Writing advice

Schopenhauer’s Rules for Readers (Revised for Writers)

Last weekend I did not post to the blog because I was neck-deep in the South Coast Writers Conference. As always, it was great experience, meeting all sorts of new people and learning new skills and new ways of looking at old ones. The one drawback to an experience like this is that you are flooded with so much information you have no time to internalize what you’ve learned.

It took me three days to establish enough equilibrium again to write anything.

So I will not be sharing what I learned just yet. I need a little more time to make it my own.

So I’m going to write about something I stumbled upon on the web the other day. It was an article (more of a list than a real article) about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s seven rules for reader’s. I was intrigued and decided to reinterpret them for writers.

So I present Schopenhauer’s Rules For Reading Writers:

Don’t read without reflection.

It is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read. If one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what one has read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.”

I agree, for the most part. If you read nothing but Hemingway for a couple of months, you will begin to assimilate his style unconsciously, whether you want to or not. Pausing to reflect on what you’ve read will speed this process up because you will be engaging both your conscious and unconscious mind.

Don’t waste time with bad books.

The art of not reading is highly important. This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time… In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

On this point I have to disagree somewhat with the great philosopher, but only because we are reading to different ends. He is advising students whose goal is to enrich their minds. As aspiring authors, we can learn a great deal from works that aren’t written well, provided we accept that they are not done well. We have to read these with the mindset of asking why they aren’t done well and how we might do it differently to fix the problems.

Don’t read only new books.

What can be more miserable than the fate of a reading public of this kind, that feels always impelled to read the latest writings of extremely commonplace authors who write for money only, and therefore exist in numbers?… It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.”

Yes. Sometimes the cultural ideas will be dated, as will the mechanics (fiction from the Dickens-Hardy era was allowed to move at a much slower pace than modern fiction) but the rules of drama, characterization, and storytelling remain much the same.

Don’t just buy books; read them!

It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

I will be the first to confess that I am guilty of this. I buy three times more books than I can ever read, which does me no good. If you can’t or don’t ever read them, owning them doesn’t help.

Reread important books.

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.”

I cannot agree with this strongly enough. One can only truly understand how an author structured her work when you know the entire work as a whole. It is only when we reread that we learn how the author constructed the beginning, it’s relationship with the middle and end, and how the author ties everything together. In the first reading, we are caught up in the story (or should be if it’s done well); it is in the second reading that we notice the mechanics that so captured us the first time.

Read the classics.

There is nothing that so greatly recreates the mind as the works of the old classic writers…Is this due to the…greatness of the minds whose works have remained unharmed and untouched for centuries?…This I know, directly we stop (reading classic literature)…a new class of literature will spring up, consisting of writing that is more barbaric, stupid, and worthless than has ever yet existed.”

I don’t know that there’s anything terribly wrong with what Schopenhauer would call “barbaric” literature—or popular fiction as we would call it—but I can see what he is trying to say. As writers, if we no longer familiar ourselves with the great works that have come before us, we will be constantly be reinventing the wheel and therefore make no progress in the art form. Literature becomes static, going over the same ground, generation after generation. The best art builds upon the art that has preceded it. To do that, we need to read it.


Ten Best Sentences

Recently, the editors at American Scholar magazine came up with a list of their ten favorite sentences in the English language. Since I’m busy with a book fair this weekend, I thought I’d share this with you. Of the ten selections, eight are from what would be considered literary fiction and two are “new journalism.” Now all of these sentences are wonderful. They are great examples of literature, but are they the best?

The problem with any discussion about “the best” in any kind of art is that so much of it is directly influenced by personal taste. Ask any ten people of my generation to name the three best rock and roll bands of all time and you are likely to get ten different answers. (There is a good chance The Beatles will appear on all ten lists, but there is no guarantee. Some people don’t like The Beatles.) The same goes for best sentences. In this particular list there is a notable exception of anything from any genre writers.

That being said, they are all magical, wonderfully crafted sentences. My goal (and I think it’s all our goal, deep down inside) is to someday be able to craft sentences as beautiful as these on a regular basis.

