Sunday, August 12, 2012

Falling in Love Again: Recovering the Magic of Fiction Reading

In a couple of weeks, The Divine Secrets of the Writing Sisterhood will celebrate their second anniversary. It has been two very rewarding years, packed with happy moments. We Sisters have grown close to one another and to our followers. A new part of us has emerged in this blogging journey. We have become award-winning  bloggers, we have learned fresh skills and passed old knowledge to new friends. But in this post I would like to share my own personal experience, the gift that these two years have given me, particularly the faculty to fall in love again…with novels!

I started this blogging trip with a baggage of preconceptions about the whole process of writing, publishing and the mechanics of reading. After two years, I´m sorry to confess that my prejudices against the publishing industry and its minions have increased, but I have lost fear and gained respect for self-publishing and e-books. I truly hope many novice writers learn about these new paths before subjecting themselves to the anguish and self-doubt the other road could lead them to.

Alas! Self publishing is not an option for me since along the way; I lost one piece of luggage, the one containing my dreams of becoming a published author. Does that mean I have learned humility in this trip? Perhaps I will when I discard one last dream, writing fiction altogether. I am still clinging to that bag, but reason and conscience tell me that writing non-fiction is my thing. In these two years I have acquired appreciation and reverence for the blogging profession and for non-fiction writing in general. I will not stop scribbling, but I may stay away from fiction (and yet I have such a wonderful story in my mind that I shall take to my grave).

Most important than giving up on writing, is the recovery of an old romance that shaped my personality in the past. I am talking about my love for novels. Reading novels plays different roles in each individual life. Some read to learn, some to escape reality, some seek entertaining; others search for models to apply to their own craft. In Sister Mary Mary’s blog there is a quote that reads “a book is a present that you can open over and over again.” According to Carlos Ruiz Zafón, books are “mirrors” that return our reflection. Indeed, in more than one occasion fiction has thrown my own reflection back at me, the old  "identification thing” that I have so often mentioned in my posts. Indeed, they are presents that constantly renew their promise of joy, but they are more than that, and this blog helped me discover it.

 “What are books for you?”an interviewer asked me years ago. “Friends,” I answered regretting what could sound like a cliché. They are friends, but once in a while, some charismatic piece of fiction has also been my lover.  I have struck friendship with novels into the past, but I also became romantically attached to certain stories. There is such  intimacy in burrowing inside a good tale, wandering into plots that make me meet the unconventional, the unpredictable and the  incredible while forcing me to see my image mirrored on them like on a lover´s eyes. Losing that experience was akin to losing part of my womanhood, and yet I let it happen.

I wonder if all of you writers have gone through something similar, but as I ventured into writing land I became disenchanted with literature. Fiction ceased to charm me. The more I learned about style principles and publishing rules, the more judgmental I became. Every novel that had come to the market after 2000 seemed flawed, artificial, lacking of charm and mystery. As my capacity for self-criticism increased, so did my cruelty in judging imperfection in others, especially those who had found agents and publishers. It went beyond envy as I never judged out of spite, I never criticized without grounds. The manual was there, always at hand to remind me that those who broke the rules made it to the top.

Enough of that. Just know that reading fiction became a painful, exhausting and eventually boring affair.  It resembled a mathematical exercise, leaving no space for romance. Blissfully, I did not regret it much. Like so many things that age had banned for me, I accepted it. But the enormity of what I had lost only came to me when I recovered it, and I have only this blog to thank for that. In order to write a monthly post, I was forced to read fiction (and sometimes watch films as companions to the text) again. Little by little, I gave up on the stylistic examination and let great plots sucked me in. I narrowed down my criticism just to apply it to the content and character development aspects of a novel, exactly as my undergrad and graduate studies had prepared me to do.

Over these last two years, I have bumped into new and fascinating genres like the historical whodunit and its partner, the historical thriller. I have re-discovered the poetry of Edith Wharton’s tales and made my peace with The Devil Wears Prada, to the point that I consider it above the mere label of “chick lit.” And I have fallen in love with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. It had dazzled me, it had comfort me, and it had humbled me showing that whatever my work was before it could never reach that magnificence.

If I were to encapsulate the essence of that magical fiction that charmed me of my tree branch I should mention three qualities: characters that evolve to the point where you want them to be; a plot that combines every ingredient of the human tragicomedy including romance, and a sense that although the tale is set in fabled days it could have happen in a real historical setting, even in my own Twentieth Century. Most important, all those qualities transport me to a spot within those pages in which I cease to be a mere reader-witness but become both an actor and the writer-puppeteer that pulls the strings in that universe.

