As a writer, I try to read well. After all, that’s part of a writer’s work: read, read, read. I’ve always interpreted that advice to mean reading widely. Read lots of different authors, lots of different books, lots of different styles.
To a point, that’s good.
To a point.
Yesterday, I reached my tipping point.
I was sitting in the carpool line, reading a literary novel, when I suddenly thought, “I’m sick of this.” Yet another middle-aged bored housewife who starts an affair because she’s depressed.
Admittedly, the novel was inspired by Anna Karenina, which I enjoyed. And the prose was beautifully written. And it was (according to the blurb writers, all acclaimed authors themselves) brilliant.
I couldn’t stomach it.
On some level, I sympathize with a housewife feeling like an outsider in her community: she’s an American living in Switzerland who doesn’t speak German, and I’m a writer living in a tech-oriented community who doesn’t speak engineer.
But an affair? Really? She couldn’t do something productive: learn the language, volunteer, write a book, take up knitting, something akin to getting a life?
(Okay, before someone chews me out, I will clarify: yes, Anna is depressed, her mental illness is real, and someone who is depressed cannot necessarily just “get a life.” If Anna were a real person, I’d have more sympathy (but not a lot, because lying to your therapist, who is trying to help you, is self-defeating. And Anna lies about almost everything. Does she even want help?) In fiction, though, passivity is boring. And Anna is very passive; everything from her marriage to her pregnancy to living in a foreign country just “happens” to her without any interference from her. If I wanted to read the internal angst of a depressed person, I’d read my journals from high school and college; at least I’d know who the other “characters” were!)
I’ve read numerous literary novels with the bored-wife-begins-affair plot. (If all you did was read lit fiction, you’d think no one in the world is happily married!)
The plot points are different.
The characters live in different worlds.
The end is the same.
I’m tired of it.
I shut the book. It’s too depressing to read about some depressed person who ends up throwing herself under a train. (I read the end.) I had just finished reading Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects, a page-turner with a negative, chilling tone about murder and cutting, among other things. I didn’t want to read another book with death and depression and depravity running through it. I needed something with hope and redemption.
In Tolstoy’s novel, Anna begins the book as a morally upright woman; she is devastated by her own actions when she and Vronsky begin their affair. She’s sympathetic. Plus, Tolstoy has other characters wrestling with big issues and coming to various conclusions; with 800+ pages to fill, he can afford to delve deep into more than just the Anna-and-Vronsky affair.
As the carpool line started forward and children raced to their vehicles, eager to tell their mamas and daddies about the school day, I wished I’d left the literary novel at the library and gotten Anna Karenina off my bookcase instead. Re-reading Tolstoy never hurt anyone.
Recently, Glimmer Train published a short essay by Anthony DeCasper in which he addressed what it means to read like a writer. It’s not enough to read widely; we need to read deeply. Deep reading requires time, attention, and multiple readings of the same texts.
“So choose a few books that have held the test of time and reread them, studying the design by asking the whys and hows from the perspective of design and audience.” (Anthony DeCasper, “On Reading for the Beginning Narrative Artist.”)
We should find the great works and study them carefully. Find those books that are worth our time. Dig deep. Pay attention. Study, absorb, analyze, take notes, apply the principles to our own work, do what it takes to benefit from their depth.
When I get home, I’m going straight to my bookcase and finding Anna Karenina. It may not be an easy read. But it’s one that is worth my time.