Yes, but what did you think?

I’m re-reading Anna Karenina for my new creative-reading class.  I love these sessions, when we take a section of novel or a short story and investigate it.  I don’t wear a deerstalker, but I do study the text as closely as if I had taken out a magnifying glass.

It’s so much easier to be a detective between the pages of a novel than in real life.  For one thing, everything is neatly gathered together.  I can look beyond the text to find out background information, but I don’t have to.  And surely, I shouldn’t expect to on a general read.  After all, I don’t know about you, but I read fiction to be entertained, in the first place, and that usually means I engage in the story-world.

My copy of Anna Karenina weighed in at 817 pages of quite small text. It’s a much bigger story than I remembered, but just as with some other apparantly dauntingly hefty classics, I was driven to read on: to find out what, how, why, when and where?

This novel is over one hundred and thirty years old.  So some things are mentioned that I needed to check the notes in the back for, but not so many that it broke the narrative spell. Tolstoy’s characters and setting, combined with my own store of experiences and general knowledge, brought nineteenth century Russia to life.

As you have no doubt realised, I think Anna Karenina still works.  Someone else may not.  Isn’t that the most basic of test of fiction, not what the critics have to say about how or why it was written, or even who it is by, but whether you liked it, and why?

Reading Authors.

I’m just working on the research I need to do for my Anna Karenina reading group in a couple of weeks time.  Once again, I am struck by the amount of studying the great writers do.  Where does this idea that writing cannot be taught come from?

It was the same last year, when we read Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones.  Alongside our enjoyment of a rollicking good tale, we began to build up a phenomenal list of texts referenced by the narrator and characters in the story, and also quite a bit of story-theory being discussed along the way.

So, here I am looking at a chronology for Tolstoy.  Besides his education at university, where he read first Oriental Languages then Law, though he did not finish his course due to ‘ill health and domestic circumstances’, he read widely.  His interests were philosophy, education, reform, history, politics, religion, ancient Greek and travel.

He also lived fairly wildly, at least at first.  It’s fascinating to find his life experiences and interests mirrored by characters and situations in A.K.  Is it just me, or do most of us enjoy seeing how things are made?

Tolstoy honed his skills by writing essays and short sketches. He did not finish every project he started. War and Peace, for instance, evolved out of another novel called ‘The Decembrists’.

You could argue that we look for the connections, but does that matter?  Surely, the more we can take from our reading the better?

I like stories that make me think, or go away to find out more afterwards.  Again, it’s a different style of reading to the pure entertainment page-turning novels, and I like those too.  But I would say that this is writing that has matured.  Here is a writer who practiced his craft and shared the variety of his interests through his stories and novels.

Do You Re-Read?

Whether we like it or not, we belong to a ‘throw away’ culture, and that is as true of literature as it is our other purchases.  Most of us could not possibly keep all the books we read unless we lived in a library or large warehouse.  So, we pass finished novels to friends or into the second-hand market.  That’s not bad, at least it’s recycling.

Mostly, I suspect, we read our books once and then move on, as if all the pleasure is in that first read.  Sometimes it is.  Not all writing can entertain us a second time, even if we read several other authors before a re-read.  This is as true of short stories as it is of novels, poetry or scripts.  Some things do need only one look for us to absorb their story.

However, I believe that for most of us, moving onto the next book has become a habit, and that’s a shame.  A lot of stories, especially many of the short ones, have more to offer when we read them a second, or even third, time.

Often, our first read is fast.  We are involved with events and looking forward to what happens next.  We develop a rhythm of page turning that is difficult to break. Besides, page turning is good. Why should we want anything else?

Well, first let me say that I’m not talking literary analysis here.  Re-reading is a pleasure, not homework.  My pitch is that re-reading is a chance to really explore what the writer is saying, and to discover that it may not be what you first thought.

When you re-read you already know where the story is going, so you can read more slowly.  This can take some getting used to, but try thinking of it as cycling along a country lane.  When we stop, the grass verge is no longer just a green blur.  We see that it is made up of a variety of shades and textures, and even that there are small flowers on it.

In a re-read you will have time to notice similar treasures. The repeated images, clever twists in vocabulary, hidden jokes and a hundred other tricks that any writer might employ suddenly come into view.

What is the story really saying then?  That’s up to you.  You are an active, rather than passive reader, now.

Working Story

One of the first handouts I was given at University was a list of seven points that defined the short story.  It had been compiled by Dilys Gater, in her book, Short Story Writing*.   At last, I thought, learnable theory I could apply in my writing.  Better still, someone else had worked it out for me.

Yet, for several weeks after that I was unable to finish a story outside of class-work. I never lacked ideas, my writers diary was crowded with characters, scenes and fragments of conversation, but they remained notes. I told myself not to worry, I was completing our set exercises on the mechanics of the simple linear plot, and that was what counted.

Until I took my results to the tutorial.

‘It’s got no life,’ my tutor said, handing back my assignment.  ‘Start again.’

‘All this work?’

She waved aside my folder of notes and handouts. ‘Count it as background,’ she said. ‘Forget the rules, just write.’

There was less than a week to my deadline.  Simmering with resentment I returned to my desk.  I had no idea what to write.  All I had was my main character.  I began a fresh description of him.  After all, I had to hand something in.  As soon as I started to write him, things began to happen.  They were not the situations I had planned, these were exciting.

Ideas flowed off the end of my pen. I had no time to worry about theories, but I was aware, for the first time, that I could see the story shaping as it evolved.  I knew how the events were building, even thought I was not sure where they would go.  Something wonderful was taking place, I was creating a linear plot as I went along.  I was flying.

