Thursday, August 14, 2008

What's Worth Reading 2

As a writer, I read very little "fine art literature." Writers and critics usually just say "literature," or "writing," but we all know the "fine art" is implied. There's an inherent elitism and in-crowd vibe to writers' giving lists of what they're reading. Often those lists are thinly-veiled attempts to tell readers what they should be reading.

A lot of indirect coercion lies behind the word "should," which is one reason I banned it from my daily working vocabulary some time ago. Instead, I substitute "You might enjoy/appreciate/like . . ." or something phrased more to entice than to dictate. The word "ought" seems to be a lighter form of "should," a little less blunt, a little lighter touch. Still, both words can be used as bludgeons to influence the reader, rather than more neutrally.

So when I encounter a list of books that a writer is currently reading, I look for the unusual. To be frank, the non-literary. One reason the world of professional writing, especially poetry and literary criticism, can become so insular so quickly is that it is all too often a closed world without a lot of off-topic discourse getting in. Far too many poets, on their lists of what they're reading, list only poetry or poetry-related materials.

This isn't to say that poets shouldn't read poetry—to the contrary. Reading a lot of poetry is best way to learn how to write poetry: by example; by observation; by close study. One may learn to write poetry well never having gone to a writer's workshop, or critique group, or college class in creative writing; one may learn to write well simply be reading a great deal, reading more, reading, writing, and reading more.

However, poets shouldn't feel obligated to read only poetry. Like all artists, the more well-rounded and eclectic one's interests are, the better. Reading on a wide range of topics beyond one's narrow professional interests is a sign of an inquisitive mind: a basic tool for an artist.

Still, far too many poets, on their lists of what they're reading, list only poetry or poetry-related materials. Perhaps this is because they think this is what they ought to be reading, or at least ought to list amongst their reading. Perhaps it is a symptom of wanting to be taken seriously. It's an adolescent stage of writerly study, however, to believe that reading only Great Writers will lift one up by one's own lapels into the state of Great Writer oneself. How many young writers go around carrying Proust, or Keats, or Rimbaud? As much to impress potential dates, one surmises, as much as to broadcast that they are Serious About Writing.

Here's the thing: Broadcasting one's tastes is a fundamental sign of insecurity about one's tastes. Broadcasting one's reading is often a sign of uncertainty.

Give me a writer who lists whatever they're reading honestly, without pretension, with no compromise, and no need to puff up themselves, or their reading lists. Give me honest reading lists which include bad writing. Who doesn't love reading a trash novel every so often? Don't fool yourself.

I appreciate writers who tell us what they're reading, and their lists contain very little or no fashionable literary writing. Nobody on their who's considered "hot" in lit-crit circles. A lot of what is the critical flavor of the month will be gone sooner rather than later. Few such books endure, or are ever re-read (except to show off what a cool reader one is oneself).

Keep in mind, at any given time, pretty much all published fiction is dictated by literary fashion. The publishing world is driven by profit, and thus driven by fashion. You certainly must have noticed how typical it is, after a book in one genre does exceptionally well—because it was well-written and/or tapped into the cultural zeitgeist effectively—suddenly there is in print a whole swarm of very similar books. Whole genres and sub-genres have been given marketing space on the mall bookstores, simply because they're riding a temporary wave of interest. Do you think Chick Lit will endure as a genre? or Postmodern Ironic Self-Mirroring Fiction? Not likely. (Although they might well morph into other genres and sub-genres over time.)

The exceptional books that are not like any other book at the moment are so often overlooked or ignored by critic and writer alike, that the habit of overlooking is barely noticed. The tribe exerts a powerful force over the individual; it's easy to just go along. There have always been great books that were not published because the publisher couldn't figure out how to market them, pure and simple. No one knew how to present them in a way that they could make a profit. Merit and quality alone have never been sufficient reason for getting publishing: never think that they have. There are always other factors.

This is not an inherently evil state of affairs. It is difficult, and challenging, and sometimes painful and the cause for cynicism, but in fact it is value-neutral. The good news is that it's easier than ever to be published nowadays. The bad news is, you're competing against a million other voices, many of which are just as good as your own. Reflecting on these truths should serve to keep any writer's ego from becoming overly inflated.

