If you spend all your time reading books you won’t have any experiences. Of course it may give you some idea about what experiences to have. – Carrie Berry (a.k.a. The Missus)
Let me first say a word or two about my opening quote. As I was preparing my notes for this post I stopped every now and then and interrupted what my wife was doing (as is my wont) to read her interesting and amusing quotes. Her response was to provide me – totally off the cuff and completely unrehearsed – with the opening remark. And, albeit a flippant remark [when taken totally out of context. Mrs. Ed.], it's an interesting observation especially when it comes from a woman who, as a kid, needed to have books literally torn from her hands before being kicked outside to get some of that fresh air parents keep going on about.
I was not that kid. When I was young I was always outside. Home, as I think I've said before, was nothing more than a filling station. I read but books were not the fulcrum on which my life was balanced. It seems odd that I would end up as a writer but then, having read a lot about how other writers grew up, it does seem to me that I'm not your typical writer if such a thing exists. I've gone years without writing, I've also gone years without reading and it's taken years for me to start missing either.
Like so many writers I began with poetry. The thing is, I didn't especially like most of the poetry that I'd been exposed to, 'Mr. Bleaney' (as I've mentioned so many times) being the glaring exception. Once I left school I started to get books out of the library, anthologies mainly, so I could get a taste of a variety of style. And I was pretty unimpressed by the lot of 'em, again with a singular exception, the American poet, William Carlos Williams. To my mind there was a clear connection between Larkin (who by this time I'd read more of) and Williams: they were both plain speakers and I liked that.
The poetry I began writing in my late teens strived to do what they did. I had found my voice and although I continue to read poetry to this day I have completely lost the need to search the texts for a sense of me. I am just an ordinary reader these days, reading for pleasure although there are still very few poems that truly excite me.
Prose was something else entirely. I never saw myself as a novelist. I never even wrote short stories. Had I been aware of flash fiction back then I may have had a go at that (and I keep wondering why I don't try to write more of it now) but I wasn't; prose simply took too many words to say what I wanted to say. The idea of writing one was unthinkable.
I was looking at my collection of books earlier and it's striking how many of them were bought during my late teens and early twenties. And yet I have no clear recollection of sitting and reading any of them. For most of that time I lived across the road from where I worked, or a short cycle away (yes, I used to cycle), and so I never read in transit. I was newly married and although my first wife was a voracious reader (half a dozen books a week) I still don’t remember the two of us sitting reading together. It must have happened because I have the books but I don't remember it. I actually used to get her books from the library and she'd summarise them for me. How sad is that?
At the time with a few exceptions I was only reading books by people who had received either the Nobel Prize or, since I was into science fiction too, the Nebula or Hugo awards; I don't think a science fiction writer has won the Nobel Prize but please feel free to correct me. The simple fact is that during those few years I did my best reading: Hermann Hesse, Ernest Hemmingway, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck, Jean-Paul Sartre, Yasunari Kawabata, Samuel Beckett, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Saul Bellow... you get the idea. But the goal in my mind was quantity. I gravitated towards thinner books so I could sample more styles although I would read two or three books by the same author if they caught my interest.
I've tried to think what books I read in my thirties and from my shelves it looks like about a book a year but I know there's more. It just puzzles me that I don't have many of the books. I got better in my forties and there's about five shelves covering that period but even then I'm sure others will have read much more. And the only place I can really remember reading is on public transport. In fact when Carrie and I were looking for a flat to buy we deliberately picked one a decent bus ride from the town centre where we both worked at the time specifically to give us time to read because we found we weren't doing enough at home.
These days I do most of my reading in the early hours of the morning – we're talking around the 3am mark because that's usually when my head is the clearest. Any other time and I start to doze off after half a page and nothing goes in. And I have never been able to read in bed.
You see, and this is the real confession, I find reading hard work. What I find hard about it is the fact there are so many words. Why are books so ruddy long? There's really no need for all those words. The first draft of my first novel was under 30,000 words and a part of me wishes I'd kept it that length; the padding was for everyone else. That's why Beckett was such a joy to me. He said what he had to say and got off the page. It's still my No.1 rule for writing.
