Read to Write

What’s the word? Apparently, writers like Cormac McCarthy and Philip Roth have given up on the word — at least the made up word. Over at Salon, Laura Miller dedicates an entire article to it. First, I was angry and defensive. What blatant hypocrisy. Then, equal parts disappointed. So, even literary giants like these men don’t like to read fiction, which for the most part, the vast majority of people in the world don’t read anymore. Philip Roth reads, but in his statement, he claims he now prefers books about history, science, or politics, and goes on to say that he turned away from fiction, because he “wised up.” To what exactly, Phil? Because this statement seems to very much bolster the pervading notion that if something isn’t true, it isn’t valid, and that fiction is frivolous and a waste of time. The overwhelming advice that any aspiring writer gets from the more successful, the advice I’ve gotten the most of, is to read. Read like mad. But, apparently if you’ve become a McCarthy or a Roth, you can give it all up after you’re successful? You just read to get published, and win Pulitzers, and be a part of Oprah’s book club, and then that’s it? Miller brings up the appropriate argument that reading too much can actually constrain a writer. I’ve even heard similar quotes from Alice Munro. I remember reading in an interview with her that she felt reading too much can leave a writer stifled. This is a valid point, because the main goal of a budding writer is to find his or her own unique voice. I think the difference with Munro is that she was warning against reading to the point of imitation, not giving up reading stories altogether.

The reverse ageism underlying in all of the arguments or excuses can’t be felt more, coupled with questioning the use for fiction. So, people who have had more experience in life shouldn’t indulge in stories? According to this article, they have “reached a saturation point,” but then goes on to admit that the novel is perhaps the single most intimate art form revealing the inner life of another person. And, old people shouldn’t have this relationship with a story, because they’ve already met enough people in real life? Huh? What kind of logic is this? The beauty of fiction is in the access of a different consciousness than one’s own, and if it’s good fiction, the resonance of having this access shouldn’t depend on age. Philip Roth may learn facts by reading about science or anthropology, and as Laura Miller notes that staunch proponents of nonfiction proclaim, even if it’s poorly written, he will “come away from it having learned something about the world.” But, within fiction is just as much truth, only a different kind — the truth of someone else’s experience. The personal truth attests a universal, more transcendent truth. McCarthy or Roth, while were once eighteen, for instance, don’t know what it’s like to be eighteen now. They don’t know what it’s like to be a lower class woman living paycheck to paycheck. They don’t know what it’s like to be a gay teenager kicked out of their parent’s home. They don’t know what it’s like to have survived a rape. They don’t know what it’s like to be an undocumented U.S. immigrant afraid of law enforcement. They don’t know what it’s like to fight in Iraq or Afghanistan. And, the list could go on. And on. And, while they may have read stories about people like this before, or even written about people in similar situations, it still won’t be the same character who’s affected in a different way than the particular story they happen to read at the time. Much respect for both of them, much more for McCarthy than Roth, I’ll admit, but the central question I can’t get over is this: How can any writer expect their work to be read or respected and not consume and support the art they produce?

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