I am currently reading Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin. I am also currently rewriting my own novel, possibly to be titled The Stars Are Fire. Last night Mighty Reader asked me what I thought about McCann's book. My answer was, more or less, that I thought it was fantastic writing but I didn't know if I was enjoying it much. There ensued a short conversation about LTGWS and what, if anything, I expect from a novel. This conversation eventually turned to what I expect of my own novels (because I am never more than six sentences away from talking about myself), and I have made some observations. About me, of course.
The first books I can remember reading were fairy tales, Dr. Seuss and then adventure stories. Books heavy on danger and linguistic play. The books I write now are heavy on danger and linguistic play. Huh. Later I read Shakespeare, books heavy on (even the comedies) the dark side of humanity and full of linguistic play. The books I write now are (even in the comic moments) heavy on the dark side of humanity and full of linguistic play.
When I was a young man, I read a lot of books that examined the existential problem (that is, attempting to find meaning in the fact of being human and delineating the social and spiritual contracts) and I thought that when I grew up and became a writer, I would pen introspective novels set in modern day that examined the existential problem, books that would be beautiful and quiet, revealing and heart-rending. Not quite books like Let The Great World Spin (which is not a book I wish I'd written, though it's got passages I wish were mine), but possibly books like...well, that's where I run into trouble. I'm not sure who is writing books I wish I'd written. I can't think of a book--even one I admire greatly--that I wouldn't change if I had the power.
Anyway, so there I am thinking I'd either be on the cutting edge of experimental prose (like, say, William Burroughs during his Cities of the Red Night stage or Italo Calvino writing If On a Winter's Night a Traveler), or I'd be writing solidly humanistic fiction like Dostoyevski or Chekhov or Prose or Hemingway. Instead I am writing big tragedies in the manner of Shakespeare that are filtered through the fairy tales and adventure stories (Doc Savage! John Carter, Warlord of Mars! Lucky Starr and the Pirates of Venus! Et cetera!) of my youth. In short, my writing and reading are both apparently strongly informed by my earliest reading habits.
I make no judgements about this (aside from the inescapable feeling that no matter what I write or how I write it, I could have done a better job and I'll never really be pleased with or impressed by my own work); I merely note it. I write the stories that come to me, that I am able to write. I work on the books until they seem right to me, and I read books that seem right for me, and neither the books I read nor the books I write seem to be the books I thought I'd be living with. Which confuses me a bit, and confusion annoys me, so I'm annoyed.
So am I going anywhere with this rambling confessional? Don't know. Possibly there's a buried theme about trying, through my writing, to reconcile my juvenile influences with my abstract concept of literature and either failing or not but being unable to tell the difference (because there is no success or failure in that attempt, which is predicated on a foolish and undefined standard). Or, you know, I've been getting too little sleep of late and everything seems a bit funhouse mirror, if you know what I mean.
Anyway, thoughts on this? Are we essentially writing versions of the books we first read? Can we move far from our "formative years?" Should we? Should we not?