Thursday, 6 December 2012

A fear of books

Another question that came up at the Sheffield Children's Book Awards was, 'Is it important to read books if you want to write books?'

The quick answer is yes - yes it is.

Having said that, I actually find it hard to read whilst I am writing and I am either writing or I am planning or editing an awful lot of the time.  I do have spare time, of course, but reading can feel like a distraction - another voice competing with my own.

I used to finish every book I started.  I was always committed to the author for as long as it took me to read the book, but I have become more and more intolerant of writing I do not like or admire.

But if I read a book I really admire, that can be even more of an issue.  A really good book can throw me completely.  It can make me feel dissatisfied with my own writing.  I tend not to read other authors writing for teens.  I do read some, and I read enough to know there is a lot of great writing out there, but I don't want to read too much.  I don't want to gain an idea of what kind of writing is expected.

I read a lot less now than before I was a writer and that is something I regret.  I used put this solely down to this problem of the intrusive outside voice, but I have come to suspect there is a darker reason. I think I may be developing a fear of books.

Actually, it is more a fear of writers. . .

One of the panel  said that they did not think it was important to read books to be a writer - a slightly awkward point of view to proclaim at a book award to an audience of schoolchildren, teachers and librarians - but it seems to me incontestable that you must once have read books.  How else would you know how a book worked?  Why else would it occur to you to become a writer?

That may sound trite, but it's true.  Delivering a story via a book is a very contrived thing.  You don't stumble into it by accident.  You don't wake up one morning and start writing, without having read any books.  Writers don't invent writing.  They re-invent it.

Like many writers of my generation the book as an object played a big part in my dreams of becoming a writer.  I wanted to see my words in print.  I wanted a cover with a dust jacket.  I wanted to see my name on the front.

But I don't think I ever thought of writing books for children.

I wrote at school.  We expect all children to be able to write fiction, just as we expect them to draw and paint (or rather we did when I was young).  But I trace my life as a writer back to when I was a teenager and actually started to hammer the keys of my dad's portable Brother typewriter, alone, in my bedroom.

This was unnecessary writing.  Unasked for.

I don't have much of what I wrote then, but I remember starting to write a long fantasy novel that owed a lot to Robert E Howard and the myth of Theseus.  I wrote some parable-like short stories in the mould of Ray Bradbury or John Wyndham.

In my late teens and twenties I realised that I had read very little that wasn't genre fiction of one kind or another and began working my way through a library of great writers from around the world.  I couldn't say how many books I read.  I have some of them still, but nowhere near all.  I can't remember many of them, though the best of them still shine brightly:  Kafka's The Trial, Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, William Golding's The Spire, Primo Levi's If This is a Man, Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.  As I got older, I discovered new authors of course, but it was the books I read in my twenties that gave me a template for what I thought was great writing.  I attempted an existentialist novel on the back of reading Satre.  After Kafka, my short stories became more Kafkaesque.

Perhaps the reason I no longer seek out great writing is because it would remind me that it was this writing to which I once aspired.  Perhaps they would make me feel inadequate where they once made me feel more alive.  I do not write literary fiction - I write genre fiction.  For children and teenagers.  I consider that to be a very fine way to earn a living, incidentally.  And I also think that genre fiction in the right hands - in the hands of Raymond Chandler or M R James - can be enough; more than enough.  The fact remains, though, that the great sweeping novel I saw myself writing is probably never going to be written.  Or not by me anyway.

But I still believe in the power of the novel to change lives as well as to entertain.  I do mean that literally.  Novels certainly shaped me.  Perhaps, in the end, they shaped me more as a person than as a writer.

But of course I write the way I do because of the person I am, and one of the reason's I am the person I am is because I read the books I did, when I did.  As much as the people I met or the jobs I have done or the places I have been or the things I have seen, books shaped me.  They made sense of things that hadn't made sense before and they introduced doubt where there had been youthful certainty.

So yes, it is important to read if you want to be a writer.  But I think it's also important to read if you just want to be.

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