Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Conflicted about reading

I've been thinking lately about my reading and how it influences my writing. I don't know about other people, but I can think of three main ways I'm influenced:

  1. Good: An author inspires me and makes me believe that I, too can accomplish something like that author achieved. For example, I was enormously inspired by The Savage Detectives, which was like a fresh breeze blowing through my soul. I immediately got a bunch of ideas for a book of my own and couldn't wait to start working on it.
  2. Bad: A book is intimidatingly good; it confuses me, makes me feel like I could never come close to doing something like that, and makes me want to quit writing altogether. The work of Toni Morrison affects me like this.
  3. Good and bad: I love reading mid-century authors like Greene, Highsmith, Roth, McMurtry, Salter, Updike and so on, and I'd like to write books like them, but mid-century realism is very out of style, and I can't quite do it well enough. For example, Larry McMurtry's huge novel Moving On contains everything I'd ever want to do in a novel. It's got humor, domestic complexity, a slew of distinctive characters, and best of all it's a genuine document of a time and place -- mostly the cosmopolitan part of Houston in the 1960s, though it also ventures to the Bay Area (where McMurtry was a Stegner fellow at Stanford). (Check out this review in the NYT, which criticizes the book for its length, but in light of totalistic books of 45 years later like Infinite Jest or 2666 makes it seem prophetic.)

So my problem is loving and wanting to imitate books like Moving On. And it's becoming a real problem with my own reading. I haven't read all of Graham Greene yet, or much of Salter, or a lot of Roth, etc. etc. -- so I'm really conflicted when I read an article like this one:

Bloomsbury venture to bring books "back from dead"

LONDON (Reuters) -- Bloomsbury Publishing, home to the Harry Potter books in Britain, launched its first purely digital imprint on Wednesday which it said would bring out-of-print titles "back from the dead."

Bloomsbury Reader has signed up a string of authors including Monica Dickens, great grand-daughter of Charles, politicians Alan Clark and Ted Heath, crime writer H.R.F. Keating and novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett.

The publisher is focusing on books which are out of print and where all English-language rights have reverted back to the author or the author's estate.... "In my experience, if people read a book by an author and they love that author, they suddenly want to read everything by that author and that's where this can fit in," said Stephanie Duncan, digital media director at Bloomsbury Publishing. "Once you've read every Inspector Ghote mystery then you think, well what else has H.R.F. Keating written, and that's where Bloomsbury Reader comes in ..."

Without knowing who any of those authors are, I think, wonderful! I could read everything by H.R.F. Keating -- whoever that is. But even if I had time, would it be a good idea?

Right now I'm reading (while still making my way through Infinite Jest) Martín Solares' The Black Minutes, which I've had on my shelves for several months. There isn't much I need to worry about copying in terms of the voice, as the translation is good and entertaining but not a bolt of lightning like the work of Bolaño translator Natasha Wimmer, but simply in order to enjoy the book I have to take time with it. I'm not a very slow reader, but if I speed up intentionally, I miss most of what I get out of reading in the first place. While I'm reading Solares, there's a ton of Bolaño and other authors on my shelves waiting, as I tend to buy first and find time to read later. Some things have been on my shelf for three or four years.

But then if I read only things written in the last, say, ten years -- so my work isn't influenced by mid-century realism -- then I miss out on a huge amount, especially works that transcend time and place. For example, the roman durs of Georges Simenon! They're a freaking touchstone! And they are available only because New York Review Books is doing the same thing as Bloomsbury has announced it will do, reprint classic out-of-print 20th century literature.

I have no solution to this problem, I write only to articulate it.

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