Reading: If You’re Going to Write, You Must Read

There was a time in my life I was such a knucklehead, I said I didn’t want to read too much, it might pollute my originality. So I postponed Ulysses, Mrs.Dalloway, Updike’s novels, Cheever, and so on, preserving my own special genius unsullied by, ahem, real genius. And missing much amazing inspiration, insight, and just flat out reading pleasure in my foolish abstinence. Or as a wag said, my obstinate abstination. 

Worse. I wasn't alone. I've heard students, but other soi-disant “writers” who have yet to write much more than a term paper, offer this "fear of pollution" fantasy to justify not reading literary books or screenplays. [Yes, screenwriters need to read screenplays, not simply go to watch TV claiming TV is the new cinema.]  

To assist in the project of writers reading, our classes for the next 8 weeks (starting the third week of March), will be reading a short, wonderful book: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, by Mohsin Hamid (who has recently published another book: Exit West, now in hardcover). It will surprise some of you that HTGFRIRA is a self-help book that has some detailed advice about, um, making money. It will surprise none of you that the self-help is a flimsy excuse to tell a story with grit and wit. 

I got the book in hardcover mostly because I thought the title was such a gas, and I liked it. But now, I want to re-read it because, while Hamid writes quite well in the McCord Method of Embodied POV, I recall he gets away with stuff I might steer other writers away from (like second person address to the reader), so I want to see how he did it. He’s also a writer who understands how to inject Complication—with a capital C and that stands for Cooked up Cock up Cwazyass—into a story.

And I’ll tell you quite candidly that as a teacher of many talented writers, I think the place where brilliant work becomes brilliant is with complexities and varieties of complication.

If you’re not in my classes, this blog post is an alert to the book(s) and the writer, and also to the really important part of reading: read twice. 

Let me repeat: read twice.

Complication is always a product of the protagonist's weakness meeting brutal antagonism. A really good writer can introduce and play out these antagonisms

  1. in such an interesting or exciting way, that when we’re reading the first time, we just gobble up the delicious story and accept them as “natural”; 
  2. to use them to pattern out complex problems authentic to the story-world to create a sense of theme without the simplistic “messaging” of the author intending an obvious message. The difference between excellent literature and this kind of turgid/condescending/irritating propaganda is the cleverness of the complications. (Including the complication of the protagonist’s character since the modern novel is all about how the protagonist is her own antagonist...)

As I said, the good writer gets us so interested in her storytelling that we forget we're reading words, we just want more story, please! 

But by reading twice, we slow down our appetite for plot and linger over the repetitions and designs of the story that are at the heart of its artistry; we can appreciate how the complications arise from some logical considerations the writer concocted. A good story may appear to have a feeling of “organic” confusion to it; in fact, it’s laser-focused with every word selected to condense and concentrate meaning. It's not a spontaneously generated telling, but a developed and designed artifact.

Let’s see how Brother Hamid does it.