Sunday, June 24, 2012

Read to Write

I don't often read brand-new novels, but when I saw several glowing reviews of Peter Cameron's "Coral Glynn," and when I found it by accident in the public library where I am teaching my annual writing workshop, I decided to give it a try.

Somehow, I was hooked; maybe the length of the novel (about 200 pp.) suggested that I could read it in an hour or two; maybe the clarity and intelligence of the style appealed to me, along with the fact that the story was set in England in 1950.

The remarkable thing about this is that the author is an American and is one of those insightful and brave male writers who is able to create a credible female heroine in the tradition of Jane Austen and Barbara Pym. Or the Brontes, since the title character, a nurse, is rather like Jane Eyre--alone in the world, nervously reacting to the complexities of a society she knows little of.

So we have a novel of manners, a social novel whose tone is made possible--and this is the main point I want to make--by his years of reading novels of this type and listening to English people talk in print, in movies, and in real life, too. The result is a singular achievement for an American: an authentic-sounding English novel that captures the nuances of class, the awkward nervousness of an employee in an upper-class family sixty years ago.

It is not, of course, a novel in which much happens in the sense of action; yet a great deal happens in the inner lives of the characters, which is why I read fiction to begin with. How did Cameron learn to create such a fictional world? How did he develop such a fine ear for style?

It is said that all writers borrow, consciously or (more often) unconsciously. We absorb the language and idioms of a place and people and an awareness of our debt to all the writers that have preceded us. This point has been made by T. S. Eliot years ago and later by Harold Bloom in The Anxiety of Influence. In saying that Cameron has a pitch-perfect ear for language, for example, I am borrowing a term, perhaps trite already from overuse by reviewers, that I have read somewhere.

We all are products of what we hear and experience, and this is especially true of writers. So it should surprise no one when I tell my students that, along with daily writing, there must be wide reading, especially in the genre they aim to write, whether it's non-fiction or fiction.

I am not suggesting they become derivative and avoid originality; rather, that they develop an ear for language that comes after a long immersion in well-crafted prose in which they pay attention to the word choice and sentence style of skillful authors. Then they can move from being writers to being authors themselves.

Robert Louis Stevenson spent three years reading the masters before trying to get published; it was time well spent.

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