How I Read: A Statement of Purpose

In addition to my freelance editorial work, I am a regular featured manuscript consultant for Black Lawrence Press. Here’s a statement of purpose I sent BLP, to give writers a sense of who I am as a reader and whether I would be a good person to provide them with feedback on their works of fiction or hybrid forms in progress. 

I am a reader. Before almost anything else. I read in lots of ways: for the literal meaning, of course. And I suss symbols and metaphors, make connections to other texts, contexts, and cultural artifacts. But I also read to make new meaning. I believe our intentions — as writers (as humans) — are often overrated. In my experience, the unexpected leaps a reader makes are so often closer to the truth than anything I (as a writer) intended. 

I’ve heard those various ways of reading referred to in some academic settings as “reading with the grain” and “reading against the grain.” I call it reading like a writer. Whatever it’s called, it’s how I will read whatever you are so gracious to send me. And I will do so with a multifaceted empathy: equal parts admiration for you as a fellow laborer in this crazy-difficult discipline and unwavering ambition for the writing to reach its full potential. 

This reading period, I’m open to fiction and to hybrid forms. A few words about that:

These two classifications could suggest a wide continuum. On one end, it would seem, is traditional narrative — stories with beginnings, middles, ends; with conflict, climax, and resolution; with three-dimensional characterization and an adherence to John Gardner’s notion of the “fictional dream.” On the other end is “hybridity” — a defiance of rules, categories, expectations; a willingness to dwell in ambiguity, to surprise, even to confound; at least as much fascination with manipulating form as with conveying meaning. 

The temptation is to see a wide, wide gulf in between them. I don’t, really. 

The decidedly hybrid writer, critic, and visual artist John Berger once referenced a similar sort of binary when he described two kinds of stories: ones that solve their mysteries and ones that carry them. He said he preferred the latter. 

I used to think I preferred the latter, too. Now I’m pretty sure it’s more complicated than that for me. Or maybe it’s simpler: I prefer writing that knows what it wants to be; I also prefer writing that is open to possibility. For itself, for the world it’s trying to reflect or shape or just understand.

Jon Krakauer’s built a career writing to solve mysteries. Zadie Smith has built a career writing to carry them. Their writing knows what it wants to be and it’s open to possibility. They’re both writers I admire. (As is Berger, as is Jenny Boully, as is Edward P. Jones, as is Darcie Dennigan, as is Alice Munro, as is Denis Johnson…)

One last thing, speaking of Zadie Smith. She wrote this, about the elemental power of language: 

“Belief in a novel is, for me, a by-product of a certain kind of sentence. Familiarity, kinship, and compassion will play their part, but if the sentences don’t speak to me, nothing else will. I believe in a sentence of balance, care, rigor, and integrity. The sort of sentence that makes me feel—against all empirical evidence to the contrary—that what I am reading is, fictionally speaking, true.”  

I believe in that kind of sentence, too. In the end, that’s why — and how — I read. Sentence by sentence, wanting to believe.