Monday, May 16, 2011

Nutritional Reading

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.


  1. Sister Stephanie. This is a great post and a fantastic promotion for the Masters, old and new. I agree that the only way to develop fine prose is reading the classics, and that adult readers should know better than to rely solely on light literature for leisure. But let us keep in mind a couple of factors, recent polls indicate that Americans of all classes read less than ever, and I recall one survey where some of the pollsters seemed almost proud to declare they had not touched a book in a year! The war against the reading of the classics began in the academic world so it´s not surprising that good reading material is frowned upon, but it’s also miraculous that some people read at all (even if they just read trash).

  2. There is a sense in which this feels like preaching to the choir. If bad writers think they are good writers, and/or bad writers only like to read other bad writers, then what are the odds that they'll think a Master is masterful? To continue your food analogy, think of somebody who has eaten so many Big Macs and Cheetos over the years that they find vegetables completely repulsive.

    It's not that I think you're giving bad advice. Quite the opposite. I just think, as with so many things, the people who truly need to hear this won't.

    To play devil's advocate on my own point, I suppose one ought not refrain from sharing because she or he thinks nobody will listen.

  3. [Ack, Blogger ate my comment again! But this time I copied it to my clipboard before hitting "post comment." Jeez, I better do that every time.]

    Violante, the trend away from reading is dispiriting. I have some very intelligent friends who've given up on books; they prefer to get their storytelling from the screen. They make a good case for that choice, but I think there's something we get out of the act of reading that we don't from stories told on screen.

    I'm not sure what we writers can do about the death of reading. I can only think that improving our craft will help our case. It is possible that in order to rescue reading, we all have to mimic the lowest common denominator, but I certainly hope that's not true. :(

  4. Sister S. promoting the reading of the Masters is never wrong. Promoting the idea that we writers could only improve our craft by reading the Masters is not superfluous. A plus in your post is defining "new" Masters, because there are a lot of young writers out there who think Dan Brown and Stephen King have literary merits.

  5. Hey DD, thanks for posting! You raise some good points. I've gone through years (years!) where I read nothing much at all except Spin magazine and nonfiction science books. My dedication to high-lit is relatively new. (Barring that degree in English lit, of course, when I was consuming it all the time because I had to.) Having been in the position of "aspiring writer who can't be bothered to read Hemingway," I feel I'm in a good position, now that I am reading Hemingway, to urge others to do the same. I'm like an evangelist who must share the good news! That stuff we had to read in high school, and it was so boring then? It's good now! We're old enough to get what they were talking about! Go back, try it again, writer-friends! If lazy-me could do it, others can too. If I've benefited from it — and I have — others might, too.

    Of course, I run the risk of being quite as annoying as any other evangelist. :}

  6. To clarify, I'm not saying that reading the masters is the only way to improve one's writing skills. Attending workshops, joining critique groups, reading in one's own genre, and reading how-to manuals are all tried-and-true methods. I'm just saying that studying the masters is underutilized as a tool of the trade.

  7. Very valid points. If a writer simply went from a book on the craft, as if a paint-by-number, then it would lack creativity and originality. It would fall flat on the page.

  8. Sister Stephanie, you make a great analogy between nutritious/junk food vs. good/bad literature. But this is a tricky comparison because, like we stated in a previous conversation, the distinction between good and bad literature is not as clear cut as the nutritional facts between healthy and unhealthy foods. One is subjective (relies heavily on personal taste and preference) and the other one is objective (it's proven that eating fatty/sugar-filled foods is bad for our bodies.)

    I see that when you talk about the masters, you divide them in two categories: classical (aka "dead" writers) and Pulitzer winners (aka contemporary literary writers.) But again and again we hear how difficult it is nowadays to publish literary fiction (unless your work gets picked up by a university press.) Undoubtedly, reading this type of literature has its benefits, like learning about style, prose and wonderful descriptions. But I think the more commercial fiction also serves its purpose. It can teach us about plot development, suspense-builders, a great hook, etc. There has to be something good about the "trashier" fiction to become so successful. It may not hurt a beginning writer to find out what it is.

  9. Hey Sister Steph! Gotta say I love that rabbit! (Oh, crap! He's out of his hutch! Ha!) As a kid, I raised rabbits, so they make me laugh.

    On a much more serious note, I'm right there with you when it comes to the masters. In high school and college I took scores of literary classes and, much like you, I was lazy about it and thought they bored me to tears. Now, years later, when I've taken to seriously writing I have a much different outlook. Give me a Hardy book back in college and I would have groaned. But now, when I randomly select a book off the shelf and crack it open, not knowing what I'm going to get, I'm actually happy to have some lovely writing to read. It took turning my brain into a writer's brain for me to understand and enjoy more of the classics. I challenge any strict commercial fiction reader/writer to force themselves to open a classic novel either in their genre (i.e. classic sci-fi, classic romance, classic thriller, classic fantasy, etc.) or a writer they've never considered reading before. Betcha they'd be surprised how much they like it!

