Thursday, September 07, 2006

Writing is Hard: Read your peas!

When I was a kid, I hated English peas. Still don't care for them a whole lot. But like many things in life, I was told that I needed to eat them because they were Good For Me. After all, a kid can't live on ice cream alone.

Same goes for reading. My pal Joe sent me a link to Jeanette Winterson's (Lighthousekeeping) website where she talks about what she likes to read.

"I'm an old-fashioned girl. That is, I'm on the side of Harold Bloom. Everybody should read the Canon of Western Literature, even if you don't accept it as canonical. For a reader, it's riches. For a writer, it's roots. A lot of modern work is rootless and shallow because the writer has no literary resources - nothing to draw on, in a way that is often unconscious."

I've got a book on my shelf called The Lifetime Reading Plan. It's as close a thing to an official Canon of Western Literature that you're going to get. It's a useful book and based on its recommendations, I've enriched my library with a lot of great literature by folks like Dostoevsky, Dickens, and the Brontës. I haven't read all of it, but it's there for me to get to one of these days.

My problem is that I grew up reading Edgar Rice Burroughs and Ian Fleming and never really grew out of those guys. Not to say that I don't read and appreciate "literature." I especially liked Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex, Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark, and J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace. But if you look closely, you'll see that those books were all published about three years ago; about the time that I got caught up in S.J. Rozan mysteries and re-discovered Tarzan and Conan and quit reading peas. Turns out, I like ice cream a lot better than peas.

But Jeanette Winterson's advice is well-taken. We need to read stuff that's good for us. Sometimes, it can be a chore. It took me over a year to muddle through Ann Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and I finally finished it out of sheer stubborness. I started it because it was an influential Gothic Romance; the genre that begat Horror. I wanted to study it and learn what about it influenced someone like Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein. I hope to God that I never write a book like it, but reading it gave me a better understanding of a genre that I enjoy writing in.

"Good for you" doesn't have to equal "yucky" though. Frankenstein is awesome. Dracula is awesome. Everything I've read by Charles Dickens has been awesome. Edgar Allen Poe is awesome. Alexandre Dumas and Victor Hugo and H.G. Wells are awesome. (Jules Verne and Isaac Asimov: not so awesome.) You're going to have a hard time getting me to read Aristotle or John Bunyan, but you're going to have an equally tough time getting me to check out Dan Brown or give Anne Rice another shot. So I guess "bad for you" doesn't necessarily equal "mmm, good" either. I'd rather eat fresh strawberries than rum raisin ice cream.

Where I disagree with Winterson is her encouragement to read the entire Canon of Western Literature. If a book's not doing it for you, I don't care how classic or "good for you" it is, life's too short to be spending time reading stuff you don't enjoy. Ann Radcliffe taught me that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Kinski says...

ya'll takes this seriously. Ha!

And I actually like Bunyan ... there is something in his prose. Should I tell you I'm trying to muddle through Thomas a Kempis right now ... along with a Louis L'amour western and one of Lloyd Douglas medical potboilers (now I need to find a copy of Magnificent Obsession. strange how ya change when your older...)

I entirely agree on the pretty-much unreadability of Asmiov. I was disaapointed to find Larry Niven doesnt't hold up for me as much as he did when I was in high school. Oh well....


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