Am I stupider than before?

During a class that I took with Anne Lamott recently, she quoted Shirley Jackson, who famously said, “a confused reader is an antagonistic reader.”

Generally, when I can’t follow a novel, my first assumptions center around me: I’m too tired when reading, or I’m reading in short intervals that do the book a disservice, or I’m just stupider than I used to be.

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik won all kinds of awards and I can see why. I bought it for my sister, once upon a time, because she really loved this kind of fiction and she’d sort of given up reading toward the end. I knew it might be the last book she ever read, so I did my research. Read reviews.

I generally can take or leave fantasy and horror, but this was good. There are interesting ideas about power, honor, gender, building alliances, and societal exclusions (in this case, the Jewish members of a town), set in a unique and well-realized world. Lots of magic.

But here’s my little gripe!

a confused reader is an antagonistic reader.

The author changed the point of view frequently and between multiple characters. The only demarcation of a shift in the POV was an abstract symbol and extra space between paragraphs.

Sometimes it took a couple of paragraphs to land in the scene.

It’s a longish novel, which gave me time to get annoyed. Why make the reader wade through even that small amount of text to figure out who’s talking when a simple heading would’ve pointed the way?

In any case. Point taken, Shirley Jackson!

10 thoughts on “Am I stupider than before?

  1. Joshua Burchfield

    I LOVED this book too! There’s also another great novel by Naomi Novick titled Uprooted. Perhaps it was because I listened to the audiobook and the narrator was excellent in switching accents or voice for each character but I didn’t experience any confusion. I didn’t care for the narrator of Uprooted so that one I read myself. Happy that you have a blog to follow along since I’ve decided to leave Instagram. I’m still here though 💙 Wishing you well, friend!

      1. Joshua Burchfield

        It’s a great place of connection and sharing but it became overwhelming for me. I was on it too much and reading too much into it. It just wasn’t very fun anymore. Feels good to get rid of something that wasn’t good for me but I do miss y’all. I’m following your blog and Jude’s though!

  2. Deborah Lacativa

    I find books with single or limited POVs to be boring. The antagonism creeps up on me. I was warned against shifting POVs in my own writing but I didn’t listen.
    Did it trouble you?
    Why not?

    1. deemallon Post author

      I have multiple points of view in my manuscript, too, and like you, generally enjoy the complexity that comes with different characters speaking. In your writing, it is always super clear who’s spinning the narrative. And it’s third person close, as opposed to first person, so you can get away with a little slipping between heads here and there without upsetting the pace and enjoyment of the reader’s consumption.

  3. Mo Crow

    I loved Dostoevsky when I was in my early 20’s even though it was challenging to work out who was who with all the different names for each character according to the relationships they had with each other and more recently thoroughly enjoyed Lincoln in the Bardo for the confusion the first time I read it but then on the second read through when I knew who was who & why I found it too clever by half…

    1. deemallon Post author

      Oh those Russian names! Truly difficult. Also many classics are super long. I gave up on the Russians in my early twenties until a few years back when I finally read Anna Karenina. I didn’t find Lincoln in the Bardo confusing at all and it had one of the most fractured structures I’ve ever read. I think perhaps it was in a whole different ball park than this Novik book, and not just because one is literary and the other genre. Better writing on Saunders part. Maybe even some genius there.

  4. Acey

    am starting to suspect I’m not nearly as interested in ‘novel writing’ as I am in storytelling. At this point the novel writing end of things is rather like all those people constructing Devils Tower models in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s something moving through me and I’m strongly motivated to articulate the results of the powerful energy flow. Think (totally serious) it’s from all the flower essences I’ve prepared this summer. I’m doing the active creating/refinement part maybe 8-9 hours a day and then sinking another 3 into figuring out how to turn what I’m doing into “a novel” by today’s standards. May or may not proceed to do as much but I want to make that choice based on knowing what’s involved rather than “feeling like it” or not.

    probably the intensity of my schedule is born of all the freakin’ rain. would like to have my act together in terms of a schedule plan once I’m back in the garden again.

    1. deemallon Post author

      Trying to name what it is you’re doing strikes me as counterproductive. In a period of intense flow like you describe, why not just act as scribe to what’s coming and sort it out later?
      Don’t forget Anne Lamott’s advice about shitty first drafts.

      8-9 hours a day? I think I want some of the flower essences! 😃


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