So here they are, the ten best sentences in the English language, as named by the editors of American Scholar, followed by my own nomination:

“Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, has once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

“I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”
James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

“This private estate was far enough away from the explosion so that its bamboos, pines, laurel and maples were still alive, and the green place invited refugees—partly because they believed that if the Americans came back, they would bomb only buildings, partly because the foliage seemed a center of coolness and life, and the estate’s exquisitely precise rock gardens, with their quiet pools and arching bridges, were very Japanese, normal, secure; and also partly (according to some who were there) because of an irresistible, atavistic urge to hide under leaves.”
John Hersey, Hiroshima

“It was a fine cry—loud and long—but it had no bottom and it had no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”
Toni Morrison, Sula

“Anger was washed away in the river along with any obligation.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

“For what do we do, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at the in our turn?”
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice

“It was the United States of America in the cold late spring of 1967, and the market was steady and the GNP high and a great many articulate people seemed to have a sense of high social purpose and it might have been a spring of brave hopes and national promise, but it was not, and more and more people had the uneasy apprehension that it was not.”
Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

“There are many pleasant fictions of the law in constant operation, but there is not one so pleasant or practically humorous as that which supposes every man to be of equal value in its impartial eye, and the benefits of all laws to be equally attainable by all man, without the smallest reference to the furniture of their pockets.”
Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickelby

“There is nothing more atrociously cruel than an adored child.”
Vladamir Nabokov, Lolita

“In many ways he was like America itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow of foot but always plodding along, always there when you needed him, a believer in the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor.”
Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

And now, my addition to this list:

“Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House

Quote your favorite sentence in the comments.


Writing “Literary” vs “Genre” Fiction

I freely confess; I mostly write genre fiction.

There is a little confusion about the difference between “literary” or “serious” fiction and “genre” or commercial fiction. A good rule of thumb goes like this: serious fiction is all about the writing technique itself, while in genre or commercial fiction the plot or characters are the most important.

In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he tells an anecdote of his days in a college fiction writing class. In short, he’d written a story for the class, but received a failing grade from the instructor, who’d commented on the work that it was “pulp garbage.” (Well, Stephen King wrote it). When Mr. King argued on the merits of the writing, the instructor wouldn’t budge, declaring “this kind of pulp garbage has no place in this class.” Stephen subsequently sold the story to a magazine and brought the check in to show the instructor, who told him that it didn’t matter if he’d sold it for a million dollars, it was still pulp garbage.

I believe Mr. King stopped taking college-level writing classes after that.

He’d encountered literary snobbishness but was strong enough and confidant enough to walk away.

I encountered a similar mindset when I was young and taking the University writing classes. We were all reading and studying literature in our other classes. The unspoken rule was that we were learning to create literature. We were to be experimental, avant-garde. We were the new generation, training to advance the art form.

I bought into it too. I wanted to win the Nobel Prize. I wanted to be the new literary wunderkind.

Which is fine, in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with having a goal and as far as literary goals go, the Nobel Prize is about as good as it gets. The problem is in choosing the road you must travel to reach that goal.

See, the problem is that outside the ivy-covered walls of the University is a real world and the rules in the real world don’t always mirror the rules in the University. And one of the first rules you learn in the real world is that outside of the University communities, almost no one reads “literary” or “serious” fiction. Since no one reads it, almost no one will publish it.

For those who dreamed of making a living writing fiction, writing experimental fiction doesn’t seem the most favorable path. If you want to make money writing fiction, it’s going to have to be commercial. It’s going to have to be genre.

Another factor in my decision to concentrate my efforts on genre writing was (of all things) a passage in one of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee detective novels. In this passage, Travis is talking with another character, an aspiring young artist. She asks him what he thinks of her work, an abstract expressionist painting. He looks it over, then asks her to do him a favor and sketch a nearby lamp. When she couldn’t do it, he advises her that before you can successfully experiment in your art form, you have to master the fundamentals.

That statement resonated for me. Before we can push the boundaries of our chosen art, we must master the fundamentals. In my mind, as a fiction writer, that means mastering plot, characterization, pace and all the other details of successful fiction.

And the final nail in the literary snobs’ metaphorical coffin is the realization that most of the literary greats we students were to emulate did not write their works thinking that people would consider them the height of literary art. Most wrote them hoping to entertain their readers, express themselves, and maybe make a buck (or farthing, drachma, whatever). Even Shakespeare, probably the paragon of English language literature, wrote his plays not so he’d be admired by future generations, but because he wanted to sell theater tickets right then. It was a business.

So the next time someone looks down their nose at me for writing commercial fiction, maybe I’ll hand them a pen and paper and ask them to describe a lamp.