Since reading and writing are connected, I thought I would focus on what I read.
It took me a while to get on the contemporary fiction bandwagon (if you care to think of it like that). I was one of those lit students as an undergrad and as a grad student the first time around (I got an MA in English from Rutgers) who felt that there were simply too many classics that I hadn’t read. What writer wouldn’t know all these classics?
Given all these books waiting to be read, I simply had no time to read anything contemporary. I couldn’t tell which book I’d read that poisoned me against books written in the past 20 years but it had made such an impression that I knew to stay away. I was perfectly content by stopping in the 1920s. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner had plenty to teach me, thank you very much. Maybe I was simply tired of being asked what I thought of Harry Potter (after someone learned I was a grad student in English). Sure I was snob, but I felt I was an entitled snob since my attitude had been adopted in the service of reading only the “best” books.
During my MA, I was taking a creative writing course (in fiction). During the critique of one of my stories, my professor turned to me and remarked that the prose felt dated. I responded that I was inspired by my big three, and that I was comfortable modeling my style after theirs. Her response: you can’t act like nothing’s been written since then.
I was immediately sold on this. But I gave Motherless Brooklyn a shot—a book my professor recommended to bring me up to speed—and I enjoyed it. Still unsold. I read some current books here and there over the next few years, some I enjoyed, some I didn’t—some it felt too bloated. Of course I allowed the boring ones to make a bigger impression.
Somewhere around 2006, I committed to more contemporary books—there had to be something to them, right, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular. Although I didn’t enjoy them all, I began to treat them like textbooks—they’re teaching me things. And then, even if I wasn’t wowed by every book (who would be, right?), I began to at least pick up things that would help my own writing. A particular author might be good at manipulating time while a different author might be a pro at using Point of view. Descriptions? Well, most authors would good for a stellar paragraph or two (or dozen pages). Read in this way, these books became necessary, for I was building a library of texts to which I could continually refer should I get stuck in a draft and need someone to help me out of it. And since these were books that sold (or at the very least, got published), I had some reliable templates.
Then I became more selective. I made it a mission to plow through the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction list. Thus far, I have read all the winners since 1999’s The Hours—excepting 2001’s Adventures of Cavalier and Clay, which is one my list. I am loving Ford’s Independence Day now and I have four more winners from the 90’s on my bookshelf. Sure, awards aren’t everything, but at least some knowledgeable body has certified: this is good fiction. And even the ones I haven’t been thrilled by (say, Gilead), I took something from it—besides the feeling that this book would be cut up in a workshop—there’s some good characterization taking place when the story works.
Having this reaction tells me a few things. First, it might be a little arrogant to pretend I know more. Second, I am seeing how fiction is working and able to articulate those moving pieces. Responding to what I like and don’t like informs my work—I know what to work towards and what to avoid. Third, I get a little hope reading something that has done well that I didn’t like that has done well (Like the recent The Art of Fielding). If this gets published, there’s hope for my work going forward.
I have also loosened up when it comes to books not considered “Literature.” It is so easy to avoid genre as being more story driven and therefore not up to scratch. However, although I would rather avoid the Twilight series—I made it through one page in New Moon—I did enjoy a bunch of books I probably never would have picked up. Justin Cronin’s The Passage is great, for example.
I wouldn’t say that what I write is all stealing from the current market, but I would say that my work borrows heavily from what I have read. By staying current and what people are doing in the field, I know where my work fits and where it (hopefully) stand out.