Thursday, February 2, 2012

Three Ways of Reading

When I'm reading a novel, what I'm really doing is reading three different ways. What I ultimately think about the book comes from some ratio of those three readings. The latest book I read, The Shakespeare Stealer by Gary Blackwood, is a good example of how complicated that ratio can be.

The first way I read something, of course, is for the story. Is it entertaining? Do I care about the characters? Am I caught up in what happens? The best stories are so engrossing that, for a little while at least, my real life becomes secondary. I read a good portion of The Shakespeare Stealer while cooking supper the other night. The story has a good premise: an orphaned boy who's never known any life other than that of an abused apprentice is sent to steal Shakespeare's Hamlet so his new master can put on the play. As he is trying to get his hands on the script, he makes friends and finds the family he's never had. While the characters in this book are not among my all-time favorites, they were likeable enough, and the action of the story moved along quickly. (I have to admit, maybe there were some other reasons I devoured this book. First, it is a middle-grade novel, so it was EASY reading, and second, I was just coming off a six-week stint of reading an academic, non-fiction book, so quite frankly, I was starved for fiction!)

However, The Shakespeare Stealer didn't fare quite as well in my second way of reading.
Honestly, since I've been doing my own writing, I can't read a novel now without having an eye on the way it is written. And this little book had some things that I consider to be definite problems.  The first thing was the entire first chapter. All the advice that's out there now about beginning a story says to start with the action. Put the reader right into the place where the plot starts. Avoid at all costs "introducing" your story with long description of backstory; instead, work in the important backstory elements as you are moving the characters through that first segment of the plot. The Shakespeare Stealer spends its entire first chapter describing for us the main character’s early life in an orphanage, his first apprenticeship, and an incident in which he ends up doing something unethical because of his master. There are two lines of dialogue in the whole chapter. It’s not until the second chapter that we see what is going to be the central problem of the story.

"Great voice" is one of the things agents always say they are looking for, and I suppose that's true of me as a reader as well. There's lots of "telling" in this book, including a few times when it is downright preachy. I also have a problem with the narrator’s voice. When Widge (the main character) is speaking, he uses a country dialect that, to be honest, is annoyingly hard to decipher (“Oh, gis. Will ’a ha’ me dismissed, do you wis?”). But when Widge the first-person narrator is speaking, he uses words like “sumptuous” and “countenance” and “veritable.” That inconsistency is pretty jarring, to me, anyway.

My writing has also made me very aware of the value of good editing. I've pruned nearly two-thirds of the original words and scenes out of my own book, and just the other day I had a (difficult) realization that there was another scene (that has always been one of my favorites) that really has no direct connection to the plot. It's got to go and much as I hate to do it, I'm writing it out. Maybe that makes me a little less tolerant of seeing places where other writers have refused to do the same. I honestly was annoyed by the way Blackwood used the character of Shakespeare in this novel. Yeah, yeah, the title of the book is The Shakespeare Stealer -- a lot of the action takes place in the Globe theater -- you HAVE to have Shakespeare in there, right???? Well, not this way. Maybe because I'm still under the spell of Shakespeare in Love (ha ha), in which Shakespeare was such a fascinating character, I found the use of Shakespeare in this book to be unnecessary, even gratuitous. Other than being the author of the play Widge is sent to steal, he has nothing to do with the plot. He has a few lines of dialogue, but nothing interesting or important. The oddest example of GUS (Gratuitous Use of Shakespeare) is a scene when the apprentices have taken a day to go out into the country for some relaxation and fresh air. For some inexplicable reason, Shakespeare walks by. Widge asks the others if they should speak to him, but they say, no, Mr. Shakespeare is moody. Then they give a few textbook-worthy facts about Shakespeare's family and personal life, and .... that's that. No connection to the plot whatsoever, no value in building the personalities of the main characters, no point at all, really.

Finally, the third way I read a novel is in the hope that I will learn something or think about something in a way I never have before. The Shakespeare Stealer didn't disappoint in this area, for the overt plot of the book ties in so well with the recent controversy over PIPA and SOPA and the issue of intellectual property rights. The story talks about the piracy of plays in the 16th century and how that piracy deprived Shakespeare and the players of their ability to make money from their work (hmmmm, come to think of it, I wonder how accurate that part of the story is. I may need to do some investigation into that history). As a teacher of writing and a writer myself, it's an issue of great interest to me. What are the boundaries of intellectual property? Even Shakespeare himself borrowed heavily from other people's works as the basis for some of his plays. Of course, he put his unique stamp on the material, and I guess that’s the difference. The character of Simon Bass in this novel and the internet pirates of today simply lift something wholesale and use it as their own.

So, getting back to the three ways of reading -- I enjoyed The Shakespeare Stealer well enough as a story and it gave me something interesting to think about beyond the story, but I saw what I consider to be some serious flaws with the writing. My overall evaluation? Worth the read, but not going on my mental shelf of "great books."


Ephemera said...

Interesting analysis. Having discussed your book with you, and some of the things you've learned as you've written, I think you did good to even finish this one! I don't think I would have. LOL

Augustina Peach said...

I didn't mean to give the impression it was a bad read, because it wasn't. Just not "great."