does not describe me fully
it is where to start

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Why Writers Should Read, Too

How can a writer find time for both writing a novel and also reading other novels? Already that novel-in-progress is likely to be competing for available time with job, family, blogging, et al. Indeed, I marvel at bloggers who sustain prolific blog and fiction output while also tending to young children or work. Something’s got to give, I think, unless they are simply time management mavens.

To that I say, of course there are aspects of fiction writing that can be organized effectively, like whether to write in the morning or evening, at the kitchen table or office, and so on. My best fiction, though, seems to emerge when I remember that I am not on a widgets assembly line; the widgets, in this case, being words, sentences, and paragraphs.

Given the time constraints then, if I am in the midst of a fiction project, how can I afford to take time to read other novels? The only way I can answer that is by citing recent experience. I just finished reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. I am also now reading Rayuela(Hopscotch) by Julio Cortázar, which came highly recommended in a book review by Cuban in London. (As an aside, it is interesting, given my recent "Speaking 'Bilingual'” post, that I read back-to-back a book in English and then one in Spanish.)

Both books have upped my game in my current work-in-progress novel. Compared to the lush style of Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow, my preferred writing style is more spare. Yet, after overcoming my initial impatience with Bellow, I found myself admiring his preternatural talent for description. He does not just say that a downtown crowded dime store is a jumble of inexpensive odds and ends. Instead, it is:

“… a tin-tough, creaking, jazzy bazaar of hardware, glassware, chocolate, chickenfeed, jewelry, dry goods, oilcloth, and song hits … the floor bore up under the ambling weight of hundreds, with the fanning, breathing movie organ next door and the rumble descending from the trolleys ….”

For his part, the seminal Argentine writer Julio Cortázar does an amazing job of recreating the fluid nature of an experience. Life in his fiction (as in life itself) does not occur in orderly logically linked sentences. In a memorable scene, some bohemian friends gather in Paris for an all-nighter of drinking and listening to jazz. As Cortázar describes it, those jazz selections then weave in and out of their thoughts and interactions. An excerpt is difficult to select because the prose sometimes is written in stream of consciousness. The mood of the scene, though, is caught fairly in the following:

“…Bessie’s [Smith] singing, Coleman Hawkin’s cooing, weren’t they illusions, or something even worse, the illusion of other illusions, a dizzy chain going backwards, back to a monkey looking at himself in the water on that first day? But Babs was crying, Babs had said, ‘Oh yes, oh yes it is true,’ and Oliveira, a little drunk too, felt that the truth now lay in that Bessie and Hawkins were illusions, because only illusions were capable of moving their adherents, illusion and not truths….” [translation by Gregory Rabassa ]

Whereas Bellow prompts me to hone my descriptions, Cortázar encourages me to remember that human experience is chaotic. In each instance, these authors have wrested me away from the widgets assembly line and dropped me on a metaphorical cliff edge, where I suffer vertigo as I watch waves pounding the jagged rocks below me. Bellow and Cortázar remind me that good writing is a complex art, not something to be done lazily or mechanically. They have, lastly, dared me to be original.


Judy Croome said...

Judith, I've found that since I have become a writer there has been one great loss in my life: I struggle to read fiction these days.

Other than practical considerations (such as there are only 24 hours in a day and I am only one person and in my limited spare time I have to make choices, and I'd rather write then read, much as I'd prefer to do both) there is the simple fact that when I'm reading published fiction I'm constantly looking for the techniques. Like being on a movie set and seeing the lights and the cameras. I read a lot of non-fiction, and some classics. I do still read fiction, but a lot less than I used to, and it has to be brilliant to keep me reading. I worry about it, at times, but have come to the conclusion I have to do what works for me.

Anne R. Allen said...

I find writing (and blogging) takes time away from my fiction reading. But I'm trying to remedy that. Stephen King says writers should spend as much time reading as they do writing.

But almost twice as many people want to write books as have read even one in the past year. If we don't start reading more, we'll have no customers. I'm going to blog about this tomorrow.

Mayowa said...

Great post Julie. I posted about this yesterday, it feels like I will never catch up on all the books I want to read, especially with writing and work. Adventures of Augie March sounds right up my alley.

Thanks for sharing.

Sun Singer said...

I really like the poetic and chaotic flow of the Julio Cortázar excerpt, though the dime store quote is attractive as well.