  10. Carolyn, I was thinking of some of the how-tos on (for example) scene creation and how they're totally formulaic: Protagonist has stated goal. An obstacle gets in the way. Protagonist tries again, meets obstacle 2. Repeat a few times. Resolve scene with protagonist in an even worse pickle then before, such as hanging off the edge of a cliff. Repeat throughout book until the end, except in the last scene she needs to get off the cliff, either in a body bag (tragedy) or by her own wits (thriller) or because Mr. Hero sweeps in to rescue her (romance). All done!

    OK, that's kind of a generalization, but that's how many articles I've read on scene creation go. (I have one taped up here right next to my computer for handy reference.) Yet I've hardly ever seen a scene outside of a strict genre (thriller, mystery, romance) work like that. In the more literary stuff I'm reading lately, virtually no scenes follow that outline.

    Which brings me to the point of commercial vs. literary again ... I imagine writing formulaic scenes like that does work to keep the reader flipping pages: it's the "adrenaline sells" thing, and it does work. But we can't compete with screens for adrenaline: films and television are just better media for cliffhangers. The novel is a medium that's inherently slower moving, descriptive, and introspective. If we keep trying to compete with blockbuster movies, I wonder if we will continue to see fewer and fewer readers.

    While we tend to get dualistic in these discussions, the actual world is pretty gray and a novel can be both literary and fast-moving, so I agree, Lorena: we *can* learn from the Kings and Queens of Plot. It doesn't have to be either-or. I like Carol Goodman for this reason: her novels ("The Lake of Dead Languages" is my favorite) are kinda mystery and thriller and romance, really, but she has pretty passages, too. She knows how to write. Christopher Moore is the king of silly but some of his books (not the vampire ones so much) have a surprising depth to them, and contain passages I've copied out along with Flannery O'Connor.

  11. "If we keep trying to compete with blockbuster movies, I wonder if we will continue to see fewer and fewer readers."

    This is very interesting to me because I keep reading in articles and agent blogs that novels *must* compete with other forms of entertainment and electronic media (and this is why we're supposed to "hook" the reader with the first sentence.) I love what you said about novels being inherently slower and introspective. You're right, novels are supposed to be different than Film/TV. No other media allows us the opportunity to explore the minds of others (unless we have an annoying narrator in a movie.) And that is an exclusive element of novels and short stories, which is probably what keeps them alive!

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  13. I like to read a balance. My ideal is to write something commercial with literary substance to it, but I admit to preferring commercial over literary. I rarely read things just for literary content. That said, writers like Margaret Atwood and Barbara Kingsolver kill me with how awesome they are.

    I usually read a variety of books--some veggies, some hamburgers, and the occasional total chocolate bar. But that's what eating sensibly's about... don't deprive yourself completely of fun stuff, but don't let the fun stuff dominate your life either. You just don't appreciate chocolate if you have it every day.

  14. Meagan, I really like how you put it all into perspective with the well-balanced reading diet. Nice way of putting it!

  15. "I usually read a variety of books--some veggies, some hamburgers, and the occasional total chocolate bar." Nicely put, Meagan!

  16. Hi Stephanie. What a great post, and i'm with you. Hope the veggies are satisfying. I love your theory about reading the masters being more fun than the 'how tos' but I do love 'how tos too'. There are plenty of living 'masters' and I love your choices - Attwood, Proux, Harper Lee et al. I would add my fave: Anita Shreve. I love to learn from her.

    Thanks again and hi to Mary Mary.


  17. It's easy to pick up bad habits while reading pulp. I think literary fiction has a way of opening our minds to other ways of seeing the world.

  18. L'Aussie, thanks for the Anita Shreve recommendation! I have one of hers on my Audible wish list. I'm struggling with a current Hi-Lit read ("Let The Great World Spin" by Colum McCann) and I also need a good commercial fiction recommendation, if anyone has one. I think I'm ready for a chocolate bar! :)

    Lynda, I feel the same way about literary fiction: the really good stuff has a way of making everything in my own life seem more meaningful and poetic for a time. That's true for all good art: film, stage, even canvas. Makes us feel we, too, are part of a beautiful story.

  19. I really don't read enough these days and hope to improve my reading 'diet' eventually. Love Kingsolver though. Her characters are beautifully drawn.


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