When I read — and especially when I read genre fiction — a certain cousin of the suspension of disbelief comes to me as second nature. Specifically, while I can read works analytically, thinking about a given writer’s craft and style as I read, I usually don’t, at least on first reading. I prefer to lose myself in the characters, their voices, and their actions. I’m not wanting to notice how the urn is wrought as much as I want to drink the water within. Indeed, if I notice the urn, that generally means there’s a leak.
Now if I’ve really enjoyed a work, a certain writerly curiosity comes into play, and I’ll reread a section or sections. I’ll look at the style, or how the author pulled off a certain effect of pacing or rhythm, or how Moment A is connected to Moment B — and even more often, how Moment B made me reconsider Moment A, which had originally passed more or less without my attention.
But as I said, usually when I’m reading fiction, I’m wanting to lose myself in story, and in the people about whom the story is written. That makes events like the one that occurred this morning a bit disconcerting.
Because I’m a medievalist who reads and writes crime fiction (or maybe a crime writer who reads Middle English), I’ll occasionally read crime novels set in or around that period. Some, I read devotedly, and anxiously await the next installment. Others, I get through and then leave in the rearview mirror. But along the way, I’ve dropped in from time to time on the adventures of Brother Cadfael, by the late Edith Pargeter, writing as “Ellis Peters.”
I read a few of them on my second trip through grad school, because the Kennedy Branch of the Muncie Public Library had a full set. I probably read two or three, maybe four, then forgot to read the next one, and then forgot to forget to read them and went on to other things. And at intervals of a few years, I’d run across some in a used bookstore, read a couple, and then forget about them again. If they didn’t fire my blood, neither did they do me harm, and sometimes, even if one is a fan of chocolate, strawberry can be pleasant.
So a couple of months ago, I found three of the books at a satisfactory price and added them to the pile. I started one this morning, and as I sat in my office and read, I started noticing . . .
Adverbs. Particularly adverbs in dialogue tags, of the Tom Swifty persuasion. While not falling fully into the annoyance of having everything “grunted”, “hissed”, or “exclaimed” (as opposed to simply being said), I noticed that the conversations were full of these adverbs. Cadfael is always saying things firmly, or frankly, or musingly, or heartily, or judicially. Other participants speak readily, even eagerly, or wooingly, or mellifluously, or with hasty magnanimity. And so on.
And then I found myself abandoning the story and Cadfael and the monks of the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul altogether and flipping back to previous passages of dialogue and giggling at the adverbs. Please understand — I mean no harm, and little disrespect if any; the least of Peters’s books will have sold more than my entire corpus at the end of it all. She wrote over a score of the things, and I’ve had a pleasant time with several of them.
Still, I don’t know what it was this particular morning that caused me to start noticing the tags, and I wonder if this is going to happen much in the future.
Losses of innocence can happen at the damnedest moments.