Why Writers Must Read: A Book Review That Becomes a Meditation on Craft

Do you have a “regular” bar? The other regulars become a sort of extended dysfunctional family. You know each other well. Some know each other intimately. There’s a camaraderie that revolves around hopes and dreams, mostly dashed, and daily frustrations. This is what Rebecca Barry’s Later, at the Bar, which I recently recommended to my book club, is about. Labeled a novel in stories, she shares vignettes of various members of an unnamed Upstate New York small town. The prose flows. You feel like you know the characters as you do the regulars in your own bar. They keep making the same mistakes, again like the regulars in your own bar. They definitely drink too much, still like the regulars in your own bar. The difference, I guess, is that you leave your own bar and re-enter the real world.

My book club found it difficult to discuss. Why? I think the answer has to do with reader expectations. The label “a novel in stories” builds expectations of plot, conflict, and characterization. Later, at the Bar has only the last one. However, Barry herself describes the stories as vignettes which Merriam-Webster defines as brief descriptions or episodes. That they are. And they are well done. I did not want to stop reading (though some in my book club did), but by the end, I missed the rising action, the climax, the falling action, the resolution, the point. As a novel in stories, I expected these elements to appear to a certain extent in each story and in a larger part over the course of the whole book. They do not. Each vignette is well crafted; the characters are so well drawn, you do feel you know them. But the time shifts between stories is left unexplained. You don’t know what happened first. This is another challenge to creating a narrative arc. This leads me to wonder: what do we as writers owe to our readers? How far can we challenge their expectations without losing their support?

It is precisely because the book is labeled a novel in stories that I recommended it to the book club. I am currently writing a book that also has stories within it. I wanted to see what Barry did. I wanted to know if my book was going in the right direction. On that point, this book has made me think about my own book’s completion. I know I need to create a stronger narrative arc than what I experienced here. For me, it’s less important that the stories be able to stand alone than it is that they stand together. The small stories inform a larger one. My work still challenges readers’ expectations as there are multiple narrators and shifting time periods, but there must be (and is) a conflict, a mystery, a reason to keep reading–a larger narrative arc.

The funny thing about this book, though, is that I keep thinking about it. I lent it to my mom, and we had our own “book club discussion” while getting pedicures, and we had plenty to say! She didn’t miss the narrative arc the way I did; she felt it there in the humanity of the people. We found ourselves creating lives for them outside the novel, and hoping for them to escape the small town and bar culture they were in. The last story indicates that one character did move on; we were so happy for her. That is certainly a success for the writer. Don’t you love it when you read a book that feels so real? That even if the characters are somewhat pathetic, you still root for them? Isn’t that what we want to create–a story that lives on in the readers’ minds long after the book is closed? I know I do.

So, I take what worked, the beautiful characterization, and what didn’t, the lack of a larger story; the need for more connection between stories and clearer indications of time, back to my desk. This is why writers must read, and read widely, to enjoy a beautifully written sentence, a captivating characterization, and to learn from that which we both like and that which we do not so that we may one day bring our own work to the world.

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