I understood then that my best writing could not be created using a formula, but knowledge would help me to get the best from my ideas.  I recognised parallels to essay writing.  Without training I could not have collated my notes into an academic argument.  Yet, when I wrote essays I was not consciously following structure, I was following a line of related thoughts, and with practice, that same process would work for fiction.  All I need do was concentrate in the right places.

*Short Story Writing (The “Writers News” Library of Writing) published March 1993

Who Reads Short Stories?

I do.  I have a fairly good collection of them now, but I think I must be in the minority, if the state of our local library and bookshop shelves are anything to go by.  To find any short story collections or anthologies in either can take a lot of searching.  Asking for a specific title or author is a matter of luck, or ordering in.

Whatever might be said about the role of the publishing industry in supporting, or not supporting, short fiction, the hard truth is that few people choose to read it.  Most British fiction readers prefer the novel, and the public book-shelves reflect this.  I say this because I have talked to a lot of readers over the last ten years, both as a tutor of creative reading groups, and creative writing groups, and because I know that what my students have told me mirrors my own experience.

As I grew up the print I read got smaller, the illustrations disappeared and the books got thicker.  I read one or two collections of ghost or horror stories as well, but mostly my friends and I bought, borrowed and swapped longer and longer narratives.  We were aiming for novels.  School too was pushing us that way.  They asked us to write short stories so that we could demonstrate our understanding of punctuation and grammar, but for literature, we would study, The Novel.

Our first grown-up novels were like contraband, passed around secretly.  Before long we were reading them openly.  I might occasionally go back to a childhood favourite, but in secret.  In public, I did not go near the children’s shelves again, and neither did my friends.  By the time we left school I had a strong novel-reading habit.

I did read a few short stories as I came across them, mostly in magazines.  I remember some Katherine Mansfield stories, and a collection by a modern writer.  I remember because of my disappointment.  I could see that the sentences were well written, and I knew that these were important writers, but surely these were not stories.  Where were the plots?

No wonder I didn’t get them.  I had approached those two collections exactly as I did a novel.  I turned from one story to the next, often without pause, simply because the pages were numbered consecutively.  It was a long time before I went back to them.  It took a night class and a new approach to writing before I read them as I should have.

I wish I had learned earlier that I did not need a degree course to appreciate the beauty of a well-crafted story.  We learned the skills in English Lit at school.  I just hadn’t understood how to adapt them.

Now, when I teach creative reading or writing groups I say, approach short stories as you would a poem.  The great British short story writers of the 1920s and 30s knew this.  H.E.Bates, in his book, The Modern Short Story, (1972) wrote that, after the first world war the new generation of writers, ‘needed and sought as a form something between lyric poetry and fictional prose.’  He credited Katherine Mansfield and A. E. Coppard in, ‘assisting the English short story to a state of adult emancipation.’

His study may be forty years old, but I cannot disagree with his analysis.  I only wish that more people could see it.

Driven to Read; Driven to Write

I have a confession:  I have a lot of books.  It feels like I have always had a lot of books.

Most of the ones I grew up with were inherited.  Many had stained cloth covers or pictures of perfectly groomed girls who went to boarding schools, but I read and re-read them all.  I was an indiscriminate reader, as happy with the stories in the Arthur Mee encyclopedias as I was with my ladybird books, Enid Blyton, Georgette Heyer or the pulp fiction I bought at jumble sales.

As soon as it became known that I was ‘a reader’ books flowed into my life.  They did not just arrive for Christmas or my birthday, I became a drop off point for unwanted volumes.  These were usually dusty, with damage to the cover or fly-leaf.  My main supplier was my Grandfather, who trawled junk shops and auctions for bargains.  In this way, I began to build a substantial and varied library.

Luckily, my parents saw this as a good thing.  They supplied me with extra shelves as required, and so, despite occasional suggestions that I might have outgrown Dick and Jane books, my collection grew.  I waded through dense Victorian novels as enthusiastically as I gorged on fairy tales, and stacked them all neatly into my wall of books.

If a story had hooked me I carried that book about.  When it was really good I read under the desk during lessons; on the school bus (despite my motion sickness) and as I walked around.  Most of those books I forgot soon after starting the next one, but some were powerful. Robinson Crusoe was read amongst the daisies on the lawn and Lorna Doone belongs to a wet autumn afternoon curled up in the armchair.  I could list more.

I held onto those books for a long time, because for a long time my love of stories was confused with my enjoyment of the object.  I liked turning the page.  There were qualities to admire, even in the cheapest editions.  Tissue thin pages and tiny print meant a substantial story; pages as thick as blotting paper with large heavy lettering meant a quick read.  Remember, I did say I was an indiscriminate reader.

All of this reading was certainly connected with my secret desire to write, but as my teachers observed, being a ‘good reader’ did not improve my spelling, punctuation or grammar.  Instead, I was an excellent day-dreamer and a poor scholar.  Of course, my teachers had no idea I had a secret ambition.  Schools teach us to read for meaning, and that is a broad and sensible ambition for the majority.  I left school with a faint feeling that something had been missed out.

I continued to expand my library, but my writing stumbled.  It took more than one creative writing course for me to understand that I had been taught how to read as a reader, when I needed to read as a writer.  I resisted knowing it.  I was good at reading, and I liked writing stories, so how could reading possibly be my problem.

Someone had the answers, and I hoped they had written a book.