On writing and reading

The Sunday Times Book Review has an article about a new book– a transcription, really, and I’ve read the advance copy, it’s well worth the read– of an interview between the late, great David Foster Wallace and the Rolling Stone reporter and writer David Lipsky as Wallace is doing his book tour after Infinite Jest had come out.

I have a confession to make.  I have never read Infinite Jest, for no particular reason except that I was in a Douglas Coupland phase at the time it came out.  But– I have read (and re-read, and re-read) Broom of the System, Wallace’s very first book, in an advance copy, because my aunt designed the book when she was at Crown or Harcourt or whomever first published that book.  And I have a first edition hardcover copy of Broom, probably literally hot off the presses, because I raved to my Aunt about what a great book it was, how it blew me away because at age 14 or whatever I was when I read it, I was blown away by the author’s refusal to pander, to not avoid difficult things, intellectual things that might make the reader take pause to look up things with which he was unfamiliar.  (I spent a whole afternoon looking up Wittgenstein, for example, and went out and bought an Everyman’s Library primer to get myself more acquainted with his ideas, Wallace had so affected me with way he’d woven the references inside the book.)

This article brought it all back, and reminded me again of some of the things I’ve been learning and deciding for myself as I try out this whole writing thing.  I’d mentioned a while ago I’ve been playing around with fanfiction– though it’s not really playing, because I think any writing deserves to be done seriously, even if I’m working with someone else’s original characters.  But it’s given me a chance to work with voice and narrative structure in an environment where people tend to be mostly supportive and therefore have given me the courage to write something original of my own– and what’s referenced in the article– it’s funny.

The tensions there between “difficult” fiction– the kind that provokes the reader to think, to do some work, to be challenged on an emotional level– and the allure of escapist or popular fiction, the kind of pulp guilty pleasure we all enjoy every once in a while–it’s something I’ve even come up against in writing in the fanfiction world (which a lot of “serious authors” scorn and treat as a bunch of abomination vile ripoffs), and while I’ve been lucky to become a semi-popular writer in the fandoms I write in, I’m not the most popular of all– because I don’t write the cute easy themes, and I tend to visit dark places in some of my stories.  I use big words, I play around with chronology, I switch the narrative stream– I don’t make it easy on readers, in short.

I took part in a several-months contest of late, and while my entries always placed high in the vote with my team, garnering lots of positive comments, I never won.  I’m convinced it’s because I wrote things that while true to the particular prompts, my subjects tended to be harder, more emotionally honest/brutal approaches to things than some readers really wanted to deal with.  And they rarely were fluffy or cute– and even when they were, there was always still some larger, dark point to be made.  It didn’t make me a “worse” writer than the people who won– just less “popular.”

““If the writer does his job right, what he basically does is remind the reader of how smart the reader is,” he says. Wallace contrasts literature with the electronic media, especially television, an amusement that is his own personal weakness, an actual addiction. “One of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy.””

That’s how Wallace describes the tension at one point in the interview, and while it’s a bit reductionist– sometimes we’ve had a hard day and we deserve a light laugh– his point remains true.

Every day in the store, people come to me to ask for recommendations, and half the time, they’re asking me if I’ve read something I think is absolute trash.  I mean– Twilight?  Dan Brown?  Come ON.

There are romance writers who write bodice rippers who still manage to write female heroines who’ve got spine, spunk and brains who I can recommend with a conscience.  Fantasy and sci-fi writers too.  Same thing with mysteries and action.  There are pulp genre mass-market writers who generate entertainment-type beach reads that are still good writers, and by that, I mean, they work in some kind of emotional resonance, try to make their characters people who learn some kind of intelligent lesson or do some kind of good in the world, whether or not most of it’s fluff.  But there’s so much trash out there that just turns my stomach, and I think of all the people who read this mindless trash and think that it’s good or just don’t think at all and just keep buying it over and over without paying any attention to all the real writing out there, the things that might challenge them, make them do some work in their lives, do better, be better, learn something about the larger world that they’d never known before then.

Scary shit, hunh?

I was talking with the husband when we were away for the weekend, and saying how I thought that in some ways, recommending a book was an incredibly intimate act.  You’re telling someone about something that was important to you– that influenced what you thought, how you felt (even if you don’t come right out and say so)– and you’re putting into their hands a tool that has the power to affect them the same way.  Whether it does, whether it doesn’t– well, there’s no power over that except their own receptivity and perhaps the power of your conviction at the time of your recommendation, but still.  Words have power, if the person reading them is in a place to see and read them.  And while you have no power over how a person interprets those words, the mere fact that they’re reading and may see them the same way you do– well.  I dwell in possibility (poetry or prose.)

Next week’s my extra 10% on my employee discount “employee appreciation” week.  I’ll be adding the rest of Wallace’s works to my shelf.  And feeling better about not taking the easy way out, even if it means it takes me a while to write hard, original stories that may take a long, good while for anyone to actually like, much less want to publish.


2 thoughts on “On writing and reading

  1. Lisa

    You’re right. Recommending a book is (or should be) personal because reading a book is personal experience. Far more so than watching TV. What you take away from it depends a lot on what you bring to it. Catcher in the Rye at 16 was not the same as Catcher in the Rye at 24, for instance.

    One thing that really bothers me in my job is the large number of books I’m asked to recommend without reference to my actual opinion. We have to endorse the purchase, so we have to tell the customer a book is good, whether we believe it is or not. We also have two ‘books of the week’ that we have to sell (there are quotas) and often we know nothing about them or they’re not the kind of thing we enjoy but we’re asked to recommend them to customers.

  2. Leah

    Some books should be tasted
    some devoured,
    but only a few
    should be chewed and digested thoroughly.
    – Cornelia Funke version of a Sir Francis Bacon quotation.


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