Holding Hamlet’s mirror

Monday, 24 October 2005 — 9:36pm | Jazz, Literature, Music

Allow me to reflect.

I’m not a prolific writer by any means, on the web or in print. Part of it, by my intention or not, is that I’d rather read than write – a preference that I think should be a property of all writers irrespective of their level of seriousness or the prestige of the medium they call home.

Lately, I’ve neither read nor written to any nontrivial degree. I’ve been playing Scrabble. But there’s a common principle at work that applies to both activities: you can’t do something well if you don’t know what it means to do it well.

Writing without reading is bad writing, and to a discerning observer the deficit is as discordant as a karaoke regular who has never heard a real singer in his life. Then again, real singers are hard to come by for the modern layperson when record labels are actively engaged in marketing superstars on the basis of their being tone-deaf. It’s become a house style. And a world where Kenneth Gorelick making like a prehistoric glowworm and flopping his way around an ill-selected blues scale is enough to outsell every real jazz artist on the globe is a mad, mad, mad, mad world indeed.

The funniest thing I’ve read in the last little while comes from a controversy I thankfully slept through a few years ago, and have only discovered now. It seems that Mr. Kenny G decided to overdub a few of his trademark saxopharts over Louis Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”. This prompted a reaction, I would call it, from none other than Pat Metheny himself (only the man who defined the sound of contemporary jazz guitar, if you don’t know who he is), who called the endeavour “musical necrophilia” and then some. Metheny’s talent for obloquy is as lyrical as his proficiency for the Ibanez electric. It even spawned a song.

(Permit me to make a brief and self-congratulatory pause as I admire, in the above paragraph, the best word I’ve coined in at least a fortnight. Google returns no hits for the word or a variant of it spelt with an F. This one’s mine, baby.)

Anyway, to return to the topic at hand: every time I think of writers who don’t read nearly enough, the one that comes to mind is Robert Jordan. When I was fetching the new Snicket at Chapters last week, I passed by another freshly-delivered penultimate volume of a more thickset build – Jordan’s Knife of Dreams, the eleventh of a projected twelve books in his popular series of sword-and-sorcery paperweights, The Wheel of Time. I quit the series after seven out of having better things to read, though I no longer sleep as well as I once did; Jordan’s prose was a panacea for all forty-two flavours of insomnia, and I recall missing at least one bus stop on its account.

Now that I’ve discovered a really schlocky bestselling writer, who is as terse as Jordan is grandiloquent, he doesn’t seem so bad. I still can’t justify resuming where I left off, of course, because I simply have better things on my shelf, and his common penchant for pluralizing gerunds could have a detrimental effect on my word study.

But I digress. (Almost as much as he does. Oh, snap!) I meant to bring up Robert Jordan in conjunction with the topic of how reading and writing interact, because I remember one particular interview with him where he comments on the same. I’ve dug up the relevant excerpt:

I had always said, “One day I will write.” Then when I was 30 I was walking back from a dry dock to my office, and I had a fall and tore up my knee very severely. There were complications in the surgery, I nearly died, I spent a month in the hospital, and I spent three and a half months recuperating before I could walk well enough to go back to the office. During that time I reached burnout in reading. I remember picking up a book by an author I knew I liked, reading a few paragraphs and tossing it across the room and saying, “Oh God, I could do better than that.” Then I thought, “All right son, it’s time to put up or shut up.”

And so I wrote my first novel. It has never been published although it’s been bought by two publishers, and a lot of good came out of it, including meeting my wife.

And you know, I respect that. It’s true that the extremity of consuming words in hopes of fueling the production of them is a life of consumption that produces very little. I think a lot of writerus blockitis comes from ambition and perfectionism. Robert Jordan has the good fortune of suffering neither.

He’s an odd example in the sense that he is, in a manner of speaking, a writer who reads. (We’ll ignore for now that according to Amazon’s “Significant Seven” interview, he names as his desert island book his own work-in-progress.) But judging from his own writing, if he thinks he can do better than the authors in which he was once so engrossed, either he’s not there yet, or his influences clearly weren’t very good.

It’s easy to tell when a writer is an overly selective reader – one who only reads in genre, or one who refuses to read in genre; one who only hits the pulps, or never hits the pulps. I find that writers who read develop a writer’s identity, or voice as some would call it, through a balance of controlled mimicry and improvisational distortion; and just as the most revered figures of the great improvisational art form, jazz, draw on influences from gospel to swing to stride to bebop to post-Romantic to chain-gang country blues, writers can only benefit from reading diversely.

Then you have the likes of Umberto Eco, who is so well-read that it makes his fiction impenetrable because of all its a priori dependencies. Predictably, his non-fiction critical discourse fares much better, but even in fiction he conceals a treasure trove of content, not fluff, behind a tattered verbal curtain. In Robert Jordan’s case, after some early books that are pleasurable for their escapist manoeuvres if not their style, the content is wholly subsumed by a textual torrent that begs for a stopper. One wishes the author spent more time reading the works of others instead of treading water in Narcissus’ swimming pool.

I hear that Knife of Dreams cleans up some of the muck, but considering how much of it must have accumulated in the interim (in addition to how much was floating about already), it sounds like a book for fans’ eyes only. I’ll not make judgments by covers, of course.

There is more to say about literacy that needs to be said, but I have midterms to swat.

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