Reading Like a Writer

I am absolutely horrible at literary analysis. I miss obvious symbols and themes, and I almost never make the connections to political or social problems, especially when they are well disguised. In all of my literature classes at the University of New Hampshire, I hardly get higher than a B. My essays usually fall in the B to B- range. And, though I always try to participate as much as possible in the discussions, I am usually baffled by the questions the teachers pose about these hidden meaning within the books.

But, honestly, I really don’t care about all that (as long as I pass the class!). I don’t read for the symbolism and deep, profound meanings. I don’t read to see an author’s view on political, social, or economical issues. I share Ernest Hemingway’s view on his most famous book, The Old Man and the Sea:

“Then there is the other secret. There isn’t any symbolysm [sic]. The sea is the sea. The old man is an old man. The boy is a boy and the fish is a fish. The shark are all sharks no better and no worse. All the symbolism that people say is shit. What goes beyond is what you see beyond when you know.”

I’m so happy he said that, and I often wonder if a lot of other classic authors probably had the same opinion of their own books. Many times, there is no evidence that an author meant to have their book interpreted the way they are now (and we can’t go out and ask them now, can we?). Most of those symbolic and theme-based  interpretations come from scholars and symbologists that dedicate their whole lives to read through every word searching for hidden themes and symbols. But I really don’t see the point in that. Why is it so important? Why can’t we just read to be entertained?

That’s why I read. To be entertained. And to be influenced. I read as a writer, not a scholar.

This concept, reading like a writer, was first introduced to me last year by a professor of fiction writing. He expressed my very same views on symbolism, the very same views that Mr. Hemingway expressed above. When the class began, he made it a point to state that we would be reading published short stories, as well as each other’s short stories, in a way unlike any other class. He said that we would be reading to learn the basic concept of fiction writing.  He said that he wanted us to learn how to write fiction by studying the design of the way others write fiction.

He said that literary analysis classes ruin fiction.

And I wholeheartedly agree.

Reading like a writer means studying how these stories work. How they are laid out. How the plot unfolds. How the characters are developed. Instead of studying the symbology of a story, we study its architecture, its characterization. We look at sentence and paragraph structure. We look at what’s being said and what’s being implied. We look at what works to get a story published. Not only is it a great way to improve our writing, but it is a much more enjoyable way to read than trying to figure out why the writer chose certain concepts or images or themes.

My mind has been permanently altered by the concept of reading like a writer. Now, whenever I read, I pay close attention to smaller details, like how the writer described a scene/character or how how she created suspense. I study how terse or how verbose the dialogue is. I study how the story is presented, how time flows, the way flashbacks occur, where the story starts and how it ends and what lies in between. Despite all this studying, I still manage to enjoy the story, much more so than if I am constantly searching for how it secretly portrays the government or society or or some crazy crap like that.

In my writing, I have no desire in tricking people by hiding symbols, themes, or otherwise. If it happens, it is completely unintentional. The way I write stories is the way I intend people to read them. I just want my readers to enjoy the story as I enjoyed writing it. And I will keep on reading like a writer, even after I eventually get published, for I will always be able to improve my craft and challenge myself.