Sunday, 4 September 2011

Sunday Supplement: On Reading and Writing

I don't think I could ever be a novelist. Not a good one, not the sort I'd want to be, at least. For all my fandom makes me dream of vaulting the divide and becoming a creator, as well as consumer, of stories, I grow increasingly aware that I lack what I consider the most important in a novelist. Literature may have moved away somewhat from the notion that a novel is first and foremost about stories and characters, but if I had to chose (and thankfully I don't!), I'd take a solid character driven story from a Bronte (any of them, really!), or Daphne du Maurier, or Salman Rushdie or Haruki Murakami or Jeffrey Eugenides etc over clever post-modern narrative or lyrical prose or fabulous dreamscape description any day.They are my heroes of literature, the writers who take me out of my skin and place me in another, who let me see the world through another pair of eyes, or show me worlds I'm never likely to see. Yes, that's right, when I read I value escapism over all else. And that shouldn't be a dirty word.

Why couldn't I write that sort of fiction? I consider myself a capable wordsmith, and sometimes I even come up with ideas that I think could make good plots. (Sometimes, I even start to write them down - shhhh.)
But where I come up short is in basic human empathy. The simple truth is that I seem to lack empathy and self awareness and social awareness. That doesn't mean I don't have huge amounts of caring and sympathy for myself and others, simply that I don't know myself very well, and even more so I don't know other people. I find it impossible to put myself in another person's shoes. In writing, this results in weak, two dimensional characters that I fail to engage with. Ironically - is this ironic? I've never quite got to grips with the concept of irony and still misuse it regularly - I think I could possibly write the sort of idea heavy fiction, or even biography disguised loosely as fiction. Not very well, mind you! But I don't want to. I don't want to write something I wouldn't particularly want to read.

So, that is a long rambling overly confessional way of saying that I love reading fiction because it gives me something I don't have in my everyday life. I've been reading The Great Night by Chris Adrian this week and above all else I'm hugely impressed with his compassion, his understanding without judgement of human nature, his basic goodness. For a re-writing of A Midsummer Nights Dream - and therefore a book full of fairies - it is amazingly down to earth, a veritable feast of the mundane. Its not so much magical realism, as realist magic, using the mundane to explain our need for a sense of magic, rather than magic as a way of comprehending the everyday. It is a tour de force that every bit lives up to the praise that has been heaped upon it, one of those books I turned page after page after page compulsively, to find out what would happen to our portfolio of characters, and through them to learn more about myself and the world around me. For that is the great thing about escapism - like immigration - : we take with us some of our experiences and knowledge and discover new things that become part of us, expanding our horizons in ways we could not otherwise have dreamed. To be a bit hyperbolic (something I'm often guilty of!), I think fiction both entertains and makes me a better human being. Why would I chose to add mediocre work to the mounds already written, when I can wallow for years in the great work that others have slaved over? It is a lot better for me, that is for sure.

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