Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Readers Write

Ex-journalist and aspiring author Alix Christie (not pictured, right) asks an interesting question over at More Intelligent Life: “What makes any of us think that we have something to say that others need to read?”
  My first reaction is to say that it’s probably not any one thing. For me it’s a combination of misplaced encouragement at a formative age, a love of words in their best order, and some kind of benign malfunction at the synaptic level that has fused ego, super-ego and id into a single psychic apparatus. That’s not to say that I’m sick, exactly, although it’s hardly healthy to be walking around with multiple conversations in your head. Still, so long as I keep taking the tablets, aka getting at least a little bit of writing done every day, then all should be well.
  But back to Alix Christie’s question, and what’s interesting about it, I think, is that she asks about what people need to read, rather than what they want to read. Is there a difference?
  There’s a big difference between needing and wanting. In fact, it’s often the case that the more you need something, the less you want it.
  A lot of people need to read, and I’m one of them. I’ve only recently become aware, for example, that I should be somehow ashamed that I brought ten books away with me on my / our honeymoon. I mean, it was a three-week honeymoon (not pictured, above). And one of the weeks was spent in the Maldives, where, once you’ve stared for an hour at the picture-perfect view, and gone for a snorkel, and had a White Russian at the dock-side bar, there isn’t an awful lot else to do that doesn’t involve White Russians.
  Again, I digress. People need to read, certainly, but that’s no guarantee they’ll have a need to read anything specific, let alone something specific written by you or me. So long as it’s halfway decent, I’m happy enough to have my need to read satisfied by almost any kind of reading. Whenever I get to indulge the luxury of reading a book I actively want to read, and it’s as good as I’d hoped, then that’s a whole different issue, and very probably an experience with the quality of magic that inspires the need to read in the first place.
  Maybe it’s realising that I’ll always be more of a reader than a writer that’s had me noticing recently that a lot of writing-related blogs, this one included, tend to use the word ‘readers’ quite a bit. I don’t like it. The implication is that there are two camps, writers and readers, when the truth is that any writer worth his or her salt is first and foremost a reader, and will read far more on a bad reading day than a good writer ever wrote on his best writing day. Meanwhile, and at the risk of sounding even more whimsical than usual, I honestly believe that the writer only ever writes, at most, half the story. The other half is written in the reader’s mind. A writer cannot supply horror, joy, hunger, pain. He can hint at it, suggest it, whisper it or shout it, but even the best are just telegraph operators who set the reader’s synapses tingling. I think that that’s one of the reasons people love a good book so much, the fact that it brings the best out of them, literally.
  Anyway, I’m just going to go ahead and dispense with the word ‘readers’, and just use ‘people’ instead. Because, in an ideal world, the words ‘people’ and ‘readers’ would be synonymous.
  Finally, I’m curious: I need to read, but I’m not overly fussed about what I read, so long as it’s good. Do other people have a particular need when they read? Can your want only be satisfied by a specific need being met? Also - what’s the last book you read that really hit the spot?


colin bateman said...

More importantly, where'd yo get the photo from?

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Quite a combo in that picture, the great beach and Divorcing Jack that is. The most recent novel read that did it for me is The Baby Killers by Declan Burke and before that, The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Jay McInerny's The Story of My Life is currently keeping my interest.

Ali Karim said...

Excellent point[s] Declan, I too need to read, and the reasons are I guess -

# to see what others make of reality

# to learn about human nature

# to escape and be entertained [beyond the superficial level given by TV and Film]

# to be educated


Declan Burke said...

Much obliged, chaps.

Colin - the pic I found on, if you google 'beach reading' you should come across it fairly sharpish.

Cheers, Dec

Michael Malone said...

I NEED to read and I get antsy if I don't have a book ready to pick up once I've finished the one I am currently engaged in.

I read a lot of fantasy and that kinda book provides me with great story and action. As does crime - the better crime fiction also provides more of an emotional connection.

recent read that really impressed was an review copy of The Dead Women of Juarez by Sam Hawken. One to watch out for in Jan 2011.

michael said...

In this "sky is falling" world where we seem eager to declare the end of everything from the book to (fill in blank), we need to remember humankind has been sharing stories since the first tagger used a cave wall.

While I read for all the same reasons the "reader" does, as a writer I find an unique joy in finding that perfect sentence in a good book. That moment of awe and envy you feel when another writer nails it. I will stop in wonder. How did the writer do that? More importantly, how can I do that?

Sean Patrick Reardon said...

Michael- Excellent observation about finding great sentences and lines when reading. I do that all the time when I come across things like that. It's almost like a personal moment of silence while you savor it.

Richard L. said...

"Truth be told, I'm not an easy man. I can be an entertaining one, but it's been my experience that people don't want to be entertained. They want to be comforted. . .I too just want to be entertained. That I am almost never entertained by what entertains most people who want to be entertained does not make us philosophically incompatible." -- Richard Russo's protagonist in STRAIGHT MAN.

Several novels later, after he had won the Pulitzer Prize, Russo said that he had come to believe that the end of literature is compassion. That literature, both the writing and the reading of it, makes men more humanely compassionate.

Which is also why there are so many more authors of novels who lean to the left rather than the right.

"Serious fiction writers think about moral problems practically. They tell stories. They narrate. They evoke our common humanity in narratives with which we can identify, even though their lives may be remote from our own. They stimulate our imagination. The stories they tell enlarge and complicate--and therefore, improve--our sympathies. They educate our capacity for moral judgement."

--Susan Sontag, quoted in the excellent book, THE WORLD IS MADE OF STORIES, by secular Buddhist scholar, David Loy.

kevin said...

where does need stop and addiction start? i get nervous if i have any spare time--when i'm out of the house, waiting for one of my kids at soccer or singing or some such and thus not feeling guilty about not writing--and i don't have a book nearby.

curiosity is a big thing with me which is why, to bump your article on 'torture porn/fiction' from today's post, i have no interest in reading formulaic serial killer thrillers. i know how they will end. other than that, anything and everything. last book i read that did it for me, believe it or not, was One Day, by david nicholls. picked it up at work, read the first ten pages during lunch and didn't want to stop. moving and true and compassionate. respect for the talent and moved by the story. also, re-reading New Hope for the Dead by Willeford at the moment for an article. equally moving and compassionate--seriously--though in a warped kind of way.