Empirical Thoughts: Reading is Writing

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7 December 2009

At The Guardian, writer and funny lady AL Kennedy feels our pain. “Us” being emerging writers, that is:

…Like other small (very small) businesses, many authors have noticed that those tiny and yet important cheques have started to arrive two or three months late, or not at all. I have even experienced haggling over fees when I turn up for gigs – and as negotiators go, I’m as resilient as a damp biscuit.

Please don’t misunderstand me – I know I’m in a very fortunate position – none of this is as bad as not being published, not being able to find work, being fired in a recession, having my house repossessed, or kids to worry about. If I need more money, I can do more work. And sleep less. I mainly worry for the coming generations of writers. If my next advance is smaller than the last – and it will be – I can try to diversify even more, I can tour more, I can try to ginger up work abroad. I have no idea what a new writer would do now – attempting to burrow into a market that’s in free fall and a literary “culture” that drastically limits the numbers of books that are published or that will ever be visible in major bookshop chains, reviews or the media generally. Publishers are beyond risk-averse and are currently decision-averse. It is possible that published writers will no longer ever leave whatever other employment they use to subsidise themselves. Meanwhile, the increase in poorly conceived and exploitative creative writing courses will continue, and increasingly the writers who teach on them will end up training potential writers to teach other potential writers to teach on other courses and round and round they all will go – never knowing how good they might be, or what they’re missing.

But she also sees that active, inquisitive readers are alive and well:

I keep meeting readers – intelligent, passionate readers who go out of their way to support books. Over the last few years there has been an explosion in literary festivals, readers’ groups and reading series. When the range in your local book shop collapses, your library dumps its stock and your media barely acknowledge your interests, it seems that you don’t, as a reader, give up and stop reading, or just buy the Fast Seller you’re peddled by the only part of the UK’s publishing machinery that’s still functioning – you fight back, you get organised, you dig about for books that you’ll genuinely love, you reach out to others of your kind. Which – as a reader and a writer – I find wonderful and promising.

Which makes me think about a rather obvious, though not always acknowledged, connection between these two things — the teaching of writing and intelligent, passionate reading.

I have written here before that I generally believe in “the wide road” when it comes to writing — that if a person has the desire, focus, and discipline to write and to work at writing, who am I — or any other writing teacher — to deem him hopeless?  Why not teach the craft of writing, to as many as would give themselves over to the experience and the work, if you happen to know a little bit about it?

But the only would-be writer I ever feel truly hopeless about is she who reads lazily.  This is not about volume, but about engagement.  Whole-being engagement, no less.  There is nothing at all wrong with reading for entertainment or emotional escape; but it’s not enough.  Not if one desires to be a good writer.  One must read actively, widely, with intellect-emotion-soul.  All cylinders firing.  One must come to reading expecting, seeking, to be changed, to get smarter and better as a human being.  One must read for one’s life.  Anyone who reads in this way is a promising student, in my mind and in my experience.  When I come across sentences and ideas that are truly terrible it’s obvious to me that the fundamental problem is not writing talent primarily; it’s that this person has not yet learned to read — both what to read, and how.  This is the student who reads primarily for entertainment, who doesn’t “listen” to language on multiple levels, and who has not understood yet the difference between words slapped together between covers to get you from some Point A to some Point B, and literature.  If the student is content with her reading life, then there’s not much I can do for her; if she is hungry, if she is inquisitive, if she wants to know what this different kind of reading is all about, then, as they say, we’re in business.

I’ll leave you with this bit of wisdom, from Sam Lipsyte, about what can or can’t be taught:

I think maybe you can’t teach touch. You can help people improve their sensitivity to language, but at a certain point it’s about the ear they’ve always had, even if they’ve never really let it do its work before. And you can’t teach people to be fearless (and sometimes shameless), though you can exhort them to be so. Most everything else, it seems to me, benefits from some sort of mentorship or collaborative effort. I do subscribe to the idea that you get what you need much faster with other people around. You’ll reach the same place by yourself, but it will take a lot longer.

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