The Last Word
Reading and writing
I used to think that I had to read through every book I picked up, no matter if I liked it or not. I've long since come to the conclusion that life is too short to be wasted on bad writing and any book that doesn't pull me in by 100 pages gets put down. The question is, why didn't I like the book? Style, subject, lousy prose? Unlikely and poorly written characters? Or too much author? My selection method is pretty easy, read the jacket, check the publisher, then read the first paragraph. If the prose in the first paragraph, or even the first sentence is well done, then I take a chance. Most good books live up to their first sentence. Some don't. That's when I apply the 100 page test. If I find myself putting it down in favor of the J.C. Penney catalogue, then it probably isn't going to make it, and I move on to the next book in the pile.
Reading. It's the first thing our teachers want us to learn to do. It's crucial to the quality of life. We read for many reasons - to understand our world, to understand directions, to broaden ourselves. But a writer of fiction must also read for pleasure. Believe it or not, I've had aspiring writers say that they don't have the time to read. Excuse me? That's like a surgeon saying he doesn't have time to scrub.
Writing without reading is like trying to ride a bike with no wheels. Okay, bad analogy. How about trying to perform home improvements with only the vaguest notion of how to proceed? We know that a hammer hits nails and a screwdriver does what it does. But how do you go about getting the walls to meet at the corners? Unless you have an idea of how a story goes together, and - especially - what makes that story interesting, well, you're just banging nails with a screwdriver.
John Gardner, author of October Light, Nickel Mountain, and Grendel, was the author whose work spoke loudest to me when I was a fledgling writer. Having loved his novels, I studied his On Becoming a Novelist, and The Art of Fiction. This guy not only wrote deeply moving stories, but his discussion on the craft of writing made such sense to me. A writer's responsibility is to get the reader into "the dream." Therein lies the greatest pleasure, to fall into the dream of another's imagination and, if only in five-minute increments, leave the world behind.
My own reading habits are made up of required reading and sheer whimsy. I don't read any one kind of book, but I find myself avoiding "coming of age" tales, although I absolutely loved Secret Life of Bees, and Bee Season (two very different sorts of bees). I love finding a new author, or one new to me, and gratefully take the recommendations of a few people whose reading lists tend toward the eclectic. Scouring the stacks at the Oak Bluffs Library is like fruit picking: here a new release, there an Alison Lurie, a delicious dive into the puff pastry of chick lit to clear the palate. Sometimes I try to read the entire oeuvre of an author if I really like his or her work.
The important thing for a writer is to be exposed to all sorts of writing. It's a good thing to read the masters, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, but it's equally important to read the authors whose works are appealing, even if they don't qualify as high literature. There are plenty of people who read only one genre, who are devoted to mysteries or historical romances. But an aspiring - and seasoned - writer should also sample across genres, see what each writer does to make his or her story appealing, watch for what makes that story powerful, e.g. John Irving's foreshadowing, or Barbara Kinsolver's evocative prose.
When a writer is trying to find a voice, or a style, it isn't mimicry to read the works of someone whose voice is similar to his or her own - not to imitate that voice, but to see how that particular style is effective. What is it that appeals to you? Is it the paragraphs-long scene-setting description, or the way that writer punches holes in the fabric of ordinary life with witty observation? Reading for pleasure while at the same time paying attention to why this book is enjoyable is maybe counterintuitive. Going back to Gardner's "dream," it is the height of authorial blundering to be obvious to the reader. In other words, the reader should slide right through the book without being conscious of the writer. But an aspiring writer should understand how the writer has accomplished this, or at least recognize the elements of a good book. Strong plot, compelling characters, artful use of language.
Above all, reading should be pleasurable - if it isn't for the aspiring writer, then how can it be for his or her putative reader? That would be like a house built by an angry carpenter. It might have four walls and a roof, but would it be pretty?
Susan Wilson lives in Oak Bluffs. She is the author of five published novels and is working on her sixth. She also freelances, specializing in equine topics. Her column will appear on the OpEd Page twice monthly. Ms. Wilson can be reached at email@example.com or at her web site: www.susanwilsonwrites.com.