Stephen King asks: Can a novelist be too productive?
A roundup of interesting stuff to read about reading, featuring some of my favoritest writrs:
- All the critical backlash over Go Set a Watchman is missing the point on XOJane: I’ve got a copy and am ready to read it, but the Internet feeding frenzy really turned me off; I like to form my own opinions on what I read, thank you.
- Shirley Jackson and me on The Toast: A terrific piece about the art of copy editing and Jackson’s last book.
- Ursula K. Le Guin refuses to answer stupid interview questions for the New York Times Book Review; plus I want to be in her book club!
- Jane Austen movies plus Onion headlines equals win.
For my yearly reading project in 2015, I have been focusing on women writers, specifically of speculative fiction. This project has led me down lots of wonderful side alleys discovering new writers, revisiting old favorites, and thinking about what they have to say. It’s also helped me understand the bias that women writers continue to face when it comes to getting published, reviewed, and honored. Here I want to share some related links and also encourage every reader to seek out more women writers to add to their To Read lists.
- Shit people say to women writers – A Tumblr dedicated to the shit women writers have to hear all the time
- One of my favorite women writers, Margaret Atwood, lays down her 10 rules of writing
- Daphne du Maurier, women writer and badass
- Is there a double standard for judging domestic themes in fiction?
- Madonnas and whores: on mothers writing about sex
- How to pose like a man for your author photo
- How to analyze male characters in book reviews
- Ban men from literary readings
I am putting together a list of great books by women writers to read. It is now over 150 books. I’ll probably share it when it gets up to 200 or so titles. In the meantime, here are some women writers who I have been reading lately to go out and discover right now: the aforementioned Margaret Atwood and Daphne du Maurier; Shirley Jackson; Patricia Highsmith; Ursula K. Le Guin; Octavia Butler; Jane Austen; Stella Gibbons; Dorothy L. Sayers; Harper Lee; Tana French; Mary Doria Russell; Kate Atkinson; Ngozi Chimamanda Adichie; Ruth Ozeki; Jhumpa Lahiri; Ann Leckie; Emily St. John Mandel.
Every writer must eventually write a book about writing. It’s some sort of unspoken rule. Due to my lifelong interest in the writing process, I’ve read a fair number of these advice manuals. (Two of my favorites are Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley and Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, because both of these books say quite a lot about reading and understanding what you read, in addition to writing.) No question that books about how to write remain popular. I guess a lot of people want to be writers, and they think these books contain the secret, that one highly guarded piece of knowledge that will finally transform the person reading the book into a by-gosh for-real writer.
Here’s the real secret: All books on writing say pretty much the same things. They use a lot of words and pages to say it, too, when all the writing advice ever given can be distilled to just a few simple rules. Hang on, I’m going to tell you what they are in just a minute.
If I had to recommend just one writing book, it would be Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. It’s not that she imparts any great secrets either; her book says pretty much the same thing all the other writing books do. But she says it with a lot of humor and reveals a great deal of herself in the process. Her book is really more useful for providing emotional support to writers, rather than showing them how to write. I take my copy out and read random sections from it whenever I need a little boost.
Now, on to the writing secrets. These are the three rules you need to know about writing, distilled from every writing advice book ever:
- If you want to be a writer, you have to write every day. You can’t wait to be in the mood or to have a great idea. Showing up is key, but the urge to procrastinate can be very powerful. Successful writers usually build a routine around this just to get their butts in front of the computer (or typewriter or notebook or what have you).
- If you want to be a good writer, first you have to be a bad writer. The initial struggle is just to get words on paper. Those words will never be as good as you want them to be. Once the words are there, you can work with them, revise, shape, cut, rearrange, to make them better. This rule also means that your writing, like most things you do, will get better the more you practice doing it.
- Writers read. I will never understand why someone who doesn’t read books would want to write books. All good writers read, a lot. They read obsessively. They read widely. Reading is how you learn to write. It’s how you figure out structure, character and plot. It’s how you find ideas and techniques to “borrow,” to play with and make your own. It’s how you realize what works and what doesn’t.
By the way, these rules also apply to pretty much any creative endeavor. Just substitute the word writer for the artistic pursuit of your choice: painter, musician, dancer, cook, whatever it is.
And that’s all you really, truly need to know. I’ve just saved you a lot of money buying all those books about writing you don’t really need. No need to thank me–just promise that when you become a successful writer, you won’t write yet another book about writing.
I keep a record of what I read in LibraryThing. I haven’t recorded every book I’ve ever read, because I don’t remember (boy, I wish I had started keeping a list at the age of 5 or something). But I have recorded almost 1,200 books, so I thought I’d take a look at my authors list and see which authors were most influential on me.
It seems I read widely, because there are only 2 authors with more than 10 listings, and only one, Stephen King, with over 15 listings. I think being an eclectic reader is a very good thing. For purposes of this little poll, done for my amusement only, I decided to count any author with more than 5 listings as highly influential.
Here they are then, in order of influence:
- Stephen King
- Ursula K. Le Guin
- Neil Gaiman
- Jonathan Lethem
- Edward Gorey
- Christopher Moore* (once, maybe, but not anymore)
- Margaret Atwood
- Jane Austen
- Michael Chabon
- Fred Chappell
- Nick Hornby* (like Moore, this one is dubious, unless it’s him writing about books and reading)
- Kim Stanley Robinson
- Octavia Butler
- Tom Perrotta
- Ray Bradbury
- Roald Dahl
- Kazuo Ishiguro
- Shirley Jackson
- Francine Prose
What’s the point? None, really, just thought it was interesting data.
It seems like many of us avid readers have a fascination with what, and how much, some of our favorite authors could drink. There have been some wonderful love letters written to alcohol by some of our greatest literary talents.
Kingsley Amis was a prodigious drinker. We might almost call him a professional. His words on drinking have been gathered up in a little book: Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis.
This is not a book for reading straight through as much as tippling from at odd times. But if you are at all fond of alcohol, it is a must-read.
There are actually three short books in this volume. The first, and best, section is Amis’s treatise on drink. It is quite funny, and some practical tips are scattered here and there. The second section reprints Amis’s newspaper columns on the subject of drink, and there is some repetition here. The final section contains several alcohol-related quizzes, which might be fun after having a few.
Keep this book by your bar, and remember to nip from it every now and then. It’s probably the only book on the subject you’ll need.
I guess these days we’re too health-conscious to drink like the masters did. Too many calories! The jury is out on whether this is a good thing for literature. But it sure doesn’t seem like being a writer is as much fun.