Have you ever experienced such degree of emotion with a book? I hadn’t reached these heights of passion since I read Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown in another continent and another century.  There´s something angelic in words that bring you to such heights. A quality that I can only find in Chopin’s Preludes or Ol’Blue Eyes’ voice. Perhaps that is why they make the perfect musical background for my reading journeys.

In many ways, reading can be a transforming experience, and a passionate one that moves you to tears of joy and fits of anger.  If I compare it to a love affair is because I cannot think of any other activity that provokes such a myriad of emotions in me. But what about you? What is your relationship with fiction? Do you read to learn, to distract yourself from everyday routine or do you experience once in a while rapture similar to mine? If so, could you share with us which novels have moved you?

Malena (formerly known as Violante)


  1. *sniffs*
    You brought a tear to my eye, Malena, and I sincerely mean that! I completely understand your struggle to enjoy fiction when you seemed to become more and more cynical of the writing and publishing process. Sad to say, but once a writer understands the real uphill battles of the publishing industry, it tends to lose a lot of its luster. And that to me is such a tragedy. There is so much beauty in creating a story, that to have it shot down in a mere matter of seconds through a form rejection email causes one to lose heart.

    I'm glad you've found your way back to the love of reading fiction once more!

  2. Dear Sister,
    I can’t blame rejection letters (to be honest, I only got three before I gave up on the querying process) and I can’t wholly blame “the Manual” for depriving me of the magic of reading. My post is really a cautionary tale, because I had been disenchanted before. My literature studies made me too involved in stylist observation and left me no time for plot-enjoyment, my librarianship courses made me too aware of racism, sexism and other inconvenient subjects in fiction. In sum, if we forget that a novel’s main purpose is to provide us with a good tale, we cannot really enjoy literature.
    Is there a book(s) that has taken you so out of yourself that reading it became an unforgettable experience?

    1. I had to think a bit about your question. Like Steph, I'd say that The Hunger Games really immersed me and I just had to finish the trilogy, even though by the middle of the third book I began to get tired of the characters. But it was one of a few trilogies I've ever finished. I don't even have much interest in finishing the Millennium trilogy of Larsson's after reading the first book!

      Another book that I just finished reading and found fascinating is The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. I didn't think I'd like it when I picked it up, but it's so vivid with what went on in Josephine Bonaparte's life during the French Revolution and before she ever met Napoleon. Her name wasn't even Josephine. It's actually the first in a trilogy and now I really want to read the other two!

      I'm usually very surprised by the books that thoroughly transport me, which is kind of nice. Ones I hope will, do not. Ones I don't think will, do.

      Although a bit cynical at times, I can still find books that capture my interest. That's a good thing!

    2. I think the more cynical we become, the more we long for things that move us, even if they are srt in a fictional world.

  3. This is such a perfect week for you to post this! I have been lost, joyously lost, in a novel this week. I've been reading it and listening to it via audiobook, and wandering around with my head in the clouds as the characters and story take over. It's absolutely a love affair, only one that doesn't cause problems IRL, yay! :) (Unlike most love affairs.) Now that I am done with the novel, I mourn. It's over! :(

    It's my greatest wish that I could evoke such a reaction on my own readers ... to have my story get under their skin so they can't put my book down; so they miss it when it's done.

    Generally, learning The Manual (to borrow your term) hasn't really killed the joy of reading in me, except in one respect: amateur writing is now off the table for me. I am a far pickier reader, in that I see the big mistakes and I can't get past them: grammar issues, head-hopping, bad dialogue, wobbly character development ... these will throw me out of a story perhaps more than they did before I learned about them. Mediocre writing is less tolerable. But I have so much more appreciation for excellent writing now than I did before I entered the game! I now know how brutally hard it is even to complete a novel, much less pull together a book with a solid plot and consistent character development. Someone who can do that has all my respect, a deeper respect than I'd have given them a decade ago.

    The divide between the unforgettable book and the amateur one is so vast ... I can hardly think of a story in the middle anymore. Is it just me? I feel like stories fall on either end of the extremes, and hardly ever gather around the "meh, it was OK" middle anymore. And I can tell within the first few pages which kind of book I'm facing. I just can't sort out how to propel myself to the latter kind of writer!

    1. Heh. I meant, the former kind of writer, of course. The unforgettable kind, not the amateur kind. I should not respond to posts when it's bedtime and I'm zonked!

    2. First of all, Sister Stephanie, I am curious to know which novel gripped your attention. In fact I’m curious to know what sort of literature can take people out of these worlds. That must be something so personal that varies from individual to individual. I’m sure there are people who are hooked on the 50 shades. That shows you that falling in love with a book has little to do with masterful style. I confess that among my best-loved books are several bodice-rippers! (Blush). And there are recognized masterpieces that fail to move me (more blushes).
      Don’t worry, we read you even when you are zonked!

