Being analytical

Literary Blog Hop

This month’s question from The Blue Bookcase’s Literary Blog Hop:

To what extent do you analyse literature? Are you more analytical in your reading if you know you’re going to review the book? Is analysis useful in helping you understand and appreciate literature, or does it detract from your readerly experience?

I think taking an analytical approach to literature does come naturally to me. My academic background is not actually in English Literature but History, itself a very analytical subject; and, in my degree (and in my English Language A Level before it), I spent a fair amount of time engaging with literature (my dissertation was about 19th century children’s fantasy literature as a source for the history of childhood; my A Level coursework project was a comparative study of the humour in books by Pratchett, Rankin, and Holt). So, although I don’t have all the technical vocabulary and frameworks that a literature scholar would, I am still interested in how books work and what they do.

It was shortly after I finished university that I began reviewing books, something I have continued to do ever since; I’ve also written elsewhere about how central The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has been to my reading life. Analytical approaches to books were always there as I developed into a more serious reader.

Does that mean I’m always analytical now? It depends. If I’m reviewing a book for somewhere other than my blog, that venue will influence my approach; so, for example, I’m reading a book for Strange Horizons at the moment, and taking more detailed notes that I generally would, because they prefer longer reviews as standard, and I need to make sure I have enough material to draw on.

If I’m reading for my own blog, my response to the book tends to guide how analytically I read – the more engaged I am, the more analytical I tend to be. This doesn’t necessarily reflect on a book’s quality: there are some works which I’ve really enjoyed, yet found that I didn’t want to say much about them in detail (I started writing ‘book notes’ posts this year so I could respond to books in 250-or-so words, if that was all it took for what I wanted to say). Analysis doesn’t detract from my reading experience; quite the opposite – if I’m reading analytically, I take it as a sign that the book is worth my time.

The book I hated at school

Literary Blog Hop

A question from the Literary Blog Hop:

Discuss a work of literary merit that you hated when you were made to read it in school or university. Why did you dislike it?

I suspect that many people who studied GCSE English in the north of England (and, for all I know, further afield) had Barry Hines’s 1968 novel A Kestrel for a Knave (filmed the year after as Kes by Ken Loach) as one of their set texts. This is the story of Billy Casper, a young lad living in a South Yorkshire mining town. His father has left home, his older brother is a bully, and his mother has no time for Billy, being more occupied with a string of affairs. School is no better: Billy can barely read or write, is often picked on by the other boys, and the teachers (with the exception of one) treat him as a no-hoper. Although he’s about to leave school, Billy has no idea what he’ll do next. But there is one good thing in the boy’s life: Kes, the kestrel Billy has trained himself and is highly adept at handling.

‘Hate’ is perhaps too strong a word for my reaction to the book at the time, but certainly I didn’t get along with it. I think this was because it was so much the opposite of the fantasy I was particularly into reading at the time, and I just didn’t know how to appreciate novels like A Kestrel for a Knave on their own terms. Yes, I could interpret the book well enough to write an essay on it, but I could see nothing beyond that other than a rather miserable story that had nothing to say to me.

I re-read A Kestrel for a Knave a couple of years ago, to see what I could get from it now I was a better reader. There was no dramatic change — I didn’t suddenly fall in love with the novel — but I did find more in it to value. It wasn’t quite as miserable a book as I’d remembered, and I could appreciate it as a study of a character who’s been prevented by circumstances from making the most of (or perhaps even recognising) his talents.

I have a question for anyone reading this: did studying literature at high school help or hinder your love of reading? For myself, I wish I had been as open to different kinds of literature as I am now. Of course, I can remind myself that developing as a reader is an ongoing process, that where I am as a reader is more important than where I was… but, still, it would have been good if I could have seen more back then than just another essay to be written.

Literary Blog Hop: a brief reading history

Literary Blog Hop

The latest Literary Blog Hop question asks: How did you find your way to reading literary fiction and nonfiction? This is an interesting question for me, because, for a long time, I didn’t – or, perhaps, I did, but didn’t think of it that way.

I’m not sure that my school studies put me off the idea of ‘literature’, but they certainly got me out of the habit of reading it: closed-book exams were my principle reason for not studying English Literature at A Level (though I did study English Language, and went on to read History at university, so I didn’t drift too far away). As a result, there was – and remains – a big literary classics-shaped hole in my reading history.

What I was reading as a teenager was mostly fantasy (and, to a lesser extent, science fiction). A key turning-point came at the age of seventeen, when I found a cheap copy of the Clute-Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy in a book sale; it changed my reading world, because it advocated a different conception of fantasy from the one to which I was used, one that cut across types of fiction that looked dissimilar on the surface – one that emphasised imaginative quality. I thought, yes, this is describing what I want to read.

Fast-forward several years to university, and my dissertation on Victorian and Edwardian children’s fantasy as a source for the history of childhood, where I tried to apply some of the theoretical concepts that I knew from reading the Encyclopedia. Looking back at that dissertation now, I can see the seeds of my style as a reviewer. I started reviewing books online in 2004, again mostly (exclusively, to begin with) sf and fantasy, now with some horror added to the mix. My guiding principle was that these genres deserved to be taken seriously (I must acknowledge the influence of John Grant’s reviews for Infinity Plus, which had a big influence on my approach and style).

In 2006, I began writing for Laura Hird’s website, my first venue as a reviewer that didn’t have an sf/fantasy focus. I barely had to change my approach, and that should have been the first hint of what I’ve only really come to realise in the past couple of years, since I started this blog: that what I value most in my reading is not a particular type of work, but a set of qualities – good writing, a strong sense of craft, something out-of-the-ordinary – and that I can find those qualities in many kinds of books. That’s my idea of ‘literary’, and I wouldn’t want it any other way now.