Setting The Pace, an essay by Marc Frazier at
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Setting The Pace

Setting The Pace

written by: Marc Frazier



Amazon still sells The Evelyn Wood Seven-Day Speed Reading and Learning Program from 1994, a seven-day reading course designed “to dramatically increase reading speed, retain more of what we hear and read, improve comprehension and develop our powers of concentration.” Back in the day her company’s rented offices that popped up everywhere were called “institutes.” They were “all the rage.”

I took a speed-reading course at a community college when I first started teaching and it changed how I read. Based on the principles of Wood, it had two main strategies. One was continually increasing the number of words one’s eyes can take in at one time. Learning to read down the page rather than from left to right is equally important, employing your finger or a pointer to trace down the page, taking in groups of words using the least number of eye movements. After practice, you can dispense with the pointer. Thus, most people can get to a point where they can read a line of print in one or two eye movements and zoom down the page. Another technique of speed reading is to train your eyes to skip over words that don’t hold meaning (articles, conjunctions, many prepositions, etc.).

My course was long before the advent of e-readers. My gratefulness for speed-reading really increased with my first NOOK and subsequent Kindles. I really appreciated the ability to read a sample of a book instead of standing in a bookstore or library doing so. It only takes one time to enter your method of payment and then you can purchase and download a book in the middle of the night if you want to.

The reason I’m thinking of all this relates to the book I’m reading now: Babysitter by Joyce Carol Oates. A review from The Guardian calls it “an astonishing achievement,” an assessment with which I agree. For me she sets the pace for other writers when it comes to how quickly one can read her work. To me when she is good, she is fantastically good. I’ve been wondering why her writing reads so fast to me. I am reading her latest at an unusually fast pace, and I know that she is a master at guiding the reader in this way. There is still some mystery to me as to how she accomplishes this. The word I keep thinking of is “propulsion.” I am pushed forward through the book. Something about how she writes keeps me moving with such alacrity.

One thing I notice reading Oates is her use of repetition which, for some, might border on annoying, but she trains me to read those parts fast, as I have seen those word constructions before. So, I am just swept forward even faster. Then there are the occasional passages containing one or two sentence paragraphs which read extremely quickly. A character’s voice is also crucial to how a reader reads. She is an absolute master at this, and I find myself constantly stretching myself to keep up with where her character’s thoughts are going. I feel almost out of breath as I turn my Kindle’s pages, feeling myself in her character’s fevered brain.

Endless workshops promise prose writers the tricks to writing the best first five pages, the best first chapter, the best first page, and there are just as many, if not more, workshops on writing the best query letter. You get the idea. All of it is based on hooking the reader or agent. Charging out of the gate is the most important part in many ways. You will be in real trouble if your query letter doesn’t read fast. The opening of a longer prose work like a novel or memoir needs to read fast; our minds need to become engaged with the material as completely and as soon as possible.

The seasoned writer knows that in addition to setting the pace is the challenge of keeping it up. Not so many workshops on that. If an agent asks you to send the first ten pages of a book manuscript and likes what they read, they may ask to see your entire book. This is the defining moment. When this happens, the writer invariably panics as they have little idea if the agent will think the author kept up the pace. On the other hand, I am continually amazed at the number of debut novels that are so masterful you’d think the writer had written many books before. How do they do it? It makes me wonder if there is more to having an innate talent for writing than conventional wisdom admits.

Contemporary writers like Oates also allow for a relatively large number of breaks for the reader, particularly by inserting short chapters that keep you going. To me it’s like a taking a breath and then continuing my jog. Many domestic, psychological thriller authors write almost exclusively in very short chapters often alternating what different characters are thinking, providing multiple points of view.

I’ve gotten used to this style of writing. I recently tried reading Henry James and gave up, even though I received a Master of Arts in English long ago and such writers were the bread and butter of such programs (And no, I never finished Middlemarch). Nonetheless, his shorter works Daisy Miller and Turn of the Screw are literary gems in my opinion. Does their length have anything to do with their greatness? Have I, at my advanced age, become impatient with writers such as James and Proust? Am I in danger of becoming a Twitter poet? Have I lost my power of concentration?

This discussion needs to address what has become the blurred lines between poetry and prose. The old, consistently rhymed couplets, the heroic stanza in heroic verse, and poetic formal structures like haiku, sonnet, blank verse, and sestinas are used sparingly today. The labeling of writing as either poetry or prose has become in some ways a moot distinction. Discovering Virginia Woolf changed my literary landscape. I devoured her stream of consciousness, finding much of her writing the most beautiful poetry I’d read. The Waves is a masterpiece. It’s considered a novel but is most aptly labeled (if one needs to) poetic prose, or, indeed, even poetry.

When I started e-reading, the skills I learned in speed reading really kicked in. First of all, you can adjust the type and size of font which can contribute to how fast you read. I choose a smaller size for my font as my eyes can take in more words at a time, and thus I read down the page fast. The lighting of the Kindle helps me to focus more and reduces eye strain as well. To me, there are so many advantages to e-reading that I only buy paper versions of poetry books as I like the experience of enjoying the cover and making sure I’m reading the lines as the poet intended. I also like paper books that include illustrations I want to view.

Also, being an author myself, I’m aware of the potential reader, of how fast or slow I want my writing to read. Poets learn how to lead a reader down the page quickly or slowly by their use of white space, line lengths, and their placements. This is not an exhaustive list of how poets do this, but the point is they are aware of how fast or slowly they want the poem to read.
The following poem of mine published in The Gay and Lesbian Review has been designed to read extremely quickly. In terms of reading pace, its single spacing is crucial—it allows the reader to take in more lines in one go. I designed it for the reader to never put their brakes on.

little death, dissociative identity

at this moment of letting go
all of me works
in this place I most desire
who are you
who did you say
you were
does it matter who I am
you could be anyone
yet I remember your exactness
for a time
if I see you
I may not know you
I may not be
who you expect.

The huge popularity of prose poetry is proof that the line between prose and poetry blends. Most prose poetry does not read as fast because of its block one paragraph form and long lines. I also find that some work that is labelled “prose poetry” is more like micro fiction. Of course, this essay begs the question why does one need to read faster? For one thing, it allows me to read many more books which I find really important.

Another important point about reading material rapidly à la Evelyn Wood is that you need to take into account the nature of the material being read. Many who scoff at speed reading don’t understand this. When I was taking my speed-reading course, I was reading The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. It dawned on me that I wasn’t appreciating the magic of its style; in short, at least to me, it was not meant to be sped read. Reading it rapidly kept me from savoring its clever style and thought-provoking moments I might want to pause for and let sink in.

However, the premise that so many have brought up to me, that speed reading somehow lessons one taking in all the writer intended, is just not true. When reading a novel fast, I miss nothing the writer intended. Like with reading any type of book, if I hit a section that’s not clear to me, I reread it like I would in a paper book.

I used to be a bibliophile who thought paper copies of books were as necessary as air. The larger the library the better. So many readers have a passionate romance with books, often including a sensual pleasure in handling them and a pride in hoarding them. I now find them cluttered in my place. I know that writers are supposed to like books overflowing their bookcases and shelves, pouring onto tables and the floor. To me this is just poor housekeeping. What kind of writer and reader am I?

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