categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour
Dave is on a trip this week and I promised him that while he was gone I would read Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece, Angle of Repose. Instead I’ve been reading Most Talkative: Stories from the Front Lines of Pop Culture by Andy Cohen. There are several reasons I could feel guilty about this, the most obvious being a broken promise, or at least a delayed one. The others involve a kind of intellectual guilt – the nagging, unfinished-homework voice inside your head that believes every moment should involve edification, enlightenment, and improving the mind through High Art. “Nina,” my voice has a way of asking. “Is this really how you want to spend your time?”
Well, I’m sorry to tell you, snobby-voice-inside-my-head, but yes: sometimes that’s exactly how I want to spend my time. For one thing, Andy Cohen? Love him! He is hilarious and original and inspiring. (For those of you who are too high falutin to know, Andy Cohen is the Bravo producer behind The Real Housewives, and the host of the insanely entertaining Watch What Happens Live). For another thing? The voice I am using to write this paragraph, parenthetical included? Stolen! Directly from Andy Cohen himself.
Columnist Crawford Kilian calls it the “Kids, Don’t Try This at Home Effect.” Narrative styles are contagious. In an article for the on-line Canadian daily The Tyee, Kilian lists “The Ten Most Harmful Novels for Aspiring Writers.” With the exception of Erich Segal’s Love Story, Killian doesn’t prohibit the books based on quality, but imitability. Catcher in the Rye, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Atlas Shrugged, Blood Meridian — Kilian doesn’t think the books are harmful to readers, but to writers. “They are often well-written, but their effects have generally been disastrous: they inspired younger writers to imitate them, they created awful new genres that debased readers’ tastes, or they promoted literary or social values that we could very much do without.”
If you’ve taught Creative Writing, you’ve seen the effects of these all too imitable voices. Students who haven’t even read Cather in the Rye turn in stories narrated by Holden Caulfield sound-alikes because they’ve grown up reading Salinger’s disciples. On a more fundamental level, I see this in my nine-year-old daughter, who has been dictating stories and books to me for years. Because I’m also in tune with what she reads, I can see the direct and immediate influence of not only her subject matter, but the style in which she narrates, as well as her themes and characters. I have seen her shamelessly rip off Peter Howe’s Waggit series, down to the plotlines and sometimes even the chapter titles. Then Harry Potter was thrown into the mix, and elements of Rowling’s magic and anti-authority sentiments appeared. Lately we’ve been reading Kathryn Lasky’s beautiful Wolves of the Beyond series, and Hadley has begun borrowing the attention to language and a preoccupation with the spiritual and supernatural. It’s a fascinating evolution to watch, my own young writer, and the way she’s weaving the styles of her favorite authors into one that is becoming more and more her own.
When I was a kid, I came to classics early. In my pre and early teens I read Jane Austen and the Brontes. I read Tender is the Night. I read lots of Vonnegut and Updike, and lots of Hemingway. I also ordered Archie comics from bubblegum wrappers, and devoured Danielle Steele and V.C. Andrews. Jacqueline Briskin’s The California Generation remains one of the most important books of my life, and Crawford Kilian would be horrified to know that I read Love Story at least a hundred times. The truth is, as an adult I sometimes felt embarrassed about my continuing lapses in what many would consider quality. At home I may have been re-reading Valley of the Dolls, but if I needed a book for the waiting room I’d trot out my well-loved copy of Stones for Ibarra – the grownup version of hiding my Archie comic inside of Wuthering Heights.
It was no less a literary luminary than Donna Tartt who gave me permission to come out of the closet as an eclectic (not undiscerning) reader. In grad school, I was lucky enough to take Tartt’s class when she came to UNCW as a visiting writer. On the first day she asked us to list our favorite authors. Leafing through our anonymous cards, it wasn’t the students who’d noted Dostoyevsky or Paula Fox whom she praised, but the ones who’d written down several writers of diverse sensibility. Even though the cards were anonymous, I hadn’t been brave enough to list Erich Segal as an influence, but I had noted George Eliot and Tom Robbins. Donna Tartt waved my card in the air, noting it would be hard to find two more different writers. She is a formidable person, and I don’t dare quote her without remembering the exact words she said. But the general idea was, if you want to be a writer, read everything. The more varied the voices, themes, quality, and intent, the better.
Listen, as Andy Cohen might say. Have you read Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend? Because every sentence in that novel is a mini-masterpiece. If she offers you advice? TAKE IT.
Don’t worry. I’ m almost done with Most Talkative, after which I really will read Angle of Repose. The consecutive voices of Cohen and Stegner will find a way to reconcile and hopefully elevate my own ever-progressing narrative style.
Which books do you love that are on opposite ends of the literary spectrum? Do you notice their styles converging in your own writing? Now that I’ve come clean, you can too!