Lately, I've been inspired--perhaps, in ways similar to those you're describing here--by the very different styles and subjects in YEAR OF THE FLOOD (Atwood) and WOLF HALL (Mantel). Even though I'm not reading in order to soak up writing ideas, it seems that I'm always attuned to them.


Judith Mercado said...

Judy: I know it’s tough to find the time, and I find myself going through lengthy dry spells when I don’t read fiction. Then, I remember that unless there are readers there is no market for my own fiction. Or I’ll hit a rough patch in my writing and will need to be reminded of why it is I do what I do. In both instances, whenever I pick up another author’s works, I free fall into that magic place I learned to inhabit as a little girl when I first discovered the library. If I also gain in technique, as I describe in my post, all the better.

Anne: I think SK is right, though I fall off the wagon often. I look forward to reading your post tomorrow.

Mayowa: I will stop by to read your post, and I hope you enjoy Augie March. Fair warning: it was slow reading for me at first, until I both began to appreciate his descriptive prowess and also to understand what he was trying to do with the lead character.

Malcolm: I still in the middle of Cortazar’s Hopscotch which is probably the most experimental novel I’ve ever read. Even if I’m not yet in love with the structure, I’m blown away by the sheer genius of his writing. I hope you have fun with it. I forgot to say that the English translation was a finalist for the National Book Award when it first came out.

Elizabeth Mahlou said...

It used to be a given that writers were well read, but I guess that may no longer be true. Wishing you a happy Fourth!

Kathryn Magendie said...

I read every night and if I don't read, I feel something is missing - I write during the day - the two are separate things, like eating and sleeping, or working and having fun, or whatever :)

What helps is if a writer does not see the things he/she is reading as "competition" and enjoy them as he/she used to be before their stakes became so high and their hopes with it.

nilki said...

Great post, I was struggling with this until a few months ago, frustrated to not have enough time for reading, I re-started a long-ago abandoned habit of reading in bed. After a long day of work, hours in front of the computer and after mami hours are long over, I read for at least an hour before sleeping. I usually reread part of my reading the following night, but it is now a treasured part of my existence routine! thanks for the post, so glad to have found you!

A Cuban In London said...

What a joy of a post to read! There's only one book by Saul I've read: A Theft. And it's sucha short novel, or a novella, as they call it in literary parlance. I'd already forgot about his peculiar way of describing things. I loved that excerpt you quoted.

As for Rayuela, what can I say? The man's a genius. As you rightly said, the book is chaotic, like life itself.

Many thanks for presenting us with such a beautiful gift.

Greetings from London.

Judith Mercado said...

Elizabeth: Wishing you a happy Fourth as well.

Kathryn: You have managed to impose a structure that would serve me and others well. Thanks also for reminding us that writing should remain enjoyable.

Nilki: You too have created a structure that works for you. I salute you for finding time to read, which given your obligations must not be easy.

Cuban: I owe my experience with Rayuela entirely to you and am very grateful. I’m so enjoying the book, which I have chosen to read aloud. I have never done this before with someone else’s writing, but in this case the experience of pronouncing and hearing the Spanish is reward in itself, and it has also enhanced my ability to participate in a deep way with his writing. Because his writing is often chaotic, just reading it might lead to my eyes gliding over a page without full comprehension. This particular technique has forced me to really pay attention. Again, many thanks.

Nevine said...

A beautiful post, Judy! I enjoyed reading "Hopscotch" years ago; of course I read it in translation, and I am sure something was lost, unfortunately. Still, the book was an amazing and transporting read, in some parts like drifting within the walls of a dream. I have never forgotten it!

And about writing and reading, I've read it too many times by too many excellent writers that in order to be a good writer, one must be a good reader as well. I remind myself of that when I slack off, and run to grab a good book. I used to read just about anything, but nowadays I'm in the "Life is too precious to waste reading something that is badly written" mode. I prefer to read something that is worth my time... something that I can enjoy as a writer... something from which I can learn writing techniques and styles. I was flipping through a book of short stories last night and my husband asked what I was doing. "I'm looking at the first sentences of each of these short stories," I said. So much to learn from reading... or even just flipping...

Thank you for a wonderful post, Judy. There is always a lot for writers and readers to benefit from in your posts.


Judith Mercado said...

"I'm looking at the first sentences of each of these short stories,"

Wow, Nevine, you should step into my office right now because I have five story anthologies in which I was marking my favorite opening lines! Amazing synchronicity.