Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The writer’s toolbox

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Last week, I wrote about my enduring fascination with the Great Books of the Western World, having been mildly obsessed with this set ever since first encountering its fifty-four volumes in my high school library. What I didn’t really talk about is how this collection, and the idea of canons and reading lists in general, is intimately tied up with my identity as a writer. I’ve always known that I wanted to be a novelist, and as a result, I spent many years thinking about what a writer’s education ought to look like. What it involved, as best as I could determine, was writing as much as possible; carefully studying one’s own language, and perhaps a few others; exploring a variety of narrative art beyond the printed page, especially film and theater; traveling and seeking out other kinds of life experience; and reading as widely as possible. In my adult life, I’ve often fallen short of these high standards, but I’ve done the best I could. And as far as reading was concerned, even at the age of seventeen, it seemed clear to me that the great books were far from the worst place to start.

So was I right? Reading the great books, as Harold Bloom has pointed out, won’t make us better citizens, but will it make us better writers? The evidence, in my own experience, is mixed: if I’ve learned anything since high school, it’s that an aspiring author will learn more from writing and revising one mediocre novel than reading a semester’s worth of the world’s classics. But if reading great books doesn’t make us better writers, it’s hard to think of anything else that will. As I’ve said before, writing is such a ridiculously competitive activity that a writer has to seek out sources of incremental advantage wherever possible, and it’s hard not to suspect that we might benefit from reading Moby-Dick or Middlemarch or Anna Karenina, even if it’s tricky to pin down why. Consciously or not, most of a writer’s life is spent acquiring the skills that he or she needs to produce good work, and in the great books, we have what looks like a very enticing toolbox, even if it’s up to the individual writer to put these tools to use.

This might be why writers tend to at least be cautiously respectful of the idea of great books. These days, we don’t hear much about the culture wars, perhaps because pundits on both the right and left are worried about being tagged as elitists. It’s worth pointing out, however, that of all the attacks that the great books have sustained over the years, very few have come from professional writers. The reason, I suspect, is that while writers know that there’s something inherently ridiculous about canons and reading lists, they also can’t afford to ignore them, at least not entirely. For most people, reading Virgil or Milton feels nice and virtuous, but it’s hard to see how useful it is, compared to, say, electrical engineering or wood shop. It’s only for the writer that the apparently contradictory goals of liberal education and vocational training are essentially the same. For a novelist who is serious about acquiring the tools that he or she needs, four years at St. John’s College is as practical as a certificate from DeVry.

So am I telling you to read the great books? Not necessarily. A reader who plows dutifully through all fifty-four volumes in the Great Books set may turn out to be a good writer, but is more likely to end up a drudge. Most novelists are more like the fox than the hedgehog; their education is accurate, but unsystematic, with lots of wrong turns and diverting detours. True talent will take inspiration from any source: great careers have been nourished by comic books, television, and the movies, and speaking for myself, I’ve been more inspired by the works of Kubrick, Powell and Pressburger, and the like than by most of the authors I read in Latin and Greek. That said, if you’re not sure where to start, it certainly can’t hurt to begin with a reading list: even as your education takes you farther afield, Tom Jones and Tristram Shandy will always be waiting. In the end, the balance between high art and pop culture, and the canonical and the unsung, is one that every writer needs to discover on his or her own, and the fully equipped toolbox will have room for both.

Written by nevalalee

January 24, 2012 at 11:01 am

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