— and how writers who know them inspire me
There’s something therapeutic, for me as a writer, about reading really good writing. At the time of writing this post I’m reading Vanessa and Her Sister, by Priya Parmar, and The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen, and the effect on my own creativity is like new wood thrown on a low campfire.
Vanessa and Her Sister is told primarily via the fictional diary entries of Virginia Woolf’s older sister Vanessa, interspersed with invented letters and postcards between their Bloomsbury gang—all artists and lively thinkers. The prose is elegant and quiet, the story’s brushstrokes chiaroscuro layers. The effect is deeply engrossing, almost a meditation. It’s simply the story of two young women, sisters, and yet Parmar manages to imbue the narrative with tension and mystery on every page. I had to keep reading. (My full review here.)
If you’ve read The Corrections (or any of Franzen’s work), then you know what his hilarious, deeply sympathetic writing is like. Long paragraphs that sometimes go on for pages, surprising and deliciously comical, detailing his characters’ wretchedly imperfect and uncomfortably recognizable lives. His unsparing humor in describing his opening protagonist, Chip—the inappropriate, last-minute Christmas gifts sent off in desperation, poorly wrapped in tin-foil and Right to Choose stickers; the scenes of Chip alone in his house after his drug-induced sexcapades week with Melissa, and his subsequent molestation of his antique chaise lounge—nobody else could’ve written these scenes and gotten away with it. Franzen is fearless.
I find myself wondering if other readers feel the creamy-fat, swooning pleasure of a brilliant novel the way a writer must, and lament the thin, calorie-starved meh of less worthy reads?
First: what is it about anyone’s writing that makes it exceptional? Like so much of life, the answer is deeply subjective, but here’s what I know grabs me:
An almost hypnotic quality to the prose. And by that I mean the words and sentences make me forget I’m reading. The word choice and sentence structure are such that I don’t necessarily even notice their beauty. One sentence, one thought, propels me forward into the next. There’s no stickiness, no clunk, no self-conscious artifice.
The thought behind the words is original. Not so original or foreign as to be unrecognizable, maybe, but at least delivered in a way that feels fresh. Original writing happens when the consciousness through which the story arrives is trusting, and unafraid of its own uniqueness. It’s this that makes us read dozens of books by different authors within the same genre and never tire of them. The stories can even have many of the same tropes or character types. It’s the voice, the telling, that is different. It’s authentic.
The seamless segue. Whether it is the switching of a floating, omniscient pov, or transitioning in time, the skill to keep the reader following the pied piper without noting the change in terrain is one that fills me with envy. Franzen is a master at this. He moves from now to before, from then to now, from this character to that, from thought to action to dialogue and back again, with a grace that leaves me blinking and stunned like a slaughter-house cow. I promise myself I will stay conscious and watch how he does what he does, but rarely do. Usually I have to go back and reread, penciling notes in the margins so I can study his beautiful fluidity.
Theme. Theme is an ability on the part of the writer to play with riffs throughout the storyline, much the way a good stand-up comic will keep coming back to an earlier jest. This creates a feeling of cohesiveness, of satisfaction and reason, and of something imparted or shared; a wink between writer and reader (a wink that can time-travel across centuries!). Not all good books have this, but the best do.
That’s four. I have one more element (in case you’ve been counting—in which case, I think I love you, in a purely platonic and nerdy way) but first, this:
The temptation is to say a reader must be intelligent to grasp really good writing, but we all know reader comprehension is something more than mere IQ. To be able to grasp and enjoy nuanced writing (or to write it) requires having acquired a certain level emotional intelligence (I natter more about that here). At fifteen we may think we understand a novel. But given another twenty years of living, and upon reading the same again, we realize how shallow and unsophisticated our initial understanding was. And I realize as I write this that age is not even the best yardstick to measure this sort of reader intelligence by; a person can conceivably live a long but sheltered life and have little experiential background—that backdrop we use to make sense of things—and miss the whole point of a writer’s fictional argument; or maybe grasp some, and have the uncomfortable feeling of deeper waters, but be unable to plumb them.
Readers sometimes complain of the perceived arduousness of the type of novel Franzen, Byatt, Mantel or Tartt writes (Sarah Waters, Richard Yates, Cormac McCarthy – if you’re reading I’m sure you can add others), and express a liking only for stories that ask little of the reader. A quick dip into the Goodreads reviews of any of these authors will reveal at least a few readers with this brain-sweat complaint. There’re readers for every depth, and every level of rigorousness. I myself find those heavily-bearded 19th century Russians very hard to read. Pushkin, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy. Nyet! Also Stieg Larsson’s novels—which I’m told hold great plots, but getting through even a chapter of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (which I’ve attempted several times) has proven beyond me. My mind just wanders. I may as well be reading a Taiwanese instruction manual.
And don’t even get me started on Proust. I love him but . . .
Bird Box. I recently won this on Annie Neugebauer’s blog. For those who enjoy psychological Horror, let me just say, yum.
Even for those who enjoy complex novels, less demanding novels can be a relaxing interlude between challenging reads. Not all books have to be inspirational. Some are just fun, and that is enough. Peanut M&Ms and Godiva both have their pleasures.
The absolute worst read, for me, though—and the sort that has a deadening effect on my creativity, so I try to steer clear—is the novel that promises to be genuine, but turns out to be phoned-in and hopelessly jejune. The writer has work-a-day skills, maybe even good writing skills: knowledge of literary devices, an ability to write a pretty sentence. But the deeper, human understanding never comes sparkling through, either because it isn’t there (in the writer), or because the writer doesn’t yet know how to get it on the page. These novels are all glinting surface and no depth.
There’s no denying the ersatz novels crowding bookstore shelves. Thanks to the slick marketing pumped out by their publicists, avoiding them can feel as dodgy as paintball with twelve-year-olds.
That there is a readership for these novels is as mystifying as it is irrefutable, else why would they sell so well? It can’t just be the pretty covers.
Well…there are folks who like boxed wine, too.
Okay, you’ve waited for it, and even let me rant a bit; here it is:
#5 The best novels have heart, and art. The best novels, of whatever genre, are written by writers who not only possess a deep field of human comprehension, humor and compassion, but who also have mad writing skills. To mesmerize me as a reader, and inspire me as a writer, it takes both.
What about you?
If you’re a writer, do you find reading writers better than yourself inspiring? Does reading especially brilliant prose fill you up? Who’s on your talisman shelf?