Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Kind Of A Writer Are You? Zadie Smith Explains Reading As A Balanced Diet

In Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith relates her experience writing novels. In some ways, it might be called advice. Below is a highlight of what I thought was helpful, to a degree, for the struggling novelist:

Some writers won't read a word of any novel while they're writing their own.... They don't even want to see the cover of a novel.... Try to recommend a good novel to a writer of this type while he's writing and he'll give you a look like you just stabbed him in the heart with a kitchen knife. It's a matter of temperament. Some writers are the kind of solo violinists who need complete silence to tune their instruments. Others want to hear every member of the orchestra--they'll take a cue from a clarinet, from an oboe, even. I am one of those. My writing desk is covered in open novels. I read lines to swim in certain sensibility, to strike a particular note, to encourage rigor when I'm too sentimental, to bring verbal ease when I'm syntactically uptight. I think of reading like a balanced diet; if your sentences are baggy, too baroque, cut back on fatty Foster Wallace, say, and pick up Kafka, as roughage. If your aesthetic has become so refined it is stopping you from placing a single black mark on white paper, stop worrying so much about what Nabokov would say; pick up Dostoevsky, patron saint of substance over style (103).

As a writer, I'm not as much of a promiscuous reader as it sounds like Smith is. I would go bonkers with so many books open on my desk. I like to make a close study of a novel while reading it, and then bury it back in the bookshelf after internalizing all I can.

Reading as a balanced diet is a fine way to approach which books we obsess over, glance at, and study. While I'm writing a novel, I can't help but scan the used bookstores for titles that might somehow teach me more about what I'm writing, or trying to.

My current novel is about a drunken mayor of a small town attempting to pull off a surprising feat that will get him back into good graces with all the people, so when I saw William Golding's The Spire, something about a church dean trying desperately to get a crushing spire to be built atop his ancient, crumbling church lured me in. There were lessons about the head of a community undertaking a job despite the grumblings and backstabbing of a small group of people.

I also keep my eyes open for stories about people in small towns, in rural places. Only you know the tone of your novel and where you wish it to go, so it's beneficial to align your reading choices to inform your work.

The other great idea in the highlight paragraph is to be careful that what you're reading doesn't shift the way you're writing your novel. David Foster Wallace has the tendency to make you want to bloat your paragraphs with minute details and do tricks with your sentences. But that doesn't work for everybody, and if you're not adept at it, it certainly won't for you. Also, not every novel needs to be hypersensitive to detail, and overstimulated in its storytelling.

So if you find yourself mimicking one writer more than you think is healthy for maintaining coherency and consistency in your current writing project, substitute what your reading for something else that's in the opposite style. Or a more moderate style. 

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