Unlike Philip Roth, I’m still reading fiction

A tiny tempest, perhaps, but a tempest nevertheless, when renowed and prolific novelist Philip Roth announces he no longer reads fiction, and this with no further explanation than “I don’t know. I wised up…”

So it’s fallen to others to puzzle it out, to wonder, to agree or disagree. As, for example, Laura Miller at Salon, who finds that Roth isn’t alone in the company of fiction quitters and suggests it’s a function of aging, and Russell Smith at The Globe and Mail, less willing to let Roth off the hook, who says it may be, subtly, the desire to be rid of “the noise, the competition, the striving” —

And to switch off all the insecurity that reading others’ work gives a writer, all the reluctant admiration and envy and performance anxiety. Not to mention the sheer stress of having to keep up with all the brilliance being spewed out by thousands of younger people, all the must-reads that pile up like the Sunday New York Times, piles of guilt.

Some decades ago when I was trying my own hand at fiction, timidly, with little experience and tons of insecurity, I picked up the notion — advice given by some writing guru, no doubt — that one ought to stay away from novels while working at one’s own. So I did, more or less, at least while in the heaviest throes of the project. I’m not sure, looking back, if that was good advice or not. I might have amended it, at least, to eschew only the writers I didn’t much admire (though read for various reasons) and allow myself to bask in the style of those I liked and wanted to emulate. Smith is surely right to wonder how a writer of novels can’t be reading them. “Reading fiction,” he says, “is still the best rehearsal for writing it.”

Miller’s piece draws a distinction between fiction and non-fiction — the latter offering “instruction or information” and fiction, “an experience.” I’m not sure it’s quite that clean. Both fiction and non-fiction can offer instruction and information — true stuff, if you like — and an experience. Either can feel easy, or effortful. So much depends on the book itself.

So, I’m reading non-fiction — and lots of fiction. If aging’s the issue, I’ve still got some good years of stories to go before I reach 78. And I’ve got an impossibly long way to go to reach his output, at which point, perhaps, one’s own stories reel endlessly in the self and are all the nourishment one needs.

I’m reading to rehearse, because I’m working on another novel. I’m reading for information, instruction, and experience —  and for stretching understanding and love (which I spoke of in “Some reasons why I write”). I’m reading to exercise my admiration and fight envy — to practice a kind of community life, as it were, by reading the books of my peers or betters, say in a geographical zone or genre. And, I’m reading for the sheer pleasure of story.

One can’t possibly keep up, that’s true. But it would be just as hard to stop!

City of Tranquil Light

I recently read City of Tranquil Light by Bo Caldwell (Henry Holt and Co.). In this novel, the elderly widower Will Kiehn is looking back over his life. As a young man, he felt called to go to China as a missionary. There, he met and married fellow recruit Katherine Friesen. Will preached, Katherine did medical work, and together they experienced the formation of a sizeable Christian church in Kuang P’ing Ch’eng (meaning, City of Tranquil Light) and its outlying regions. They also experienced personal struggles and the trials of their adopted country: famine in 1918-22, civil war in 1925-28, the disintegration of an ancient civilization under imperial rule and China’s massive shift to communism.

Interspersed with Will’s backward look is Katherine’s voice, via her diary entries. The use of alternating voices – one with its perspective in the moment, the other through the gaze of memory – makes the story a kind of conversation as well as a telling. It’s a format that adds momentum to a story that feels — in spite of dramatic elements — quiet, gentle, and measured. (As one might expect from an older person’s recollections). It also deepens the thematic resonance of the book.

I liked City of Tranquil Light a lot. And what I like about talking about it here at my blog is that, unlike a more formal review, say for a newspaper or magazine, I can meander – or jump around – as I will. That at least, is how I understand the conventions of blogging. They allow a more personal, if partial, response – one that may, in effect, privilege the experience of reading over the book itself. (This doesn’t mean professionalism, fairness, and reviewing courtesies don’t apply.)

With that said, let me step back a little into my own context. City of Tranquil Light is a missionary story, and I grew up with missionary stories – in books and Sunday school papers and magazines, from the pulpit, in conversations all around me. They were stories of sacrifice, difficulty, and gut-wrenching inspiration. Missionaries were the heroes of an evangelical Protestant childhood; they were the Supermen and Superwomen of our world, and their ocean-crossing the equivalent of the costume change in the telephone booth. I don’t mean this cynically; it’s how things appeared to us. Continue reading

Thin Air

Last week, which seems a long while ago already, was Thin Air week in Winnipeg. Thin Air is the city’s annual writers festival. I was honored to have a small part in the event, with a campus reading of This Hidden Thing, but mostly the week was about listening to and engaging with a great variety of other writers from across the country. As the event’s subtitle says, “it’s for readers.”

I took in four of the evening events, and two of the afternoon book chats. Here’s a few highlights.

From the festival opener, a line by Ismaila Alfa, traffic reporter for CBC Radio and poet/musician:

Long live the figures of speech before and after me.

Long live indeed, figures of speech!

Since I'm not much of a coffee drinker, my sleek Thin Air mug has top spot as pens and pencils holder.

The festival featured many wonderful writers and their books, and I hate to single some out, but… I enjoyed hearing Richard B. Wright (perhaps best known for his Clara Callan), whose new book is Mr. Shakespeare’s Bastard. Wright had some interesting things to say about how he works, including the comment that reading poetry unblocks him when he’s stuck, reinvigorates him. And, finding myself once again involved in the terror and joy of a new novel project, I certainly  resonated with what Wright said about that:

You’re sitting in a room talking to yourself — it’s almost a form of madness… You hope what you’re indulging in will be liked and indulged by others… [But] I seem to need another life. A writer needs this other imaginary world.

And the books I’d like to read because of the festival? Wright’s, yes, and also David Bergen’s latest, The Matter with Morris, which landed on the Giller prize long list as the week opened. Opening reviews have praised it and the passage Bergen read from it intrigued me. (Another festival author and Winnipegger who made the long list is Joan Thomas, but I’ve already read her Curiosity, so I’m up at least one!) I’m also looking forward to Sandra Birdsell’s new book, Waiting for Joe.

Every time I attend readings I realize again what a pleasure it is to listen to ideas and words crafted with care. Poetry, especially, shines when read aloud; the genre almost requires an oral presentation. Novels are trickier to judge from their performance, I think, because they turn and deepen on extended development. But the fragments we hear are an invitation, and we honor authors when we take them up on it.