The Discerning Reader
There’s been an interesting development in the way I read recently, one I used to try to avoid.
When I was in theatre, I had to give up on going to see plays or movies with my peers. They weren’t capable of just sitting down and enjoying something – it had to be studied, analyzed, broken down into its component parts and critiqued. It baffled me, and fascinated me, but in the end it just began to grate on my nerves. Not everything, I argued, had to be understood to be enjoyed.
That’s presumably a large part of the reason why many of those friends are still involved in theatre, and I’m doing office work.
However, over the past year I’ve been fortunate enough to act as a first-round reader for two novels by a woman I admire. I’ve tried hard to look at how every piece made me feel, made me think, what was good about the good parts and how the other parts might best be improved from my viewpoint.
I’ve also had the good luck to find another woman who’s capable of critiquing my own work very, very closely; and whose opinions I respect immensely. That’s resulted in my needing to tend my own garden much more closely than I have in the past, moving forward in a conscious way with the things I write.
With this in mind, the latest book I’m reading for pleasure is James Michener’s Poland. It’s a good book, both in terms of narrative and historical education, and I’m enjoying it immensely. I have, however, picked up on two serious critiques in terms of overemphasizing elements of his style.
The first: Class plays an important part in the novel, which is well and good. The families being traced are essentially nobility, petty nobility, and peasantry; allowing Michener to give a good sense of how class lines transition from medieval times to the Soviet era. However, every single chapter (so far – I’m up to Jan Sobieski’s lifting the siege of Vienna) ends with by underlining what each person/family received from the actions they took, and every single underlining ends with a variation on the statement, “And the peasant got nothing, which was his due.”
Now, I’m as pro-letariat (sorry, leftist humor) as the next guy, but it’s hit a point where it’s becoming comical rather than sympathetic in my eyes. I feel vaguely as if I’m reading a discarded Frantics sketch rather than a sweeping epic of history, because now I’m watching and waiting for the punch line and the boot to the peasant’s head.
Secondly, Michener’s chosen to use architecture and food as primary symbols with which to underline some of the differences between the classes and their lifestyles. I do not say he does this badly – indeed, reading the lavish descriptions of how the food is prepared and distributed really shows how much research and devotion he has put into this novel.
It becomes too much again, though, fairly quickly. It reads almost as if he’s wedging these thematic elements into the structure of each chapter, rather than weaving them in as appropriate. Banquet scene? Check. Castle one examined? Check. Castle two? Check. All right, on to the action.
Again, I’m not disappointed in the work as a whole. I just find it interesting that I’m really beginning to notice things that used to pass me by without comment, and beginning to think of how I might try to improve on them with my own work. Both of these, I think, are signs of growth both as an artist and as a person.
I wasn’t ready to look at things so critically earlier in my life, for whatever sets of reasons. I realize, however, that I’m a chronically late bloomer – and I’m okay with that fact now. It just means that I’ll still be learning and evolving long after most folks my age solidify and stagnate.
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