I Wish I’d Learned To Read…

For reasons that made sense in my sixteen-year-old mind, I opted not to take English A Level.  What I didn’t take on board was that this would be my last opportunity to learn literary appreciation, or how much I would need this skill in writing.  I knew I wanted to be a writer since primary school, when it seemed to me that Enid Blyton’s output was not enough.  (Yes, I know she produced loads, but I was even younger at the time.)

“If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.”  This is the advice Stephen King gives in On Writing, but he didn’t give it until 2000 and, Dear Reader, I was a child and a teenager long before that.  I wasn’t making the connection myself.  Some people might expect me, not being tutored in conventional literary criticism, to come up with new and interesting perspectives… but I’m not that intelligent.

When I read, I read for pleasure.  During the Winter of Discontent in 1978-9, I devoured Dickens in paperback, on heaving, snow-swept platforms, and in draughty commuter train corridors, always (unlike my train) racing ahead, desperate to find out – equally – what was going to happen next, and whether there would be a train to work (or home).  However, there were long periods when I didn’t open a book at all, even though I was writing reams and reams, and in a manner that was supremely suited to me myself personally.  I believed that my novels were pretty amazing (because I wasn’t comparing them with anything else), but, when I came to join online writing groups, I was gently pulled up for not developing characters and for inadequate (actually non-existent) descriptive passages.  In these groups, I was given a lot of very useful advice about writing, which I would not have needed if I had learned to read properly, to analyse structure, character and writing style.  I would like to add to Stephen King’s famous quote.  “…and take it apart.”

Dylan Thomas's study at Laugharn
Dylan Thomas’s study at Laugharn

I review (almost) every book I read on my other WordPress blog, Dear Reader; this is my attempt to analyse what books are about, how the storyline works, how characters are drawn and to think about written style.  However, when I read a critique of a work of literature by someone who really knows how to do it, I’m gobsmacked at what he/she finds, often angles that I didn’t see at all.  I have paid a heavy price for my decision to take history, geography and maths at A level.  My reason was that I knew, from being in English classes lower in the school, that the English staff were obsessed with Dylan Thomas and D H Lawrence, writers I did not get on with at all.  Actually, I think I was too young for them.  Just recently, I came across Thomas’s poem, ‘Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night’, which I’m sure everybody else knows.  I need no expert here.  The howl of impotent fury against the inevitable is palpable.  Oh, if only I could write anger like that.


10 thoughts on “I Wish I’d Learned To Read…

  1. Don’t berate yourself. I have an A level in English Literature and BA (Hons) in English literature and philosophy, yet still struggle to correctly identify and correct the imperfections in my writing. Too subjective.

    1. I’ll try not to beat myself up too much, Julie. My degree is in history; what I really value from that is being able to evaluate primary and secondary resources, and to be able to take a balanced, long view of any period in history. Also, all the random bits of knowledge come in handy too, although I did put my foot in it recently when I told someone that Ignatius Loyola (1st Jesuit) had lived in 17th century, when in fact he lived in the sixteenth. You can’t remember everything.

  2. Perhaps analysis is what critics do best and therefore best left to them? And what writers do best is to roam free and see the world in their own unique ways and write what their insights tell or lead them to write? I too opted not to take English out of sheer perversity – I wanted to do sciences but my choices weren’t acceptable to the staff so I rebelled and did Latin, History and French – refused to do English which was my ‘best subject’. I got a lousy grade in Latin but at least I was different when I applied to university and was able to read Graham Greene etc later on my own terms…

    1. Oh Mary, I really do wonder if you went to our school! They tried to push everyone into science, or, as very much second best, languages, but I didn’t want to do either. Glad you’re enjoying the Latin. I understand it’s making a comeback, although, having been forced to study Latin as a subsidiary at university (with a hopeless tutor), I’ve been through with classical languages for a long time.
      I take your point about leaving literary criticism to the critics, but I still feel I would get more out of reading if I had learned a bit more about criticism.

  3. I didn’t do A-level English either. O-level English Literature put me off doing French too! As you say the syllabus was probably too mature for at least some of us. My family was against the idea that I wanted to write! Sue

    1. Do you, like me, feel the lack of the faculty, Sue? I feel I’ve definitely missed out.

      1. Not really, Rosemary. I think I read as a writer and I am not forced to finish reading books which I am not enjoying. Have you ever belonged to a reading group? I was a member of one for a few years. all the time I wished it was a writing group. However it did help me in a lot of ways so that when I did join a writing group (which also discusses books we have read) I had gained relevant experience. Sue

  4. Yes, I have considered a reading group. I attend a (real face-to-face) monthly writing group at my local library and there is available a reading group too, but, as I’m still working part-time, I suffer from lack of time.

    1. Analyse formally, like a literary critic? Probably not, but I would really love to be pointed to some guidelines for writers to analyse novels and short stories.

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