Who has time to read? I’m in output mode, as my character Don Tillman would say. That’s a simplification of the reason that I have not read much fiction lately. But I find that reading others’ work while I’m creating my own has a negative effect on both activities. I’m writing a novel in first person, and wary of anything that may disturb my narrator’s voice. And reading good prose is still intimidating for me: if I want to be inspired to greater heights, I’m better seeing a play or a concert.
The estrangement from reading dates from sixteen months ago when I began writing prose fiction for the first time in more than thirty years.
I enrolled in the RMIT Professional Writing and Editing program and wrote The Rosie Project, adapted from a screenplay I had been working on, and several short stories. While Rosie waited in the publishers’ slush piles, I drafted a second novel, and then a double novel with my partner. In time I was editing Rosie for publication and then promoting it, editing my partner’s erotic fiction and picking up loose ends from the foray into screenwriting. I was on a roll, discovering facility in something I had dreamed of doing for much of my life. I wasn’t going to risk breaking the spell for anything I could put aside.
Surprisingly—and I’ve only acknowledged this because of the pile of books beside my bed—I have been reading. But let’s start with what I haven’t read. When writing a book or screenplay, I am invariably encouraged to read or see something that’s ‘just like it’. Since I began working on Rosie, this has meant anything that touches on Asperger’s Syndrome. The advice comes from friends, my writers’ group, even publishers and producers. It’s well-intentioned, but beyond the motivation-sapping message that ‘this has been done before’, and the concerns about losing my own voice, reading similar work creates pressure to be different instead of just telling the story as you see it. I’ve never watched Big Bang Theory. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time sits beside my bed on top of One Day. I had planned to read them when Rosie was finished, but now that I’m working on a sequel, they can wait.
Male readers notoriously favour non-fiction, and I contribute to that statistic. In the bookshop, the latest Booker winner is piled next to Dan Koeppel’s To See Every Bird on Earth. Ornithology: that looks interesting. Like the Scrabble book. Scrabble books, my partner reminds me. Did I claim not to read books on Asperger’s? My partner will buy the novel, and possibly, vetted and recommended, it will pass to my side of the bed, where it will get read. Eventually.
I’m a technician, a devotee of methods and tools. So I read about the craft of writing. Tim Ferguson’s insightful treatise on comedy, The Cheeky Monkey, is half-read. My artistic hero is Bob Dylan, who has managed to do interesting work into his seventies. There’s always a book on him, currently Christopher Ricks’ Dylan’s Visions of Sin, by the bed, something to dip into before sleeping. Dylan has been studied to death and a huge body of his work at various stages of refinement has been released, providing an insight into the creative process that is not available by looking at the managed and filtered work of most artists. It is reassuring that he produces some bad stuff, and that not everything that is good started that way. Listen to Like a Rolling Stone in waltz time…
But fiction. As a teenager, I read science fiction—everything by Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, and lots by the other players—Dick, Bradbury, Le Guin, Farmer, Vonnegut. This was sixties and early seventies SF, big on science, big on premise, with character, relationships and style often taking a back seat. I picked up a Heinlein book a year ago, and after a few pages decided not to disturb the memories. I have continued to read widely: from Dostoyevsky and Proust and Camus to John Irving and Nick Hornby and Joanne Harris, typically devouring all of an author’s work, chronologically, before moving on.
Input Mode. This lifetime of reading surely informs my writing more than what I’m reading now. But no amount of listening to Jimi Hendrix will make you a guitarist. There comes a point where you have to focus on your own practice.
The fiction I have read while writing has largely been in response to requests for reviews and my continuing studies.
I took JM Coetzee’s elegiac Waiting for the Barbarians, set for my novel class, on a recent promotional trip and found myself analysing it in terms of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey—not necessarily the best way of approaching it. But screenwriting has made me very conscious of structure. Reviewing Ben Schrank’s cleverly constructed Love is a Canoe, I was studying craft as much as overall effect. As Tim Ferguson says about humour, ‘once you know how the trick is done, you’ll never laugh again.’ I’m now reading Laurie Frankel’s Goodbye for Now, a novel that has echoes of the science fiction that I read as a teenager, and much the same appeal, pulling as much story as possible from a single, plausible premise. I’m engrossed—but wait. What is she doing with point of view here, and why?
The Rosie Project has been compared with Toni Jordan’s Addition, and I chose the latter as my gift for speaking at recent bookshop event. I had it with me on the plane as I flew out, too tired to write or to analyse. It was a totally engaging read which made me ask myself again—why don’t I read more fiction? I will, I will, just as soon as I’ve finished writing.
Graeme Simsion is a writer of many things, and most recently published The Rosie Project.
24 Apr 13 at 14:37
I’m not a writer Graeme but I found this post fascinating. I can understand not reading other fiction in your area of writing – I can imagine it would be hard to maintain your own voice once you’ve heard others.
Anyhow, I thoroughly enjoyed The Rosie Project and wish you well with it. Jordan’s Addition was a good read too. It’s good to have protagonists who are not always the norm.