Wednesday, February 5, 2020

On Not Reading Enough of the Right Books...

About ten years ago, one of my creative writing professors was curious about where I learned to write.  I had finally admitted that most of my stories were science fiction, and that most of my reading choices were similar.  Unlike my classmates in the MFA program, I had never been a huge fan of "literature."  I love a good book, yes, but I don't seem to have the attention span for great books.  Getting through them is a real struggle for me — it should be no surprise that I usually earned B's in my college literature courses.  For an English major, I wasn't exactly the best reader.

During my MFA in creative writing, my professors and classmates were always very, very surprised when they learned how many books I haven't read.  Like the time my thesis advisor — one of the most kind and caring people I've ever met — asked us to go around and mention what we'd been reading over the summer.  Fitzgerald was mentioned, as was Bolagno.  Several other well known literary figures came up — I was embarrassed to realize that I was the only one who didn't recognize their names.

Now, if I'd been fresh out of college, that would be one thing.  In the grad program, one of my classmates was only 19 — he graduated college at 17.  He had read of the well-established literary authors than I had.  Many more.  And as a writer, he had a mastery of place and setting that I later came to envy.

But he was the youngest member of our class — I was one of the oldest.  After fours years of college, five years in the army, and half a year of bartending, I had lived enough life to read the books that matter.  Except I didn't.  Instead I read Carrie.  And The Illustrated Man.  And Mother Night, The Left Hand of Darkness, Ender's Game (the whole series, including the Ender's Shadow books).  And yes, Bradbury and Vonnegut and Le Guin are excellent and respectable authors — but they aren't Joyce.  Or Fitzgerald.  Or Atwood.

Finally, the summer reading question came to me.  Fortunately, I went last.  As I told everyone, I'd read another Stephen King novel, some chapters from an online comic, half a chapter from an enormous illustrated history of battleships, and a science fiction novel or two.  I did not, however, mention the hours I likely spent reading romance advice columns.  Back then, that's what I read.  Nowadays we have Reddit.

I saw the faces staring back as I gave my answer.  So I tried to soften the blow.  "Yeah, my favorite authors tend to be like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Kurt Vonnegut," I admitted sheepishly, somehow thinking this would make my answer more acceptable.  "I get a lot of funny looks from everyone when I say that."

Said my professor: "You mean like the look I'm giving you now?"

(Also, did I mention that my professor has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize?  No...I did not enjoy getting the "I'm not sure whether to find you tragic or irritating" look from one of the kindest, most impressive writers I have ever known...but then, I guess I had it coming?  I mean, I did smuggle myself into grad school as a science fiction writer...)

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