Writers and readers (and Ann Patchett)

public art poetry reading london pub 1104.JPGThere was a joke (Shutka) in my Russian textbook this week. A man is being interviewed for a place on a literature course at university. Have you read any Tolstoy? No. Any Doestoevsky? No. Pushkin? No – listen, I want to be a writer, not a reader.

Nice echo of this in (the wonderful) Ann Patchett’s latest novel, Commonwealth. Franny is working as a waitress in Chicago when her literary hero Leon Posen comes in. They get talking.

[H]e crushed what was left of his cigarette into the small glass ashtray, “Did you ever want to be a writer?” 

“No,” she said, and she would have told him. “I only wanted to be a reader.” 

He patted the top of her hand, which she had left close by on the bar in case he needed it. “I appreciate that. I’ve come a long way so that I could have a drink and not be anywhere near another writer.” 

“Can I get you another drink?” 

I wonder if would be a reasonable position to hold, that in order to be an (original) writer a person could choose not to be a reader. I think not. Karl Ove Knausgaard said, on the radio recently, that he loves to read peoples’ diaries, because they are un-thought-over. It’s clear that his aim is for My Struggle to read like that; but it is an effect, a creation. He has always been an intense reader. Artless writing by someone who has the art. T S Eliot said you can only write free verse if you first write metrically and in rhyme.

But what do I know? I’d like to be a writer, but I don’t know where to start.

It is more obvious to think that you can be a reader without being a writer. Maybe being a writer even robs some people of their joy in reading? But maybe, too, it makes us see new things. Thinking about music as a parallel, the latter is truer than the former. I don’t think I ever listened to basslines until I started learning the bass. And the act of merely transcribing those sentences from Ann Patchett made me notice something I hadn’t seen before, the subtle construction of

“No,” she said, and she would have told him. 

This sentence drags you from the third to the first person. I am glad I copied it out and saw that.


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Paul Hodson

Head of Unit "EnergyEfficiency" at European Commission, Directorate-General for Energy

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