It’s Hard To Write When You’re Reading – On A Summer Reading List

As my old poetry professor Dorianne Luax said, “It’s difficult to read when you’re writing.” And the novelist Seth Kantner told me that he always gets the writer’s voice in his head and has trouble creating anything that’s truly his own – the worst being anything by Annie Proulx because she’s too good.

So as I was writing my new novel this summer, a novel that is nowhere near ready or good in its current draft form, I’ve tried to read varied, talented writers, writers that might inspire me with their voices, imagery, plot, or narrative arcs.

I’ve mostly written this summer, but these are the books that I’ve read and a few reactions:

– After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

– The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

– Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter

– The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides

– The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

– Ablutions: Notes on a Novel by Patrick deWitt

– Collected Stories – Flannery O’Connor

– Sartoris by William Faulkner

– The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin

– Northline by Willy Vlautin

Notes and short rants on these books in no particular order –

First, Willy Vlautin is the real deal. When reviewers say he’s like the secret love child of Flannery O’Connor and Raymond Carver, they’re not exaggerating. He’s that good. Gritty, honest, and true. Every character feels real. And his books are full of sad hope.

After You’d Gone is so complex structurally that I wonder how O’Farrell put it together. The story is rich and textured, the characters believable in all their human failings. I loved this book.

On Sartoris: I have to stop reading minor works by major writers. Faulkner in As I Lay Dying is incredible. Faulkner in his minor “potboilers” is atrocious. Sartoris has so many adverbs, it’s like a creative writing class joke assignment.

I’ll admit that I read The Virgin Suicides with (as the editor/agent Betsy Lerner calls) the author’s competitive reading spirit. The Virgin Suicides earned two starred reviews as a debut novel. I wanted to earn two starred reviews for my debut novel. But the comparisons stopped there. Eugenides’ novel was brilliant and scary satire and my novel Graphic the Valley is neither.

While I read The Bell Jar, I remembered reading On The Road by Jack Kerouac. These books should not be read out of their time period because more is expected of contemporary writers than novelists of the middle 20th century. Kerouac’s writing on jazz makes me want to throw up as does Plath’s over-dramatization and championing of a real-life struggle with depression. While Plath’s imagery is still beautiful, she repeats images in a way that would get a modern novelist rejected by a discerning editor. This novel does not stand up to her incredible poetry, or to time.

Pale Horse, Pale Rider is three short novels put together, and the second is the best. I wondered if Porter influenced Hemingway’s career. They had to have read each other, and I like to imagine Ernest on a hunting trip, sitting by the fire, leaning back and reading Porter, thinking, “Damn, she’s pretty good.”

I can’t wait for Patrick deWitt’s next novel. If it’s anything like The Sisters Brothers, I’ll read it in a day. Ablutions was dark and short but when the narrator swallows his own rotten tooth, I laughed out loud. deWitt has the rare ability to make his reader laugh at anything.

The Art of Fielding is one of those long first novels that you never want to end. Harbach makes the reader care about each character, each person’s desire, and the addictions that we justify.

Finally, have you ever heard of Flannery O’Connor? Yeah, you have? David Sedaris once wrote that he would love to iron her clothes while she sat and told him stories. I feel the same way.

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