Before I owned a house, I never noticed things like crown molding, quarter-round, wall texture, backsplashes, door solidity, and cabinet hinges. Now every home I enter, I find myself eyeing all the parts of it and attempting to determine their provenance. (Atomic Series light fixtures from Rejuvenation! Et cetera.) I never would have noticed these things if I hadn't at one point had to think about them and make my own choices about them.
In the same way, the way I read fiction has changed over the past seven years, thanks to workshopping stories and teaching writing. When you start reading everything with work gloves on, you can't help but dismantle and deconstruct. I mean, I was always a critical reader--in eighth grade, I gave up on Danielle Steele novels when I found myself mentally editing her sentences as I read. But still, I read quickly and I'd read anything--classics, teen romance crap, Clan of the Cave Bear, I plowed through them all.
I sometimes miss that speed and voracity. Now I head into a story with my eye much closer to the page, and I notice a million things about word choice and sentence structure and so on. And if something doesn't immerse me within a couple of pages or chapters--if I still find myself poking, prying, and inspecting--I tend to abandon it. Unfortunately, this means that I read fewer things. And I think I've carelessly ditched some worthy works. But I think the all-or-nothing approach means that when I do like something, I really love it. My book reviews would be "didn't finish" and "five stars," and little between.
Which is why I loved coming upon "Or Else" by Antonya Nelson in a recent New Yorker. I read this story and just sank into it completely. It is deeply layered, lonesome, dark and beautiful. I love the protagonist's self-consciousness--his acute, almost meta- awareness of the narratives he is spinning, even as they leave his mouth. When somebody asked me what I'd done that night, I said, "I read this story 'Or Else'." Reading it gave me the feeling that something had happened; it was an experience in and of itself. I think that is one of my top ten feelings in life. Five stars.