perth the other week, busily beavering away at the paper I delivered at the biennial IRSCL congress in Brisbane yesterday*. I looked at Coraline and The Graveyard Book, both by the wonderful Neil Gaiman, and examined the construction of family within them.**

So, of course, I've had to give both books a very close reading. My copy of Coraline has so many little yellow post it notes attached that it looks rather like a very odd sunflower. And The Graveyard book is even worse. For me, at least, a 'close reading' involves going through the book, pencil in hand, and literally reading it on a sentence-by-sentence basis, considering issues of construction and meaning behind pretty much every word.

All this has, of course, got me thinking...

During my visit to Perth the other week, two different people, both writers I respect enormously, told me how much they dislike academics who read into their books ideas and meanings that they never intended to be there in the first place. And I have to admit that I've read a few analytical comments about my own books in scholarly papers and had to fight the urge to bang off a quick email to the author.

But one of the central principles of literary analysis - and it's as constructed an idea as every other in the field - is that the meaning a reader, any reader - even a theory-obsessed academic -brings to a book is as valid, if not more valid, than the meaning that the author intended. There's also an argument to be made from an analytical perspective that authors are perhaps the least qualified people to comment upon the underlying social meanings that inform their writing.***

In any case, to get back to the central point of this post, one of the chief comments that writing students (and other writers) often make about having to do very close readings of books is that it can 'kill the enjoyment of the book for me'. The idea being that, in having to analyse a creative work so minutely, you lose sight of the overall beauty of it and that, in turn, doesn't help improve your writing. It's an argument I've heard a few times over the years.

And I have to say - speaking only for myself, of course - it's an argument I just can't agree with. Stephen King points out that 'if you don't have time to read, you don't have time to write', and I think you can take this a step further and argue that the more closely you allow yourself to engage with the words of other writers, the more you understand, at both a conscious and unconscious level, about your own writing.

If anything else, for me the process of doing a close reading only heightens my appreciation of other writers' works and my admiration of their skills. Seeing how the placement of a single word in the right place and time can frame up the rest of a story without you (the reader) realising it always gives me something of a thrill.

I'll give you an example from my paper -

Take Gaiman's The Graveyard Book - one of my favourite books. I've read it countless times, including the close reading I did for this paper. One of the things I picked up on when looking at the book was this, the fourth sentence of the novel, right on the first page...
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
There are a whole lot of things in that sentence that are really interesting in terms of my paper, but one thing that really got me is the power behind one little word there; 'almost'. As soon as you read that word you know - you just know in the back of your head - that until the knife has completed its work, one way or another, that the world is going to be a dangerous place. The word 'almost' implies such a strong sense of incompleteness, of tasks left hanging and unaccomplished, that the reader is immedately - just four sentences into the story - feeling unsettled and uneasy.

And for me, as both a writer and a reader, understanding something like that doesn't in any way diminish my capacity to enjoy the book. If anything, it heightens it. I still get all teary at the end of The Graveyard Book, perhaps even moreso now than the first time I read it.

And of course, this raises the question of whether or not Neil Gaiman deliberately placed that little word, 'almost' there to achieve that effect, or whether it's just a happy co-incidence, or whether I'm simply reading far too much into the book.

In all honesty, I suspect the answer to that question is: 'yes'. My feeling is that Neil Gaiman is far too accomplished a craftsman to not be aware, at some level, of the impact of every single word in his stories. I know I've had long discussions with my editors over the placement of individual words on many occasions.

I also know, from personal experience, that often the decision as to which words to include or not include aren't made on a conscious level, but are made in an instant - a hundredth of a second - at some instinctual level while you're writing, but that doesn't mean that you're not still making them.

And I also know - regardless of what Neil Gaiman himself intended - the effect that word 'almost' has upon me, as both a reader, a student of writing, and a practitioner of it. And at that one, Neil Gaiman's intentions (with all due respect to the man) become irrelevent.

So for me, at least, pulling books apart is part of the joy of reading them.

*A conference which has, to this point, had many highlights, one of which was me stepping into a duckpond up to my waist while walking through the botanical gardens on my way to catch the train to the airport to come home last night. Luckily I had spare clothes in my backpack. And enough money on me to afford a new pair of shoes on my way through town...

**I could, at this point, bang on using words and phrases like 'unravelling the liminal spaces', and 'transgressions of thresholds' and 'Freudian signifiers of the heimlich and unheimlich' and 'Lacanian o/Other' but, trust me, you've got better things to do with your life...

*** Though that's a whole other blog post...

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