I recently found this fascinating article about reading with a pen by Tim Parks in The New York Review of Books. The gist is this: the printed word is powerful, but it’s also seductive, so don’t let yourself be seduced too easily.
He’s referring to a common, dangerous assumption: if a book is published, it must be good. We may believe that each sentence has been vetted for clarity, each paragraph hangs together, and the author’s logic holds water. This isn’t necessarily true, Parks reminds us. He provides several examples of badly written published works to make his point.
Readers definitely fall into this trap. I’m definitely guilty of it, too. But if readers are at times not critical enough, creative writing workshop participants may be too critical. Workshoppers may assume that if a piece of writing isn’t published, there must be something wrong with it. This assumption isn’t necessarily correct, and if it isn’t consciously banished from your brain, you may blind yourself to the author’s intent.
Note: this isn’t the first time I’ve warned against “looking for errors” in a work-in-progress. I speak about it at length in “On Giving Feedback.”
It’s wise to be alert while reading, to “resist enchantment for a while, or at least for long enough to have some idea of what we are being drawn into,” as Parks says. But I would caution against being so alert that you find problems that aren’t really there. A general, almost neutral awareness of your responses to each part of the piece is the real weapon here—a weapon that takes time and effort to cultivate.