Now, thirty years on, I'm rather depressed when I think about the writers I've not read, not a thing; there are so many.. I've read of them but that's another thing entirely. The first Dickens I 'read' was a few months back when my wife decided to have a go at Little Dorrit and she read a few paragraphs out to me (see, she does it too). I've happily slagged off the guy for years based on what others have written about him although I have to say, after what Carrie read to me, I don't feel the slightest bit guilty. When she'd finished her reading I said, "He was paid by the word you know." He really is a wordy bugger.
I did a search on Google looking for answers to the question: What advice do you have for budding writers? The answers were predictable and it didn't really matter if the advice was coming from a relatively new or a seasoned author.
S. E. Hinton: [D]o the best you possibly can. Write, write, write, and read, read, read!
Jayne Anne Phillips: Read, read and read. Insatiable readers, hungry readers who read obsessively, are the readers who become writers.
Firoozeh Dumas: Read, read and read. Nothing prepares a writer better than reading the works of accomplished writers. It helps you find your own voice.
Kishore Thukral: Just read, read, read, read, read a lot. You would end up writing much better than you did previously.
Toni Blake: Read, read, read. Read the kind of books you want to write. And read not only books you think are good, but also books you think are flawed – then figure out what does or doesn’t work in them. Reading widely – and with a critical eye – will go a long way toward making you a good writer.
Erik L`Homme: Advice for budding authors? I would like to give them three words of advice. First, read, read and read some more.
James Meek: Read. Read. Read. If you read a book and think I can do better than that, then that’s the wrong book but if you read a book and think I cannot do better — then read that.
John Baker: When I was young I read somewhere - don’t remember who said it any more - that if you want to be a writer, you should write. You should sit down and write for ten years and at the end of that time you’ll be a writer.
So that’s what I did. That was my way. I thought it was good advice. I still believe it to be good advice. But these days, if I say that to someone, I have to qualify it by stressing that one should also read. Read, read, read.
There are variations along the path to becoming a writer. One thing always leads to another.
I could provide more; LOTS more. And so many of them go for the three-for-emphasis approach. Some say read everything, backs of cereal boxes, whatever; others says be selective. There seems to be no common ground other that hammering home the fact that a writer is a reader who writes. All of which makes me wonder why I don’t have the same passion for reading as I have for music. I have it on all the time (although I have gone through patches of playing nothing for weeks on end – I had one a few weeks back when I was changing my meds) and it doesn't matter how many CDs I own I'm always happy to receive more. My music collection dwarfs my book collection. I literally have ten times as many albums as I have books.
So why aren't you a composer or a song writer, Jim?
Good question. During my teens – from about twelve on – that was what I wanted to be. Poetry was 'just a phase' I was going through as far as I was concerned but I spent hour upon hour in front on a keyboard mostly writing. In fact as soon as I taught myself to play the only obvious thing was to compose. And I kept at it until my early twenties. The last piece was a duet for two recorders of all things.
But I'm digressing. The question I need to ask is how much do you need to read? I'm not saying that a writer should never read and I'm always keen to dip into something a bit different but how often does a new writer like that crop up? And even then, that's his or her thing. I don’t want to start copying anyone, certainly not at my age. Not that I ever did when I was young, two or three poems inspired by Williams and about the same after I discovered Beckett that was about it. My two Larkin poems came years later and the first one really wasn't very good because I was trying to evoke his style.
Apart from Webern, whose output was small, I doubt I own the complete works of any composer. I have complete sets of symphonies (Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich to name three) but I still tend to play the same old ones. God alone knows the last time I played any of Beethoven's first four symphonies. I really only have them to complete the sets; I'm very anal that way. If Beethoven was a novelist I'd probably only own his fifth and eighth because they're the shortest.
Amongst the many quotes I found this one appealed to me:
Charles Hugh Smith: If you really, really want to write deep, probing literary fiction, then get life experience. Don't hole up in academia. The number of great books written by college professors who have the hots for vulnerable co-eds is zero. (Nabokov was a writer long before he was a professor, and furthermore, Humbert Humbert had the hots for a 12-year old.) And don't mistake travel for experience. Yes, travel is adventure, fun, dismal, even frightening at times, but it is only a certain slice of experience, a rather thin slice. It cannot replace starting (and failing at) a business, or engaging in a great political struggle, or working at a variety of manual-labour jobs alongside a wide variety of people.