So, to return to my original statement: As a writer I read very little current (fine art) literature. I read very little of what all the critics are recommending at the moment. I read very little of what I'm supposed to be reading, in order to keep up with current affairs (i.e. keep up with the Joneses). I read very little of what's fashionable.

Actually, to be completely honest, I sometimes go out of my way to not read something, if too many people recommend a book to me too often. Fads turn me off. Sometimes I just wait awhile, and read it later, once the buzz has worn off. In some cases it's as good as recommended; as often as not, though, it's not. It's interesting how an idea can build momentum beyond its merit, once enough people get on board. Again, merit and quality alone have never been sufficient cause for generating a buzz.

Where am I going with this? Digressions aside, I am leading up towards doing exactly what I have been decrying: the listing of what I have been reading lately, that I think is of merit. Although it's an eclectic list, and as stated above there's not much "literature" on it.

Edward Weston: Color Photography
Computer Music magazine; okay, this is a bit of a professional read, for my studio work, but it's such a terrific magazine that I always enjoy reading it
Jim Harrison: Off to the Side: A memoir
Ronald F. Fox: Energy and the Evolution of Life
Alexander Tzonis: Santiago Calatreva: The Poetics of Movement
Chris Packard: Queer Cowboys (and other erotic male friendships in nineteenth-century American literature)

I just have to make one literary note before leaving this be. Jim Harrison, Michigan poet/novelist, gourmand and food writer, essayist and outdoorsman, is one of my favorite writers. Off to the Side is the memoir of his life that he was coaxed into writing. It is more revealing than most of his prior essays, even those pulled from the marrow of life. I am finding this book melancholy going at times, no less engrossing and full of well-phrased opinions than usual, but aware of mortality and the endings of things. I admit that the melancholy may be mine alone; there are so many experiences and places Harrison relates that speak directly to my own life, another Michigan boy. A month ago I spent the day at Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West, and felt completely at home; Hemingway was another northern Michigan boy. Is this the connection? There seem to be a lot of common patterns, that resonance to the stories. It's a book I am unable to put down, and at times it gets under my skin and I have to back away for a day before getting back to it. I can only recommend a book like this: recommend it as a genuine pleasure to read, remembering always that pleasure is not always a superficially joyous thing.

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

I have next to no interest in what's on the bestseller list, what's being reviewed in the papers or what happens to be lying on Waterstones's 3-for-2 table. Here's list of some of the books in my need-to-get-round-to-reading-soon pile and how I came by them:

In the Wake – Per Petterson.

Ken Armstrong recommended the author because I've been drawn to Scandinavian writer of late; I'm half way through. I had to stop to read a book for review and I've been struggling getting back into it.

When I Was Five I Killed Myself – Howard Buten

I stumbled on this on Amazon. I started off with the book Naïve.Super and looked for similar books. It's a lovely wee book about 2/3 the size of a normal book and full of footnotes. The reviews in Amazon were positive and I'm far more likely to buy a book based on a review by someone who has read the book because they wanted to than someone who reviewed the book because they were being paid to do so.

The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly – Jean-Dominique Bauby
The Dream of a Beast – Neil Jordan

I picked these up browsing in Fopp for £3.00 each – never one to resist a bargain. As regards the first one, I've seen trailers for the film and it looks fascinating but I was more curious to see what kind of book a guy might write if all he could do was wink. The second one I knew nothing about but I admire Neil Jordan as a film-maker and was interested to see how he handled himself as an author. Also both books were thin. We do like our novellas.

i six nonlectures – e. e. cummings

I bought this a while ago hoping it would give me some insight into his unique style of composition which it doesn't look as if it's going but he has a nice chatty manner. I read the first lecture and then got distracted and keep letting myself be distracted.


This is my magazine of choice. I've never missed an issue for about ten years. We do love our science fiction.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

I love novellas. A sadly neglected form.

Thanks for your list. It's a fun one to read.

1:19 AM  
Blogger Rachel Fox said...

I agree with a lot of what you say in this post. I'm not keen on fashion in any field and that does include books for sure. I think as a writer and a reader it is important to work hard to avoid the nonsense of the marketing and the press and to find the books that mean something to us, that we can admire and learn from, that we can enjoy. Some of those books will be hyped and some will not...half the job (and the fun) is finding hidden gems and gems that are staring us in the face!

6:58 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, Rachel.

That was nicely stated, and a bit more succinctly stated than I managed to do. LOL

9:48 AM  

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