Saturday, June 30, 2012

Must a Novelist Read Mostly Novels?

I love math. I know this is strange coming from a writer, but it’s true. I think that, when so often mired in the vast gray area that is language and narrative, I find solace in the black-and-whiteness/wrong-and-rightness that math offers. I find elegant beauty in a spreadsheet, the way you can put in the numbers you have, arrange them just so, and find answers—real answers, correct, indisputable answers—to big questions. I love statistics and charts, and (while they can be interpreted in many ways to many ends) numbers themselves do not lie.

All of this is to say that I’ve come across some interesting numbers in my life as a writer and reader. As you may know by now, my preferred medium is the novel. I consider myself a novelist. While the vast majority of my life is spent on business writing, writing novels is my calling. It’s what I love the most; it’s what I do for fun. I do it even though I’m not making money on it.

Now, keeping in mind who I am as a writer, let’s consider who I am as a reader. Out of the last 30 books I’ve started and/or finished (and you can verify this for yourself), it breaks out the following way:
  • 1 graphic novel (2, if you count Eric Drooker’s Howl here)
  • 2 books of poetry (1, if you count Howl under graphic novels)
  • 3 short story collections
  • 7 novels
  • 17 non-fiction books

And it is important to point out that, out of those 7 novels, I only finished 4. (I no longer finish novels that I am not enjoying by the midpoint. #YOLO.)

This list, of course, is limited to book-length material, but I also extensively read short works—essays, articles, scholarly papers, Supreme Court rulings—and I would estimate that, in recent record, 95% of this reading is non-fiction. (Though, I did recently read “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” and "The Extinctionists" on Instapaper.) The last new book I bought, which I am practically drooling to crack open, is also non-fiction. When I put on my stereo while I’m cleaning, I’m far more likely to listen to Radiolab than Radiohead (though, when I’m writing, I listen to Radiohead more than anything else…). If I want a quick bite of television, it will be a TED Talk before it’s a sitcom.

What does it mean that well over 50% of what I consume is non-fiction, that only 14% of my reading consists of novels that I actually finish?

This recent revelation is throwing me for a loop. Is it possible for a novelist to love something more than novels? Am I secretly a non-fiction writer? Have I been hacking away at the wrong destiny?

Here is my answer to these questions. I am a learner and a seeker. This is why I read; this is why I write. I am drawn to non-fiction because it gives me raw materials: information, facts, the stories of how real people lived and live. Fiction is the means by which I synthesize this information into the philosophies and ideas I want to explore. In The WarMaster’s Daughter, I tackled gender issues, war, religion, the meaning of “family.” My new book, Bugged, explores psychology, neuroscience, entomology, and medical ethics. Non-fiction inspires me with the patterns and anomalies of the existing world. It teaches me what we’ve collectively figured out, and where we still have incredibly complex questions.

On the other hand, the ideas in novels, by and large, are already synthesized. The author is asking questions in a particular way, making particular points, choosing which themes and ideas rise to the top. This offers intellectual and emotional pleasure; that’s why we read. However, it’s not the stuff that makes me want to push my fingers into the clay. To extend a metaphor, I find a set of paints much more inspiring than a painting. I love to experience a beautiful painting, but the only thing I can learn from viewing a painting is craft. The art comes from living and learning and synthesizing all the ideas that exist in the world. Van Gogh did not paint because he saw another painting; he painted because he experienced the world.

So what does it mean about me as a novelist that I don’t gorge myself on novels? I supposed I’d rather my readers judge that for themselves. I hope my books are appealing to the learners and the seekers out there; I hope they appeal to fiction and non-fiction lovers alike.

What about you, dear reader? When you take an honest look at what you consume above anything else, what is it? Does it surprise you? Is what you really like different from what you think you like? How does what you read affect what you write? 

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