Reading, Writing and ‘Rithmetic
Or: why I don’t write the same sort of things I read and vice-versa.
A discussion I allowed myself to be sucked into on Google+ (thanks, Rebecca Blain) eventually wound around to the question of what writers read versus what they write (and thanks, David Grigg).
Now, the book that my agent is currently hawking on my behalf is a hard-boiled urban fantasy. Irish faerie gangsters, glamour, iron allergies, that sort of thing. Confessio: when I wrote the first draft, I had never cracked open a book that one might term urban fantasy, nor one that might be called hard-boiled detective fiction. My contact with the latter consisted of having watched a few movie classics (The Maltese Falcon, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity) listening to Guy Noir on “Prairie Home Companion,” and memories of “The Adventures of Nick Danger” from old Firesign Theatre albums. If you count some of Graham Greene’s “entertainments” I guess those fall into the category too.
The former…I really don’t think I’d read or watched *anything* in the way of a UF story as most people understand them.
But I knew Chaucer, and Marie de France, and the Tuatha de Dannan. And that was enough. When medieval faerie stories were set down, they *were* contemporary fantasy. I just changed the time period. As to the hard-boiled, noirish part, you don’t need to read the collected works of every writer from Hammet to Mosley to grasp the idioms and tropes of that strain of modern literature. It’s in the water, as they say, having passed from its original pulpy roots through successive stages of popularity, parody (loving, self and otherwise) and back into self-conscious revitalization.
So I tend to shift uncomfortably when people ask me about the current offerings in urban fantasy land. I have read some at this point, both for purposes of market research and to see if I have managed to successfully, if blindly, tread the line between familiarity and
contempt novelty so crucial to a debut novel. The problem is that for many, perhaps most readers, and certainly for a lot of people on the publishing side, Urban Fantasy is another name for Paranormal Romance, and what I write is Not Paranormal Romance, so apart from the handful of comps I listed in my query letter, reading it doesn’t do me any good.
So there’s that. What *do* I read, then?
Thinking about that led me to the realization that I don’t read (apart from research for writing) nearly as much as I used to. I read voraciously from ages four through college, for fun, primarily science fiction, later with some fantasy added in. As an undergraduate and later a returning graduate student of literature I read for…well, you can’t call it fun, but it wasn’t exactly painful either. But I broadened and deepened my reading across time, outside genre, into and through translation, across cultures.
One way or another, the first thirty-five or so years of my life, I read a lot. Two thousand books? Maybe. I didn’t keep track. I’m not even counting the comic books of my misspent youth and adolescence, though I am including Sandman and Watchmen and Bone and the other graphic fiction that made me re-evaluate the form. I use italics for the titles, so they must be literature.
I started writing fiction when I was about forty.
And I stopped reading. Not abruptly, not with malice, but because, as Ms. Blain puts it, I had to choose how I wanted to spend my time, consuming or producing. Having a kid made a difference too: already squeezing in writing between my day job, family time, and increasingly precious sleep, reading got squeezed too. Not quite out–I slip stuff in between bedtime and unconsciousness when I can, sometimes elbowing sleep aside for a night or two. Otherwise I’d not have discovered an appreciation of China Mieville, Michael Chabon, Christopher Moore or Roddy Doyle–but what once was central now is peripheral, and even when I derive fun from reading (as I certainly did with those authors) it’s driven more by the need to research what people think is worthwhile these days. Not because I would change what I write to fit a current fad, but to make sure the things I care enough about to work into my novels have some resonance with what’s out there now.
For me that’s how it has to be. There are only so many hours in the day and the week: the ‘rithmetic doesn’t lie.
Yet what surprises my friends most–the ones who know exactly how many times I re-read The Lord of the Rings–is that I have no interest in writing high, epic or otherwise quasi-medieval fantasy. The truth is I have no interest because I cannot write it to save my life. I loved reading LOTR, and I like some of the modern authors like Patrick Rothfuss, but the willing suspension of disbelief I manage as a reader does not carry over to writing for me. I’m too…cynical? Jaded? Post-Modern? Deconstructed? I’m too something to write it with a straight face. I’ve tried. I go through the motions and what comes out is blandly acceptable at best. Even if I could sell it I wouldn’t.
I do a little better with hard SF, perhaps because it has more room for my sensibility, whatever that is. My WIP has a lot of hard SF in it…and some not-quite-high fantasy…and other stuff. A lot of other stuff. If it ever sees the light of day the people at TV Tropes will have a blast with it. But I read very little of the current crop of SF, not because it’s not to my taste, but because I simply don’t have the time. See squeezing comment, above. Once in a while a story I meant to skim for marketing research purposes will pull me in (Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon was like that), but generally I have to settle for a high-altitude glance.
The real question, I suppose, is how I feel about the current state of things. Truthfully, I’m not sure I can provide an honest evaluation from the inside, as it were. I’m writing. I have to keep my brain in writing mode as much as possible. For me that translates to a shift of my capability to evaluate outward, from myself to my work. If I stop disinterestedly pushing pieces of myself onto the page long enough to think about them, if I lose the distance I need from my here and now to create a not-here and not-now, my work suffers.
So ask me when I stop writing, if you can get past the nurses’ desk.