I’ll mention no names, but there was one debut book of fiction a while back that I thought was spectacular. Then I met the author, who was unbearable. I didn’t change my mind about the book (with some determination), but I confess that the subpar chancer behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain did reduce my eagerness to read any of this author’s subsequent work.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I was a sneaky reader. Reading was what I did when I was supposed to be doing something else. In elementary school, I sat in class with a book in my lap while the teacher maundered on about fractions. This association between reading and getting away with something helped fortify my dedication to it, because I am by nature disobedient. For educators, harnessing reading to virtue is deadly.
For years, I hated reading anything assigned. I despised George Eliot in junior high, because reading “Silas Marner” wasn’t my idea. (Comically, I have duplicated the assignment model by becoming a book reviewer.) I still feel a guilty, subversive thrill when I sit down to read a book during the day.
As a kid, I went through voracious phases. By 8, I hit the horse books — proving once and for all that I’m a girl after all. By 10, science fiction — mostly the classics by Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Arthur C. Clarke, etc. By 15, the classic classics: William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Thomas Hardy, the better part of the Russian canon. I’m grateful to myself for having hoovered up so many of those dusty tomes in my teens. Even “Absalom, Absalom!” might prove more of a slog now.
How have your reading tastes changed over time?
Apropos of the above: I tried rereading “The Brothers Karamazov” in adulthood and couldn’t finish it. I’ve grown much more impatient.
I don’t care for long descriptive passages. I love reading dialogue — one reason I write so much of it — but often skip over the seemingly obligatory stage direction (“he said, setting down the fork for emphasis”), which I therefore include less and less in my own dialogue, preferring to let the conversation rip. Although I appreciate distinctive style and turns of phrase, I’ve grown less interested in language for its own sake. That is, I resist acrobatic show-off prose and abstruse vocabulary (though is “abstruse” abstruse?) — and I’m more interested in skillful or artful language as a route to content. I don’t like detail for detail’s sake, either.
I’ve long needed to read nonfiction books to research certain novels, but to my own surprise I will now read nonfiction books for pleasure. I’ve come to admire writers who can convey information in an orderly, scintillating manner that improves my chances of retaining it. The one genre I still avoid is biography, which for a fiction writer makes no sense. I only want to read about characters who are invented. That strikes me as irrational. Like, are you interested in people, or not? And if you are, what’s wrong with the real ones?