I read on Stephanie’s blog (Thank you again for making me think!) about an essay in LA Review of Books by William Giraldi called The Writer as a Reader and it got me thinking on the concept of understanding the art that you create and how that art may have been conceptualized. Can you truly be a good author, when you may have never read a good book? Can you actually fathom writing a “Grapes of Wrath” or “To kill a Mockingbird’ or even a “Pride and Prejudice” when you have never read them or similar genres?
Giraldi contends that Herman Melville’s Moby Dick could not have been written if Melville had not read and understood the nuances of John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Captain Ahab could thank Milton’s Saturn for its inception! He also states that according to Melville’s biographer Andrew Delbanco, the author’s work reached a new level because of his close reading of other literature including Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Dryden’s translation of Vergil’s Aeneid . Giraldi argues that Melville is an example of writer as a reader who “who kneels at the altar of literature not only for wisdom, sustenance, and emotional enlargement, but with the crucial intent of filching fire from the gods”. Giraldi then compares this to what he considers the modern channels of communication and the vast availability of mediums to express one’s thoughts/works /writings that may have remotely nothing to do with literature and “the illogical leap from being able to sign their names and send an email to the belief that they can write novels, which is rather like deciding to swim the English Channel simply because you’re able to take a bath” He finally contends writing is an extremely difficult process and each word/sentence is a process of serious agonizing of the mind and the soul. Therefore reading good literature is a difficult process as is writing something. “Sit down with Middlemarch and The Sound and the Fury instead of Jodi Picoult or Dan Brown and you’ll see you have quite the mountain path to hike before your own words are ready for the world.”
Now I am all for this school of thought – how in the world would you know if you are writing A Walk to Remember (Where is my barf bag????) or an Out of Africa when you have never read the latter? I have never read Dan Brown expect (Shudder! Shudder! Sigh! Yes! Even I make mistakes) The Da Vinci Code (And I so wished I never had) and then I read Umberto Eco’s “Foucault’s Pendulum” and my reaction was …Hang on! So much for originality and to top it off its bad writing as well (I mean Da Vinci not Pendulum). Eco’s book was not an easy read and at times you have to struggle to keep the lull from coming on, but there is no denying that book is an intellectual masterpiece that has one doing all kinds of mind gymnastics. On the other hand, I read Dan Brown over a long train journey (Yes! I am quaint and I do infinitely prefer trains over planes) and did not even bother with the end and dumped it at the rubbish can at the station.
Having said all this I know it’s fashionable to take a swipe at Dan Browns and Nicolas Sparks but I honestly do not find any intellectual nourishment or emotional sustenance from these books. And yet they do sell millions while I am still struggling to get my one manuscript published despite all my reading of Tolstoy, Steinbeck and Dickens! Therefore they must be hitting some right note with the audience that I and countless like myself cannot seem to find. It is kind of difficult for me to agree with Giraldi only at this point that the mass reading phenomena does not actually have the capacity to understand a “Middlemarch” or “Things Fall Apart’. My apology for these readers is that they may have in generality not been exposed to such works at a young age and then with the passage of time they lose or rather fear their capacity to understand such works! I have lost count of the several times when I have been told “How can you read such a difficult book?’ or “How can you read such a fat/difficult book?” and these questions have also come from readers, voracious readers definitely but may be not discerning readers!
Then there is the whole debate about originality. I know many critics argue back and forth on this subject, but I cannot dismiss that as a writer I cannot help but be influenced by those works that I idolize. Does that make my work less original? I don’t mean in plot lines alone but rather in terms of language, character and genre? My flatmate always says that my writings are squeaky clean and the plot lines even when describing the most terrible/horrid experience never really descend to squalor – an influence she attributes to all my close reading of Edwardian and Victorian literature. Similarly my sister is one of the most prolific poets that I had the good fortune to read (and I am not saying this because she is my sister, but because she is truly talented) She too remains unpublished and her works have a strong sense of her being an inheritor of a combination of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and John Keats. Does this make her work, which is not even prose less original? The great George Bernard Shaw did remark “What the world calls originality is only an unaccustomed method of tickling it” and “Keep away from books and from men who get their ideas from books and your own books will always be fresh”.
Thus the question remains – how much am I ready to be influenced and how far? Would I rather be ignorant and create a master piece – but then without knowing what a masterpiece is, how can I create one? And if I get to know what a masterpiece is then, my creation may not be an original masterpiece at all!
In any case, my case is done for and I am of the Giraldi school of thought, not by any other virtue than the fact that I have read so much that now I cannot but help in making the whole process of writing a cathartic experience, potentially sacrificing all hopes of financial and popular success at the altar of great literature. Nor do I regret it – somehow I cannot fathom creating a character of any worth without knowing Jay Gatsby or an Estelle Havisham or an Atticus Finch!
P.S. On a lighter note, the thing about writers who read is that in my case and I can say for my sister, we are so often caught up in our reading, that realization that we should also writing as much often comes in late and if it comes in the middle of extremely interesting plot – you know which of the two activities will be abandoned!