Reading as a Writer

Being a writer means that people frequently ask you for advice on accomplishing the same. The vast majority of course have no more real thought of being a writer than I might of becoming an astronaut, a passing fantasy which consists exclusively of the good parts—say, looking down on Earth as a blue marble and being feted by heads of state—rather then any of the toil or drudgery—being confined to a tiny, dark space for a prolonged period of time, or learning basic math. They seem to suppose that my modest accomplishments are not due to effort or meager ability but the the result of having stumbled upon some secret, little known but easily communicable. No such luck, I'm afraid.

It can get a bit annoying. It is why I have been known to tell people at bars that I am a shoe salesman. But, here and here alone, in this blog post, I will offer the most frank and useful advice that I can possibly provide. Ready? Here we go.

You have not read enough. Not near enough.

I don't care if your shelves overflow with books, if you use them for furniture or to prop up your television. I don't care if you're one of those people who frequently post Hallmark paeans to literature on your Facebook wall (although if you are, please stop.) I don't care how desperately you liked the Hunger Games trilogy. I don't care if ever got to the last page on that dog-eared copy of Infinite Jest. You have not read nearly enough.

Have you read Tolkien? I would hope so. Now read Gene Wolfe and Tim Powers. Have you read Murakami? Cool. Now read Borges, Poe and Calvino. Have you read Raymond Chandler? Great now read Dashiell Hammet, Ross McDonald and Patricia Highsmith. Have you perused at least the more interesting parts of the Old Testament? Were you in high school the last time you read Shakespeare? Did you read him then, or only the Cliff Notes? How's your history? Have your read Black Lamb, Gray Falcon? Civil War, A Narrative? Have you read Tacitus? Why ever not?

Don't misunderstand—I haven't read enough, either. I am nowhere close. Would you believe I never read Gogol? I've read some Faulkner but not enough. If the reference in the last paragraph gave you a mistaken impression, let me set you straight—so far as the Bard is concerned I go no deeper than Macbeth and A Midsummer Night's dream. Historically speaking, my knowledge of, amongst many other things, post-Napoleonic France, pre-Romanov Russia, and pretty much everything that happened in China prior to Mao is slim to non-existent. I actually never finished the Brothers Karamazov, though I've been known in my cups to pretend otherwise. And half the things I have read I've damn near forgotten. Remind me, which was the Hemingway book about the very brave man who faces death unflinching, and the beautiful woman who loves him? Oh, all of them. I see.

Last night, sitting on my small couch in my small apartment, I recalled the lamentable truth of my ignorance, with a heavy heart I logged out of Netflix and returned to my paperback. It is a Kingsley Amis, it is very well-written and depressing and a little bit dry, not as fun as some of his other books, (Green Man, for instance which reads like a more clever Stephen King but twenty-five years early) but I plow forward. A doctor, a lawyer, a mathematician, a financier, a professional basketball player, a custodian, a bartender, a barrista or model or actor or factory worker or what have you, these people may be casual in their reading, they may take it as pleasure. A novelist may not. If you are serious about ever getting good at writing then your relationship with literature cannot be simply one of entertainment. You sharpen your pen against the lines of better, smarter, more ambitious writers. There is no other option.

Because you never have any idea what will get lodged in the fertile loam of the mind, what will take root and spread and flower in some or other creative endeavor. There are things in Those Above (you didn't suppose my advice was entirely disinterested, did you?) that I have stolen from the most curious and disparate corners of literature. It is a little bit a book called the Last Mogul, by the excellent travel writer and historian William Dalrymple. It is probably a fair bit of Fritz Leiber, whose Lankhmar stories remain as fresh and fun as they were a half century ago. It's quite a lot of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, long hours spent mulling over the despair and heroism and foolishness of great men. You have to cram it all down, as much as you can possibly swallow, of every style and range and color, fiction and non, prose and poetry, low art and high art (a frivolous distinction anyway, as genius is its own genre and brilliance always a bastard child).

Of course this is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for writing well, and writing well itself also only a necessary and not a sufficient condition of financial success, but without having read widely and deeply one cannot hope to produce work of value. Let me again reiterate that none of this is to suggest that I think myself talented or particularly well read. That's the point—you need to recognize your ignorance as a daily call to action. You have to conceive of reading as being not only a source of pleasure or contentment but as a sincere course of study. It seems to me axiomatic that no person could hope to create art if they have not familiarized themselves with the history and nature of that art, and this is the work of a lifetime, this is an effort which ends in the grave.

That's it, that's all I've got. It's like everything else of course, if you want to get good at something you have to work hard at it, and if you hope to be great (if you have that mad ambition, if you are fool enough to measure your efforts against the accomplishments of giants) then you have to work at it forever, constantly, you have to fall asleep exhausted and unsatisfied with your efforts. No short cuts, not to anything.

Now if you'll excuse me, Mr. Amis will not read itself, and my day is only half over.