A few years back I read Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus. Adrian Leverkühn–a composer–begins his interest in music by studying music theory rather than music itself. This is not wholly his fault–the province he lives in is one where musical instruments are not easily come across. Yet it does have the deleterious effect of making his music less about what it sounds like (which could be terrible) and more about the “why’s” behind why it was played. Near the end of the book, Leverkühn confesses that he sold his soul to the devil to produce his art and its success. Nobody–because of the spiritual malaise of the time–believes him. They assume he has gone insane, because of course there could be no devil for him to sell his soul to. According to Mann, Adrian Leverkühn’s selling of his soul is like Germany’s betrayal of its soul by selling out to Hitler.
Now, I do not accuse writers who do not read of being akin to Nazis. However, I have to say that I do wonder why they bother write at all. If you do not truly love literature, if you do not truly love language, then what is the point of writing a poem or a play or a novel? It is like reading so many literary critiques on the novel and then trying to produce one, when you should be reading William Shakespeare or Jane Austen or Charles Dickens or Mark Twain or Willa Cather or Ernest Hemmingway or Joyce Carol Oats.
This is not the only thing it takes to write–it also takes practice and learning how to edit. Yet the heart of literature is in books. There is a scene in Hamlet which shows the depth of what art is: Hamlet has a play put on to catch “the conscience of the king.” In that scene, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude watch the play, and Hamlet and Horatio watch them watch the play–and we watch Hamlet and Horatio. There are literary levels of observation–and the result is the illusion that we are watching real people watching real people watching a play. In reality, we are only looking into Shakespeare’s head.
“There is nothing either good or bad,
but thinking makes it so…”
And hence Denmark is a prison. It is true that in these lines we see the feelings and beliefs of William Shakespeare. Yet he read books before he wrote; his Julius Cesar is almost certainly based on Plutarch’s, and in his Midsummer Night’s Dream there is a parody of the Greek “Pyres and Thisbe” taken from a Medieval translation of Ovid. Of course, he did write stories that were not “knock-offs” of other people’s work. Yet people forget how much he wrote was inspired by other writers. His talent was interpretation as much as creation. (His talent was that also, unlike most Medieval writing, his creations were marvelously realistic.)
Now for a writer to write without having read any of the writers I have listed–this is folly. Though the greatest writers–like Hemmingway–often break with tradition in their writing, they are also subtly influenced by it. Hemmingway makes fun of Shakespeare in Julius Cesar,
‘The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave but one’…. (The man who first said that) was probably a coward…. He knew a great deal about cowards but nothing about the brave.
Yet if he had not read Shakespeare, and no doubt for himself, he could not have written his taut ellipses half so well. Writers should remember that they are writing Art, not the equivalent of literary junk food.
I know this sounds harsh, but I have met “writers” who when I mentioned Lord Byron or Percy Shelley, they had no idea who they even were. This is embarrassing. So remember, to be a writer is to be a reader. The writer asked, “Which do you prefer, writing or reading?” should answer honestly, “I can’t pick. I love them both too much.”