Dear Fellow Readers!

Dear Fellow Readers,

An experience I had in my reading group has caused me to think about how to read and respond to literary fiction without shutting down discussion. One of our fellow readers tends to immediately jump in and express her opinions before there’s an opportunity to explore a book’s many themes and characters. In this case, she said the book made her feel claustrophobic and it was difficult for her to finish it.

What can you say after a statement like that? I probed a little, asking what it was that made her feel claustrophobic, wondering if it was something in herself she was reacting to and not just the book. As Lionel Trilling once said, novels can read us as much as we read them. I forget what my fellow reader said, but the damage had been done. Her strong reaction dampened further comments. It’s natural to dislike certain characters just as we do people we run into in actual life. But, as readers, don’t we want to understand what it is about the character/person we dislike? What psychological elements are at play in this situation? It’s an opportunity for self-reflection and self-knowledge, one of the main reasons I read.

We were discussing Italian author Andrea Canobbio’s prize-winning novel, Three Light-Years. The title suggests that the narrative will move at a lightning pace, but it doesn’t. It’s a sedate stroll through the lives of its three main characters—Cecilia, her sister Sylvia, and Claudio. The narrator, another character, has a minor role as the son of this triad, and the narrative is his attempt to piece together what had led to his birth.

The author/narrator does a masterful job of exploring the emotional dynamics (or lack of them) that brought these three people together, and as a reader I felt it deeply when Cecilia and Claudio failed to connect more fully. Therefore, I had hoped my fellow readers and I could have a serious exploration of the psychological dynamics operating between these two characters, as well as the cultural pressures they lived under. Both had been married previously. Both were still bound in multiple ways to their pasts. It seemed like a rich opportunity to learn something about Italian culture, if one can generalize that much, and also about the interior lives of these three characters. I also had hoped we could discuss the work’s structure, images, and more.

When it comes to reading and responding to literary works, I believe it’s important to take the inductive approach, saving our judgments until we’ve not only finished reading the book but also until after we’ve been engaged in a thorough discussion of it. Otherwise we are prejudging and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. We also are missing out on the kind insights other group members can bring to the conversation.

6 thoughts on “Dear Fellow Readers!

  1. rjanetwalraven

    Thank you. That was an interesting blog. It made me reflect on my writing critique group. What I understand is that a reading or writing group needs to set up guidelines and abide by them. Do you have suggestions for guidelines for a writing group? I started my group: maximum 4 in the group; 30 minutes for each critique, a total of 4 hours (We always go over!); flexible schedule for appointments/travel/vacations, etc. We know each other well so we can critique without getting feelings hurt. That’s okay. But someone invited another writer (guest?) to the group, and now she wants to be part of it. I’m not okay with that. Can you give me some advice for sticking to our 4 maximum?

    1. What a dilemma for you! But don’t you have some say in who joins the group given that you started it? And wouldn’t there have been discussion about having a guest writer visit in terms of what the guest’s expectations might be? It sounds as if the four of you have created a workable group. You’re comfortable with one another and have a good sense of whose comments you’ll pay the closest attention to. Any addition comes with baggage that you won’t discover until it’s too late to say “so long, it’s been good to know you.” Why rock what sounds like a perfectible stable boat? Good luck and let me know what happens!

      1. rjanetwalraven

        Thank you for that affirmation. I’ll put on my diplomacy hat and see what I can do.

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