Reading, Writing, No ‘Rithmetic

May 5th, 2005 · 6 Comments
by Booksquare

It was recently brought to our attention that we, unlike some, do not aspire to be Tolstoy. For a lot of reasons, we took this as a compliment. Not that we don’t adore Russian literary giants — we do. But remember, too much Tolstoy causes the gout. When our poor, put-upon bookclub encountered our first choice — The Brothers Karamazov — there were groans (possibly because there are only so many wines that go with Russian literature). They never got our excitement; possibly we shouldn’t attempt to do the Grand Inquisitor voice. They never got that Dostoevsky was funny. Really funny.

That his kind of funny points out our major flaws is a subject we’ll save for another holiday.

Some say you write what you read. That is probably true, to some degree. But, maybe because we were detoured by Betsy and Tacy this past weekend (long story, starting with the husband asking if we minded stopping by the bookstore on the way home), we think it’s something more. Like the fact that sometime you are captivated by a certain view of the world. And certain types of stories tend to express your view better than others. You pursue this view despite what others say. Matthew Cheney says:

I’m sometimes frightened by how much of my life seems to have been determined by certain events in my childhood. Writing is no exception — the majority of the essays and reviews I have written could all be said to originate from one moment when I, a precocious and (I’m sure) annoying twelve-year-old, asked a college professor who was a friend of my mother’s if science fiction could be literature. He said no, because it’s formula fiction, and cited work by Robert Heinlein and Larry Niven as examples. I was crushed.

Our science fiction was romance. We vividly remember a week during our junior year of high school where we careened between J.D. Salinger and a bag full of Harlequin romances (classic stuff, nurses, doctors, Minis). The Salinger became a paper on, well, Salinger (and we still revisit all nine stories at least once a year). The romances? A lifelong interest, though we don’t read them nearly as much as we used to. This says more about the current state of the genre than our belief in what the stories are saying.

Reading is not an either/or thing. When you pick up a book, it should be about losing yourself in the story. If you’re writing a book, it should be about telling the story inside. If you’re writing to impress someone else, stop. It won’t work. This we know to be true.

File Under: Square Pegs

6 responses so far ↓

  • Karen // May 6, 2005 at 7:33 am

    Captivated by a certain view of the world . . . that’s an excellent refinement . . . Moby Dick is really funny, too. I used to live next door to a Shakespeare scholar who insisted that Meville was the worst writer in the world, and when I told him that certain lines in MD made me laugh out loud (admittedly, these lines tended to be early on in the story), my standing as a reader/writer dropped considerably. Ah, well.

  • Booksquare // May 6, 2005 at 12:08 pm

    You may be the first person to ever say that Melville was funny. Except for maybe his mother, but mothers always think their kids are the cleverest little beasts in the world. I may have to go back and revisit early Moby Dick. Am I wrong in thinking that Billy Budd had a few moments as well?

    Your admission doesn’t change your standing around here!

  • Karen // May 6, 2005 at 2:19 pm

    I’ll never find the exact passages (a reason for e-books, searchable text — or does this exist already, and I’ve missed it?), but there’s a bit about Queequeg being royalty in his own land, and because there’s a dearth of furniture there, certain subjects follow him around all day, turning themselves into human chairs and footstools at his whim. Also somebody with a head like a salad. I don’t know. It made me laugh. I can’t recall about Billy Budd, but why not?

  • robin d gill // May 8, 2005 at 1:13 pm

    and there is a good deal of wit in the moby dick off-chapters, melville’s metaphysical musings, falling into the whale’s brain, the eye on two worlds — maybe not haha “funny,” but he clearly writes to entertain the reader who likes ideas, what i call hyperlogic.

    for searchable text, try google print.
    if you google my name, then go to my books, choose topsy-turvy 1585 and search the word dostoevsky and you should even find out where (i think) the idea for the grand inquisitor came from ( a passage in golownin’s captivity in japan). rdg

    by the way, i sent my four books to ggogle print and amazon the same day a couple months ago (both with the proper forms) and amazon does not yet have a single one up!

    rise, ye sea slugs!

  • robin d gill // May 12, 2005 at 7:03 am

    OOps! Amazon look-inside-the-book put all 4 of my books up the day after i wrote the above — so they were only a bit slower than google, who did it a book at a time.

    As far as Moby Dick goes, the question i would ask is: why don’t we have more such mixes of fiction and nonfiction? I could have sworn that Annie Dillard, when she edited Best American Essays (1988?), mentioned what Melville accomplished and claimed that nonfiction is freer to be creative because it does not need to convince readers about a fictional reality. Yet , as far as i know (my last decade has been spent in writing not reading) neither she nor anyone i have read have mixed fiction and nonfiction Moby style. In fact, the next thing Dillard wrote after pumping the possibilities of non-fiction was a novel!

    After reading Hearn’s Adam’s Task and Paglia’s Sexual Personae (around 1990?), i thought interesting nonfiction might take off, but they both started doing journalistic crap (i suppose it is the only thing that pays) and, sorry to be a complainer, but i can’t help wishing for truly stimulating non-fiction books to read and simply do not find it. And i have not yet had my coffee . . .

  • robin d gill // May 12, 2005 at 7:14 am

    Re Brothers Karamazov and the Grand Inquisitor.

    If you do a search on Dostoevsky in Topsy-turvy 1585 at Amazon (i just tryed the seach inside the book for the first time) you will find out where the idea for the Grand Inquisitor came from. I think it was the discussion of Free-thinkers and conscious pushing of religion by confucian (in a sense, atheistic) rulers in Japan in Golownin’s Memoirs of his captivity there in the early 19c; and that i just recalled was what i was going to comment on until i read someone else’s comment on Melville! As far as i know, my discovery is my own. If you know any Dostoevsky scholars, please tell them to check it out!

    Be sure an search Dostoevsky for I did not spell the brothers’ name the same as you do.