A question that’s been preoccupying me recently, as I spend more time reading than writing my own stuff, is this: how does anybody manage to write a word after reading their favourite novels?
One of my favourite novels, for example, is Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I sometimes tell people it’s my favourite novel (I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s something to say that most people have heard of), but really, I love Heller’s lesser-known novel Something Happened even more (I wrote a review of it here). It’s a difficult novel to love, described by Kurt Vonnegut as “one of the unhappiest books ever written”, and yet – drawn as I am to unhappiness and things/people that are hard work (ahem… joking) – love it I do.
I recently re-read Something Happened as research. Like Bob Slocum, the narrator of Heller’s novel, my narrator, Jason, is a fragile and toxic man crippled by self-loathing and assailed by irrational fears and a general sense of doom – that something bad is going to happen to him, and that he deserves it. Having re-read Heller’s novel, though, I felt deflated about my own idea, which seemed like an obvious, derivative, poorly-written pool of word vomit in comparison. I hadn’t only stolen Heller’s themes, but clumsily aped his writing style (he puts lots of asides in parentheses (and sometimes parentheses inside parentheses as well (see what I did there?))). Why do I bother, I wondered? What am I saying or doing in my writing that’s new, different?
Recently at a party I told someone my novel is “a more British American Psycho with less violence and misogyny and definitely no rats” (this is a shining example of the calibre of my small talk). I didn’t even like American Psycho much (due to aforementioned violence, misogyny and rats). There are parts of it I think are genius – I’ve tried to recreate the business card scene with Instagram profiles in my novel – but mostly, I’ve reacted against it. When Jason tries to go all Patrick Bateman on women, they defy his expectations and show him up for the sad little man he’s trying to be (he does have some redeeming features, honestly). Still, when I compare my novel to its anti-inspiration, I get that sinking feeling. What if people think my novel’s a watered down version of American Psycho because I’m afraid to be shocking?
Reading great novels confuses me, because they make me feel I may as well give up, but they also make me desperate to write. I know I’ll never be as good or bold or shocking as the author I’ve just read, but I can’t help but try anyway. The one way I can guarantee never being as good is by giving up, right? There’s a quiet voice in my head that says, “They’re only a human being and they wrote this. You’re also a human being…” And who knows, maybe Heller had the same voice in his head when he read Nabokov. Maybe Nabokov felt like crap and wanted to fling his manuscript in the fire when he read Tolstoy. And so on and so on.
There’s another positive way to look at it. With every novel I read, and with every element of another writer’s style I absorb, my writing becomes more complex. Recently I read two Julian Barnes novels in a row and for a few weeks everything I wrote sounded like a posh old man sadly reflecting on his past regrets. But then I read some other novels, and the voices of those authors were added to the mix. As a result, my novel-in-progress is an ugly, messy, unfocused, Frankenstein’s monster-type creature – but nobody else could write it. And perhaps the voice of Emma Goode, and the voice of every writer, is just that – the voices of a thousand other writers so intermingled they create something new and beautiful, colours coming together to form white light.
So I try not to feel too hopeless. If I keep reading and keep writing, and writing and writing, pushing through the feelings of inadequacy that ambush me every time I pick up a brilliant book, weaving in the elements I love, whittling away those I don’t, my writing will become more honed, confident and self-assured. Who knows, maybe one day somebody might even read one of my novels and love it so much they hurl their laptop out of the window in despair. I can only hope.