This week, I’ve started eating better. I’m off the pretzels, I’m eating a ton of raw vegetables, and though it’s a pain in the butt to spend extra time chopping stuff, and it’s not immediately satisfying as burying my face in a bowl of Ben & Jerrys, the payoff is ultimately worth it. This is where I introduce my food-to-literature analogy: I’m also on a healthy-reading diet.
I’m expanding here on a point raised during last week’s discussion. It was off the original topic, but I’ve been chewing on it and want to pull it out for further discussion. The question raised was, “Why emulate the literary masters when the today’s industry frowns on that type of writing?”
While it's true that certain specific trends of previous decades and centuries (omniscient third, long narrative passages) aren't trendy now, there's still plenty to learn from the masters that will help the modern writer. Personally, I find this tactic more helpful than reading how-tos. It's less confusing and more inspiring. It's also just more fun. Reading a novel is more fun than reading a manual. Not that it has to be either-or, thankfully.
Another point is that “literary master” doesn’t necessarily mean “dead guy.” Toni Morrison, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Alice Walker, and Dorothy Allison are a few contemporary — and alive — authors generally considered "masters." ("Mistresses" sounds like a different job altogether.) They sell pretty well, too.
To some degree, it makes sense to read in the same genre you're writing: if you want to be the next Dan Brown, then study Dan Brown. Even writers of thrillers and romances, though, could benefit from immersing themselves in some Flannery O'Connor or Harper Lee. (An aside: I wish Dan Brown had studied Updike or Steinbeck: selfishly because then I could tolerate his work, and for his own sake so he’d be read beyond his own life.) O’Connor has been my darling of late: her physical descriptions — of people and places — are extraordinary. I’m so enamored that I’m not content with merely reading her: I copy out passage after passage. It’s the best way for me to microfocus on her word choice. And description is just one aspect of her talent: I could also look to her for ideas on how to build suspense, how to work in symbolism, how to pretend like you’re fairly representing a worldview when actually you are mocking it. I get more out of an hour spent with Miss Flannery than I do from any how-to book.
Not that the how-tos don’t have their place. I have shelves full of books on writing. See the photo? That’s one of my shelves; I have more. I do find inspiration and instruction from these books, but they are theory. As we’ve discussed, too much theory — especially when it conflicts — is confusing and disheartening. To make sense of this mess of ideas, I have to look to fiction, and it seems only logical to me to study the very best. Just as an aspiring painter will study the masters of that art, so an aspiring writer should. Dickens is still selling, so is Hardy, so are the Bronte sisters. When I’m writing historical fiction, it’s especially helpful for me to look to these nineteenth-century writers. I know not to emulate their head-hopping and meandering chapter-long descriptions, but Dickens had a wicked sense of humor, and some of his character descriptions are cruelly hilarious: Here are two examples from Hard Times: “Mrs. Gradgrind, a little, thin, white, pink-eyed bundle of shawls, of surpassing feebleness, mental and bodily; who was always taking physic without any effect, and who, whenever she showed a symptom of coming to life, was invariably stunned by some weighty piece of fact tumbling on her.” And, “Lady Scadgers (an immensely fat old woman, with an inordinate appetite for butcher's meat, and a mysterious leg which had now refused to get out of bed for fourteen years) contrived the marriage, at a period when Sparsit was just of age, and chiefly noticeable for a slender body, weakly supported on two long slim props, and surmounted by no head worth mentioning.”
When I’m writing modern fiction, I turn to modern writers like Joy Williams and Margaret Atwood. From my file of Helpful Snippets I’ve summoned this little bit of Atwood that caught my breath: “I feel like cotton candy: sugar and air. Squeeze me and I'd turn into a small sickly damp wad of weeping pinky-red.” From Williams: “The garage was empty. The rabbit hutch was empty save for a withered string bean. The rabbit was probably hopping around somewhere nearby, terrified. Or it might be hunched up somewhere in a narcosis of incomprehension at being hutchless.”
Contemporary masters have just as much to offer as their dead counterparts. Not every masterful writer is to everyone’s taste, as I’ve mentioned, but luckily there are plenty to choose from. If Marilynne Robinson bores you to tears (she does me), then try Barbara Kingsolver, or Jane Smiley, or Annie Proulx. Even when I’m not seeking a Brilliant Novelist to inspire me, those writers hook me right in an entertain me to the last page. They’ve all won Pulitzer Prizes, too, which is one “master of the craft” measurement.
To borrow from sister Mary Mary, just as we are what we eat, we write what we read. Reading bad fiction is likely to sustain our writing approximately as well as Snickers and Doritos will sustain our body. I’m not swearing off salty snacks forever, and I like my Janet Evanovich from time to time, but too much of that stuff will start to affect me in bad ways. I have found that reading nutritious fiction is essential to my well-being; it feeds not only my writing, but my soul.