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With regard to the delight of reading

by Theo on October 6th, 2011
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In my Advanced Fiction class, we’ve been gradually working our way through John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. I’ve spent a lot of time arguing with this book – physically arguing, with verbal admonishments and angry gestures over the open pages – because Gardner is good at spouting bullshit when it comes to education and genre. But last night, when the professor asked us to write a Gardner quote that spoke to us on the board, I was the first one up there with a marker.

Because this? Is a perfect statement.


[R]eading fiction or poetry without regard for the delight it can give–its immediate interest–can mutilate the experience of reading.
–John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, page 42
When I got a chance to talk about this quote, I said, “This perfectly sums up the frustration I had coming out of college. I couldn’t read for fun anymore – I’d spent too much time reading just for analysis. I’m still–I can’t–” I waved my hands around, searching for words.
“You’re still recovering,” the professor finished, nodding.
“Yes!” I said. “I’ve got this giant shelf of books I still haven’t read. I used to be a total bookworm, but now I’m lucky if I get through ten books a year. It’s embarrassing as a writer.”
“Were you an English major?” she asked. Her voice had a well-practiced sympathy to it, like a funeral director asking, “Were you close to the departed?”
When I said that yes, I was, a few of my classmates nodded knowingly. This is a thing that happens. You go to school to study literature because you love stories and reading, and you leave with your sense of delight in reading mutilated. It’s a sad, absurd experience. Gardner talks about books in schools being taught because they’re “good for you,” as if they’re vitamin C – you “need” to read the literary canon, you “need” to read books that say interesting things under the various lenses of literary theory, you “need” to read books that address Serious Issues and demonstrate Serious Authorial Skill because it’s good for you. But it’s not really good for you if reading like that is costing you that initial delight in reading.
What I didn’t say in class is that this is a big part of why I read fan fiction.
I read a lot of fan fiction, y’all. I read it voraciously. It takes me three weeks to get through a novel, but I’ll devour a fanfic one-third the length of that novel in an evening, sometimes (okay, often) sacrificing sleep to get to the end. And then I’ll rave at friends about it. I currently have a 77 message long email thread going on Gmail with my friend Elisa, where most of what we’re doing is passing fanfic links back and forth and capslocking at each other about the stories contained within. This is at least the fifth email thread like this we’ve had in the last few months because Gmail keeps cutting them off when they reach 100 messages.
THAT is delight in reading. That is loud, obsessive, contagious delight in reading. The literary canon that was forced on me as a student mutilated my experience of reading, and fan fiction is healing it remarkably well.
There’s a thrill in fan fiction that I rarely feel for novels any more – a need to read something immediately if not sooner, to sneak a few paragraphs on my phone during a break at work or put off going to bed because there are only two chapters left and I need to know what happens. I learn from fanfic, too – and usually, thanks to the overall quality of the stuff I’ve found (hi, Sherlock fandom! I love you!), it’s lessons of the what-to-do variety, not what-not-to-do. Some of the best lessons I’ve had on characterization, tension building, and voice have come from fanfic.
If I were really serious about discussing the lessons I learn from reading as a writer, I’d be doing reviews of fanfic here as well as books. As is, I think I’ve been trying too hard to force myself back into being a bookworm and failing to acknowledge that my capacity for delight in reading is already growing back on its own, just not in a way I can talk about at book clubs. I’m going to stop doing the book reviews – or at least stop counting books and reviewing ones that don’t teach me anything particularly earth-shaking or provide a reason to draw dumb comics.
I may, however, start doing some ramblings about fan fiction around here. I’m pretty sure ongoing discussions of fan fiction aren’t what Gardner was thinking of when he wrote about the necessity of immediate interest in reading, but whatever. The dude also says you need to be university educated to be a great writer and that Shakespeare gets an automatic pass on plot holes because he was a genius, and if he gets to spout things that offend me as a writer, I reserve the right to use his work as a gateway to talking about fan fiction.
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  1. Anna permalink

    You say the things I think, Nicole. I’ve still managed to retain some of my love of reading, but as I was telling my friend, Tess, this week, I was a voracious reader in high school. Since coming to college I read far fewer books for fun, and more rarely do I read new books.

    And dear, sweet god, the Sherlock fandom honestly has the highest percentage of well-written fic I’ve ever come across.

    And fuck this guy if he thinks the sun shines out of Shakespeare’s arse. Shakespeare did write some brilliant stuff and did some wonderful things with language, but he was essentially writing blockbusters meant to sell tickets. He’d throw shows together out of whatever crap he could steal and they’d be good enough to please the masses, and honestly, I don’t see as much point in Shakespeare as literature because performance is what makes it worthwhile, and scholars need to stop treating him like he’s so goddamn perfect. That and people need to stop trying to prove that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, all the theories are stupid and just show the insecurities of academics who don’t believe that some people just have a talent for storytelling.

    Sorry for the Shakespeare rant, he gives me lots of the feelings right now.

    • Nicole permalink

      I’m nodding along to your Shakespeare rant. Great storyteller? Yes, certainly! Writer of the Greatest Literature Ever? Pfft, no such thing. Y’know, I’ve run across so many instructors and authors touting one short list of writers (almost always including Shakespeare) as “Great Literature” that I can’t even take it seriously anymore. There’s this air of reverence, of “How did he DO that?” given to so many of those writers that it seems like people forget they were human beings, too. Human beings who told stories, who had to learn the craft just like us. Putting any artist on a pedestal is ridiculous, IMO – take them down, pick their work apart, and figure out how they did it. That’s how you learn.

      And YES, Sherlock fandom! So quality! So completely off their rockers and yet so quality!

  2. Yeah, I’m lucky in that i can compartmentalize my reading into stuff I like and stuff I have to read, and I don’t find any use in thinking that Great Literature is stuff I Should Like.

    Also, anybody who says that Shakespeare endures because he was a genius and writing deathless prose needs to really read some of his stuff and realize that he was kind of a hack, and, for example, has a random act of Pirate! in the middle of Hamlet. Also, he wrote Titus Andronicus. He endures because he was writing for the mainstream, middle and lower classes and NOT for just the noble patron class–while still being quite enjoyed by the noble patron class. Also, he didn’t die young like Kit Marlowe and therefore able to steal all of his dead rivals’ patronage, fame and ideas.

    • Nicole permalink

      I love that I got not one but TWO Shakespeare rants on this post.

      The random act of Pirate! in Hamlet was what Gardner was referring to – he claimed that, basically, Shakespeare didn’t waste time explaining the shit in the background or tying up loose ends because he made better use of his effort cutting back to the heart of the story. So, Shakespeare leaves a plot hole hanging and we’re supposed to admire his skill in identifying what wasn’t the heart of the story. Or something. I don’t even know, there was a lot of angry scribbling in the margins of my book at that point.

      (I should have you and Anna over for Reduced Shakespeare Company sometime. You two would get along famously.)

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