Readers and Writers

10 May

This site is all about reading and writing. I’ve had little time or head-space for either recently. As a consequence, both my work-in-progress and this blog have been somewhat neglected. My life has been going through one of its periodic phases of turmoil. And so the same has been true for reading.  I have, though, managed to finish re-reading Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a book much concerned with the relationship between reader and writer, a theme beloved of semiologists from Roland Barthes onward. I’d already been thinking about this relationship as a result of joining Goodreads. Initially, my membership was just as a reader. For me, reading’s every bit as important as writing. Noticing that just about everyone else there was listed as a writer, I thought I’d better join the bandwagon. Curiously, for a site of this nature, some members have thousands of friends but mention not a single book that they’ve read… Odd. Everyone is a writer these days, it would seem, but often not a reader. I’ve just written a review of Calvino’s novel on the site, where I described it as an ‘event book’, one of those that divides your reading into a before and after. It’s a book that’s had an enormous influence on my approach to writing.

Readers don’t need to be writers. Writers, though, it seems to me, must be readers. Having engaged with the writing community from time to time over the last couple of decades, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some talented writers who are passionate about books. The worst work that I’ve encountered has always come from those who don’t read. Either such writers read nothing or they read and re-read the same safe, genre-restricted books. There’s an entire world of great writing out there from which we can choose to learn, or not, as the case may be. And when it comes to their own work, bad writers tend not to re-read and they don’t revise. That’s where the real work of the writer takes place, of course. Craftsmanship, painstaking attention to detail… it’s all too much trouble for those who are more concerned with the vainglory of authorship and artefact than they are with the written word.

And talking of reading and Goodreads, I found a the list on the site compiled from the votes of some 37,000 readers and entitled ‘Best Books of the 20th Century’. The top fifty comprises titles that make me despair for the future of the novel, the product of what we might term the infantalisation of the intellect in the 21st century. That J K Rowling (nos. 6, 22 and 37) could teach Calvino a thing or two about writing, apparently. Georges Perec (I couldn’t find any of his works in the top 600) has much to learn from Richard Adams (no. 41). At the same time, some great books have been voted for too. A genuine divide does seem to be opening up in the world of books, like that between the resistance and the firemen in Fahrenheit 451 (no. 11),  between the revolutionaries and the police in If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller (no. 174). I know which side I’ll be fighting on. How about you? Exciting times indeed…

05-10-2013 17;56;13

All text and images © PSR 2014

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10 Responses to “Readers and Writers”

  1. PK Read May 10, 2014 at 6:42 pm #

    Couldn’t agree more, Paul. Writers must be readers, preferably outside their comfort zones, as well. Otherwise it’s just an echo chamber. And really, why should writers expect to find a multitude of readers when they can’t be bothered to read a variety of other books themselves?

    • Paul Sutton Reeves May 11, 2014 at 11:19 am #

      Hi Paula and thanks for commenting. I can’t understand why anyone would want to write books if they don’t read. Very strange…

  2. A Writer With Something To Say May 10, 2014 at 11:51 pm #

    Welcome back! I’m glad you are blogging more. I like this blog.

  3. Mari Biella May 11, 2014 at 10:20 am #

    I often despair when I see the contents of those “Most popular” lists too, Paul. The book world is as subject to the whims of fashion as everything else. But fashion, of course, is extremely short-lived, and I like to think that those books that are genuinely good – as opposed, often, to popular – will survive the test of time. I think this happens anyway. Charles Garvice was an extremely prolific and popular Victorian author, but not a very good one. Hardly anyone reads him nowadays, simply because he’s no longer fashionable, and he didn’t have talent enough to transcend fashion.

    There aren’t words enough to express my scorn for anyone who is or aspires to be a writer yet doesn’t bother to read, and widely. You soon get a feel, though, for those who have joined Goodreads because, apart from anything, they love to read, and those who are there simply because they see it as another marketing opportunity. I prefer to steer clear of the latter group; nothing they have to say interests me very much.

    I hope life has calmed down a bit now, and that everything’s okay! 🙂

  4. Paul Sutton Reeves May 11, 2014 at 11:55 am #

    Hi Mari and thanks for commenting. I find the popularity of third-rate books depressing, though if that’s what people want to read, it’s their choice. What really annoys me are the claims of greatness made for them. Just because we enjoy something doesn’t make it the best. You could only believe a Harry Potter book to be the best work of the 20th century if you’d never read anything else.

    I’ve very quickly realised that Goodreads is bedevilled by the same blight of self-promotion that one encounters on other social networking sites. As you imply, it requires careful navigation.

    Life is turbulent, as usual, Mari! Thanks for your concern.

  5. NewAlbanyBooks May 13, 2014 at 12:16 am #

    Kudos. YES. Writers must be readers. Think what you will of, say, Stephen King, you can’t tell me he hasn’t and doesn’t read. And it shows. Critical. Thanks for stating the premise so eloquently.

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