And read deeply, not just fiction, but psychology, philosophy and theology. Understand the conflicts of the human condition and the multiple layers which influence human behaviour. Make such research a life-long habit, because there is no end to the variations of human behaviour and the advances being made by science in understanding the human psyche.
For one thing we only get one 'read' from him but that's not it. I think his is a more balanced response to the question. John Grisham says similar:
It is terribly important to read extensively. Virtually all writers I know are voracious readers still, and that is preparation. The more you read, the more you know. The more your imagination works, the more you read. And that’s — those are the tools of a good writer.
You have to live. Nobody wants to hear — the world does not want to hear — a great novel from a 21 year-old. You’ve got to get a real job and get a real career, and you’ve got to go to work. And you’ve got to live and you’ve got to succeed and fail, and suffer, a little bit, or see suffering, heartache and heartbreak and all that before you really have anything to write.
I think this explains why I didn't sit down to write what turned out to be my first novel – bearing in mind even then I never sat down to write a novel – until my mid thirties. By that time I had considerable baggage to root through for ideas. I like what Joe Queenan had to say on the subject: "Do not write anything until you are 30 as you will have absolutely nothing to say. Spend all your time reading the great writers. [The opening quote was a response to this statement. Mrs. Ed.] You can catch up on the writing part of things later…" Joanna Trollope said something similar: "You can't be too old to be a writer, but you can definitely be too young!"
What surprises me is that that first book isn't nearly as biographical as I expect many first novels are. I think casting me as an old man helped there. The interesting thing about that old man was that I made him a bookseller who hardly read, who had an impressive collection of books on his shelves at home "so that, when he died, the undertakers would be able to lean on his coffin, enjoy a fag, look up at the wall of books and say, "My, 'e must've been a clever bugger," before carting him off down the back stairs."
I'm not as bad as that – bear in mind Jonathan is a gross exaggeration of me – but the fact is I have a surprising number of books on my shelves that I have never read and probably never will.
These days I read with even more difficulty than ever. A few days ago our Internet connection went on the fritz and I sat down on that first day and read the first hundred pages of John Baker's Winged with Death. I couldn't tell you the last time I read more than twenty or thirty pages in a day. It helped that John is a decent writer and I got caught up in the book but I've only read about twenty pages each day since and before I start a chapter I always look to see how long it is to see if I think I can make it to the end before giving up.
You see there is reading and there is reading. I was looking back at my cupboard full of books, the ones from my teens, that are a bit too faded to display and there are a few that I can remember absolutely nothing about. I didn't read them. I turned the pages and when I got to the end I thought I could add another book to the list – yay, I've now read x number of books! I recently reread Transparent Things by Nabokov to see if I could remember anything and apart from the description of the puddle at the start everything had gone. The irony now is that I can still barely remember what it was about; nothing stays these days. I could do a bit better now but not much and I pretty much expect John's book to fade from my memory after a few weeks too. If you ask me in about six months I'll be able to say it's about some guy who goes to Uruguay and comes back tango-ed. Sorry, John.
Reading still...I was going to write 'inspires me' but I don't think that's quite right...reading encourages me. Not every writer I read but certain ones. Jeanette Winterson is one. I cannot read anything by her and not come away with a desire to write, not to write like her – I wouldn't know where to start – but to open up Word and simply start clattering away on a keyboard. Why her? Because she doesn't just tell stories, she has a love of language and that is infectious.
There's not much music that makes me want to move. Dixieland jazz is one and if I'm in the kitchen and no one but the bird is watching then I have been known to shuffle to the beat a bit. I think a good book is like that. It makes you want to respond, not copy, like a good jazz musician might.
I'm not sure how my reading is going to pan out over the years to come. I know as long as I keep writing this blog I should be okay if only because the nice people at Canongate keep sending me 'care packages' which reminds me, I owe them a couple of reviews – now, which are the thinnest books?
For the record my daughter is a great reader but then she has her mother's genes and my encouragement so I would have been surprised if she'd turned out any other way. Before she was born I'd bought her 100 books and I always make sure Xmas and birthdays include one or two if not five or six. I still love shopping for books. I just can't be jugged reading the ruddy things.