Good Reading Makes Good Writing | Why I Don't Agree

October 14, 2014

Are you a reader? If you aren’t a reader, you might as well forget trying to be a writer.”

Source: The Art of Fiction No. 118

 

A couple years ago I joined an audiobook club called "Audible.com." I chose this method to read because I have difficulty staying focused long enough to actually read books. Now I’m not implying that I don’t read

books, but I have never been a fervent reader. I can neither quote authors

that I’ve read as do most of my contemporaries, nor can I list the titles that I’ve managed to read, albeit mostly in graduate school, since the last title scatters as quickly as my retention of the story diminishes. I am not even saying that I don’t enjoy reading, because I do a great deal. While that would normally particularly seem odd to people who have read my own writing, this fact is nevertheless true.

 

Popular pedagogy dictates that a good writer is a good reader. My professors at St. Joseph’s University generously emphasized the necessity of reading as a solid prerequisite for masterful writing. I am relentlessly pursued by thoughts of the lessons I learned and the disciplines I mastered.  However, after having graduated summa cum laude with a Master of Arts in Writing Studies, I cannot and will not state unequivocally that an insatiable reading lust makes a great writer.

 

I am not speaking for the entirety of the writing community, only myself (there’s my usual disclaimer). I never speak for anyone but myself. But before I’m booed and hissed for my unorthodoxy, I can attest that I do, by all intents and justifications, believe that reading is valuable and wonderful, sublime and exquisite.  I believe that if not for real readers, especially the passionate purists who delight in the ritual turning of inked

paper pages as well as those enthusiastic language lovers who prefer their Kindles or Nooks, there would be no need for writers. Yet, I also believe there are problems in the 21st century on the question and answer given by the noted author, historian and writer, Wallace Stegner, stated in the beginning of this essay.

 

The pedagogics of writing vis-a-vis reading is simply part of a perpetual, capricious succession of originality lost.”

 

The fashion industry is an excellent example of this. Each so-called newly created design is merely a form of another design from another era. For example, a season doused with sprinkles of sparkle, or elongated by lengthened skirt hems from twenty years ago is now shortened, and unembellished, labeled and then called, an original. The standard by which all are designed can be packed neatly into one space, because they are the styles. Everything else is just fashion produced by fashion designers.

 

Such is the case with writing. There are styles, and everything else is just fashion. And there are the designers here as well. These are the market-value, New York Times best-selling authors from which we all are told we should take a lesson. After all, they wouldn’t be “best sellers” if they couldn’t write? Right?

 

Notwithstanding the New York Times, I must not forget the “Classics” as well. To have been as talented as Charlotte Bronte or Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens or J.D. Salinger, Jane Austen or Kurt Vonnegut, and F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Shakespeare in this 21st century would guarantee one’s solidification as the preeminent word (pun intended) on the subject.

 

“Where then, is the intrinsic creativity of one’s own imagination rising to enable a 21st century writer to produce great prose?”

 

William Faulkner, a Nobel Prize winning author, presents a wonderful contradiction of statements in two quotes that I found:

 

"Read, read, read. Read everything -- trash, classics, good and bad, and

see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out the window." William Faulkner (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/literature/laureates/1949/faulkner-bio.html)

 

In this quote, he is challenging his audience to read, and likens it to a carpenter’s apprentice studying from the master builder. He then tells you that you will absorb it. Finally, he tells you to write. The last couple

sentences are actually meaningless for my purpose. The operative word is the “absorption” of that which is read. When absorbed, it loses what it was and becomes something else. Does that make it yours? The analogy of the carpenter and the apprentice speaks to the technique of mechanical functionality, of theory and skill, since to perform in the capacity of a carpenter without the knowledge and skill of a professional, can be dangerous at worst and incompetent at best.

 

Then Mr. Faulker is quoted on another interview on another occasion with this refrain:

 

Let the writer take up surgery or bricklaying if he is interested in technique. There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error. The good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. He has supreme vanity. No matter how much he admires the old writer, he wants to beat him. (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4954/the-art-of-fiction-no-12-william-faulkner)

 

It is clear in this quote that he understands that there is no “mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut,” and that following a theory would be tantamount to foolery. He goes on to explain the rational for his statement, that the good artist believes that nobody is good enough to give him advice. (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4954/the-art-of-fiction-no-12-william-faulkner)

 

 

“We study a craft which embraces “imitation” through reading as the basis for great writing.”

 

This is proving to be a rather long essay, so I will stop it here and call it, “Part 1.”

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