I’m headed to ICFA this week, which means that as I write this I’m staring, despairing, at all I have yet to pack and prepare. I’ve meant for a while to write a piece about reading challenges, and it’s always seemed like there was too much to say for me to even start. But I had a long chat with a friend about the subject a while back, and realized I’d told that person much of what I wanted to say already. So, with their permission, I’ll share a somewhat edited version of my side of the chat with you now.
Now, this is my take on reading and reading challenges as a writer. I approach my reading the way fighters approach their diet, or the gym. Barth Anderson has a similar angle on the topic here. People coming from different backgrounds, or coming to reading for different goals, may have different priorities. I recognize that; still, it’s my blog, so I’ll testify about my own experience.
Also NB before you venture below: I’ve left this in its original form for two reasons. First, so you can all understand that this is an internet chat ‘script, and not an essay, which invites different approaches to language, punctuation, etc. Second, the internet chat is its own wonderful and weird literary form. I can’t think of another style of English communication that uses enjambment, for example. Rendering the following in paragraphic prose would be an exercise of adaption, rather than of ‘cleaning up.’ So, here you are.
—CHAT TRANSCRIPT BEGINS—
When I was in China I took along shelves of books to read with me.
Big meaty stuff to last through the winters
So, like, a bunch of early 20th century theology, and Thomas Hardy, and boatloads of Russians
And in the process of not having any actual spoken English around, and reading all these books, which, never read Hardy without heat in the wintertime it will make you want to build a time machine to go back and set Hardy himself on fire
Or at least it did me?
Even though he’s unarguably great etc
Jude the Obscure jesus christ
So by the time I leave China, 2008, I sound
like Thomas Hardy sieved through a bad translation of Dostoyevsky simmered for a long while with, like, Martin Buber and Heschel and Tillich and stuff
I’m talking about my fiction, understand. Clunky weird sentences. Vocabulary no one should use
So, after arguing with my father about the dubious quality of my latest literary achievement, I decided that for a year I’d only read American fiction. In fact, that I’d only read American realist fiction. No fantasy, no SF, no genre nothing
All the stuff I’d classed as hopelessly boring and recondite, to which my adolescent reaction had been I DO NOT CARE ABOUT YOUR MILL TOWN OR YOUR BUSTED KNEE OR YOUR SON WHO WANTS TO GO TO COLLEGE RATHER THAN REMAIN IN THIS CRUMBLING MILL TOWN YOUR GRANDFATHER BUILT
And some of that stuff? Was trash. And some of it was amazing.
I’d never read any of it before! Like I missed all the classes where it was taught ‘coz I was taking Shakespeare over at the local college!
Faulkner oh my god, all the stuff nobody I knew down south ever talked about but IS THERE but we’re all so good at not talking about it I barely realized it *was* still there like that until I read Absalom Absalom
Even Poppa Hemmingway, though I don’t like him quite as much as Faulkner coz I agree with Ralph Ellison he kind of cheats & forgets that race is a thing
And it helped! My writing got better. My reading got better. My comprehension got better.
And I fell in love with authors! New authors! Authors I’d completely written off!
But then at the end of this year I realized, shit, I’d read
like a billion dead white dudes
So I thought, I need to read more women! So I started on a Year of Reading Women
North American women, or else I’d just have reread Dunnett and McKinley and all that again
and some of the books I read I couldn’t stand!
but I read Tiptree
and I read Margaret Atwood
who, again, in younger days I’d been all “Margaret Atwood pretending she isn’t writing SF, what the hell”
But Younger Max is a moron
1. Margaret Atwood can write whatever the hell she wants and call it whatever the hell she wants
2. there is no 2
except for 2. publishing is hard and you do whatever you have to and for her? if you can hit that crossover market, and can hit it only by distancing yourself from core genre, which I think was the case in the 80s and 90s? DO IT
hm, sorry, I’m getting a bit carried away here, it’s the old Southern Preacher mode
And I rediscover LeGuin
who MY GOD
Like I’d read her stuff as a kid! So I didn’t know from what!
I was like “That was great, now imma read some David Eddings farmboy fiction”
but then I go back to her and it’s just
And then I saw some folk online talking about reading writers of color in genre, and I realized that my reading list was overfull of white dudes
and a bunch of 700 year old Chinese guys
So I changed my habits again! Read more Delany, read Okorafor (ALWAYS BE READING OKORAFOR), read Lord (ALSO), read read read. And so it goes
and again and again the pattern repeats
I’ll start reading people I’m not reading
and some of them I won’t like because whatever reason, and sometimes I’ll be right and sometimes I’ll be wrong
and sometimes when I’m older I’ll realize that younger me was a critical imbecile
like I suspect I might even like Madame Bovary now though when I read it the first time I wanted to throw it out my dorm window on a per-chapter basis
I GET IT FLAUBERT SHE’S READ TOO MANY BOOKS AND THEY’VE SCREWED HER UP AND ALSO POOR PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRY ARE POOR, AND ALSO IN COUNTRY
I love those moments when I recognize young-me was wrong; they remind me of my insufficiency
And each time I’ve intentionally adjusted my reading habits, I’ve found new writers to love
Library’s like a gym. Too many people are New Years Resolutioners when it comes to reading
“Yeah bro I totally lift like three epics a year”
Trainers help. Routines help.
Trainer tells you:
YOUR READING LATS ARE WEAK AND YOU SHOULD FEEL WEAK
WHAT IS THIS CRAP, YOU CAN CURL 90 POUNDS BUT YOU’VE NEVER READ JAMES F—–G BALDWIN?
People doing a reading challenge with good heart will discover muscles they didn’t know they had
Develop reading str_max! Develop reading volume! Develop reading isometric strength! Develop reading speed strength! Develop reading endurance!
Be pretty through strong!
“oh but Trainer I just read books with good stories”
F— YOUR STORIES, JUST READING GOOD STORIES GOT YOU TO THE POINT WHERE YOU CAN SQUAT 500 LBS BUT YOU CAN’T DO A PULLUP
SPECIALIZATION IS FOR INSECTS, MAGGOTS!
SPECIALIZATION IS FOR INSECTS!
And then we drifted off topic. Now, again, this is my take on reading *as a writer*: reading is training, is development, is mat and sparring partner and heavy bag and weight set. Reading is the uncomfortably cut bastard you see doing muscle-ups at the gym and think, god, if I worked harder maybe *that* is possible. Just reading what comes natural is never enough, because what comes natural will stew you in your own juices. Read to grow stronger, faster, sleeker, to hit harder and climb further. And some wild training magic happens when you start: you find you like being strong, and fast, that it’s fun to be sleek, to hit hard, to climb far.
People read for all sorts of reasons, though. Maybe yours are different.