Friday, 26 March 2010

Reading for Writers

Gary Smailes (BubbleCow) recently posted his list of seven books every writer should read, which included 'any Mills and Boon' as well as Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code), Bram Stoker's Dracula and a Harry Potter. Which got me thinking. What kind books are most use to an aspiring author and why? The obvious answer is simple: any books of quality. You can always learn from the masters, and Gary makes the point that - as a writer - you're not (just) reading them for pleasure. His choices were also inspired by what gets published, which is an important (if not overriding) factor.

My problem with the list - and the rationale - is this. If every writer read and wrote according to that criteria, then nothing new would ever get written. At one extreme, all that would ever get published would be ghost written sleb gossip memoirs and cheap airport thrillers. But one reason good writing is good is because it does something different. A piece of writing needn't be epoch-making; we're not all going to be the next James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. Nor would we want to be.

But why do something someone else has already done (and possibly done better)? Why model your own work on the successful formula of other people? Was that their path to riches? I doubt it, although there are always exceptions. And writing schools, who's stock-in-trade is often cloning rather than originality.

That said, there are some great examples of writing out there and every aspiring author could learn something from them. Here's a short - and eclectic - list of my 'poetics'.

1. The Daily Telegraph obituaries. Yes! Want to know how to capture the essence of an entire existence in just a few choice words? Or learn the art of bringing a character to life in just a single sentence? The Torygraph obits page is the place to be, and you don't need to be seen carrying the last bastion of the broadsheets either. There are anthologies aplenty. Buy one. Read them. You won't regret it, and you'll be entertained at the same time as you're learning something;

2.  Waterlog, by Roger Deakin. Deakin was a naturalist and broadcaster, rather than a 'writer' in the rather precious sense of the word. But his prose has magnificent poetic focus; a real 'more is less' approach that magically captures the atmosphere of the natural world and - in the case of Waterlog - outdoors swimming. You can do a lot worse than read something by someone passionate about their subject. If they can write - as Deakin could - you've got a formula to follow whatever style or genre you're committed to;

3. It Shouldn't Happen to a Vet, by James Herriot. If you want simple, well-crafted and entertaining after-dinner anecdotes then Herriot has to be among your men. This isn't 'art' and it isn't meant to be; it's entertaining story-telling and an object-lesson in making the most of your own material;

4. Cider with Rosie, by Laurie Lee. I have to admit I've got a thing about Lee. If he had lived in Paris and been called Marcel he'd have been on every fancy literature course that's going. But this is as good a bildungsroman as you will get, and every bit as atmospheric as Proust's Recherche. And not anything like as pretentious.

5. Dubliners, by James Joyce. Forget the rambling 'masterpiece' that is Ulysses and read the backstory: many of the characters in these fifteen short stories of Irish epiphany have walk-on parts in Joyce's later work, but nothing distills the genius of the man more than these effective miniatures;

6. Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh. If you want elegant prose combined with a certain English, slightly understated
 humour, forget Brideshead. The story of Lord Copper and his newspaper, and the unfortunate Nature Correspondent is Waugh's best comic work;

7. Selected Letters of Philip Larkin, ed. Anthony Thwaite. Ok, so he was a sexually-deviant misogynist but what a letter writer! No wonder Kingsley Amis said the saddest thing about Larkin's death was the fact that he'd no longer get a letter postmarked 'Hull' arriving on his mat each month. We might not all have been in Larkin's confidence, but we can read the best of his many letters and they're worth it for the sharply angled observations and acerbic prose;

8.  Poetry in the Making, by Ted Hughes. On the subject of great twentieth century poets, Hughes more than anyone reshaped the poetic landscape and this little book - originally a series of BBC Schools Radio Broadcasts (which is where I first heard them) - is a gem. Hughes was a mystic, and some of his shamanistic tendencies can be a little daunting. But pared of all that supernatural excess, Hughes has something vivid and urgent to say about the business of being a writer;

9. 'How not to Write a Novel' by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman. I suppose there has to be a 'How To' guide somewhere in a list like this. And I know there are many, many others (not least that oft-mentioned book by Stephen King). But some take themselves so seriously they're in danger of disappearing up their own rear orifice. This does the job with abundant humour as well as affectionate teasing of the 'How To' genre;

10. 'Cotman A4 Watercolour Pad' by Windsor & Newton. Ok, my final choice isn't really a book at all but if you want my advice, stop reading for a bit and do some painting. Let's face it: we're all in the business of capturing things in words; but sometimes reading words about words becomes incestuous. So, step away from the books and pick up a pencil and a brush. Look at things like an artist does; really look, and think about what you'd have to do to paint the picture. Even if you don't put brush to paper, it's a mental discipline worthy of consideration. If you want to be a writer, become a painter.

So, there's my list of ten books every writer should read. Not the same thing as my ten favourite books, but still - books I think highlight a broad range of writing styles while leaving plenty of room for originality.

But now it's your turn.

What books would you recommend to a would-be writer?  And why?

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