    3. Well, this was indeed a guilty pleasure read, though not quite at the 50 Shades level. :) It was "Divergent" by Veronica Roth, one of the current bumper crop of YA dystopian novels. I love these stories. I was just as swept away by the Hunger Games and by Lauren Oliver's Delirium series. (So far, anyway; only two of that series have been published.) Although "YA dystopian" is a genre, and therefore we see plots that follow somewhat predictable patterns, we have somewhat predictable characters, and the writing is not nearly as important as the story, I still love it. I definitely feel transported to another world. And they usually raise interesting moral questions, too. And you and I share a love of George RR Martin! Those are books you fall in love with. (If you like them, you love them; if you don't like them, you hate them.)

    4. So you have truly recaptured the love affair. Not only did you love The Hunger Games, but it led you to love a subgenre. I cannot find that with ASOIAF, I am not into historical fiction set in the Middle Ages, Epic Fantasy bores me to death. What I love in Martin' saga are the characters (some) and the fact that they could exist in any historical period even in modern times.

  4. Sister Malena,

    It's been so long since I've completely lost myself in a novel or film! It's ironic that we become writers because we love fiction, yet when we learn the mechanics of storytelling, that candid relationship with books is one of the first things we lose. Being analytic has both its advantages and disadvantages. Like Steph says, we learn to appreciate good fiction, but also, we become picky and cold. I imagine it must be similar for magicians. Once they know all the tricks, it must be hard for them to be impressed by another illusionist.

    I crave to "fall in love" with a novel again the way you have done with Game of Thrones!

    1. I know, Sister Lorena, but I want to add something to what Sister Steph said. We, aspiring writers, want to grip our audience´s attention, we want to own our reader´s imagination, and we want they to carry our characters in their hearts and brains. But how could we, if we have forgotten what it´s like?
      There is something I believe I said to you in our last “literary chat”. No matter what great story runs around inside my head, there is no use in writing it when nobody else cares to read it. The reason why I am so bound to Song of Ice and Fire, is because there are millions of readers all over the world that are hooked on that story just like I am and my blog has become a meeting place for at least a quarter of a fraction of that fandom. There are million of people all over the world who are in love with Martin´s work, who wants him to write another book and who will read that other book. All those are great ingredients for falling in love with fiction.

    2. It's so heartening that Martin's books have achieved such a passionate following, isn't it? Because they are NOT insipid or badly-written. I haven't read 50 Shades of Gray and have zero interest in doing so, but I am told by those who have read it that the writing is appalling. Worse than the worst writing they have ever read ... it started as Twilight fan-fic, apparently, which tells you something. And sometimes we writers get this sinking feeling that if we want our stories to catch fire, to become a phenomenon like that, we have to write mindless crap. It's like a Faustian bargain: if you sell your writerly soul, you will achieve bestsellerdom. That doesn't make a lot of sense on the face of it, but you look at Dan Brown and Stephenie Meyer and you begin to wonder.

      But George RR Martin doesn't write crap. His writing is perfectly fine. It's not James Joyce, but he knows the craft. AND, he raises interesting moral and political questions; he makes you think. I could not say that about Twilight.

    3. I am trying not to be judgmental but I have read Shades first chapters (I couldn´t go on, because it was so dreadful). Not only it is awfully written, it is bad Erotica (it´s not even fine porn!)
      What raised Martin to the Twilight/Dan Brown sphere is still a mystery to me. When Game of Thrones came out, Martin was an established science fiction writer, and yet GOT wasn’t a bestseller. Clash of Kings was the first book in the saga to make it to The New York Times List.Even crtiics weren’t so crazy about it. Martin didn´t get a Hugo Award until Storm of Swords. In fact, someone at the Washington Post said (about GOT) that the characters were one-dimensional and the imagery “less than memorable” (burn him!)
      I have to confess that I have subjected ASOIAF to Te Manual´s test...and it has failed on some accounts. Too many POVS, too many characters, backstory galore, etc. Who cares? I revere it!

    4. This is a review of Fifty Shades, and it's probably the funniest book review I've ever read:

    5. This was Fan-tas-tic. I couldn´t have expressed it better. A 21-year old that says "Holy Cow" after she sees her first penis! A virgin who is taken roughly and experiences just a bit of soreness! Tepid sex scenes. Any bodice-ripper author could do it better and more romantically. But now I know the purpose of 50 Shades. It should be read outloud to somebody else. Great excersize to show how crappy it is.
      Thank you!


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