20 May 2005


It may seem from the relative silence hereabouts that I have wandered off somewhere to be productive, or that I have stopped reading anything other than the occasional website, or that the universe is boring. None of that is true. I think what's happened is a kind of sickness caused by a particular form of gluttony.

Over the past couple of weeks, I've read about ten short stories and four or five novels (most of them short). This is a little bit more than I get through in the average fortnight, but I had been doing quite a bit of writing before that, and I usually alternate bouts of reading and writing. During the past year, the amount of reading I've done has increased -- there was a time when I averaged only a couple novels a month -- and I'm happy for it. The reasons for the rise in the amount of things I'm reading are many, but the primary one is that I'm writing a couple of book reviews a month now, and I usually read three to six books for every one I review. (Most of my students, and plenty of other semi-rational creatures, would consider this schedule to be horrifying. I think it's fun.)

There's a problem, though, and it's that my reading is governed by an obsessively eclectic taste. If I read, for instance, three science fiction novels in a row, I will quickly become incapable of enjoying any more science fiction novels until I read something entirely different. Usually my need for variety is satiated with fiction from different eras or styles, but sometimes I discover myself incapable of getting pleasure from almost any sort of fiction at all, and have to fill my time with plays, poetry, essays, history, science, etc. Sometimes this is against my will -- just because I want to read more of one type of writing doesn't mean that, once I start, I will find any enjoyment from it at all.

Essentially, that's where I am right now. I've read a bunch of different stories and novels, all of them fantasy or science fiction, and have found none of them satisfying. I'm objective enough to see that in some cases this was more the book's fault than mine, but in other cases, I could find nothing particularly wrong with the book or story -- the fault was mine, an inability to engage with the author's structure, characters, words, images, anything.

Whenever this happens, I know it's time for a big change, which is why over the past week I've mostly been reading plays and poetry. I've been enjoying reading some of Sylvia Plath's work, particularly what she wrote in 1959 (in her Collected Poems). It can be difficult to wrench Plath's poems away from her biography, her mythology, her appeal to anyone tempted toward overwrought self-dramatization, but going back to the poems she wrote before 1962 or so is helpful, because it's possible to revel in the pure sound of the poems, the confidence of her words, the assured lines and stanzas. She wasn't as good as W.H. Auden or Dylan Thomas, but I'm not often in the mood for someone of that level -- when it comes to just reading and appreciating, there are few sets of poems I'd rather spend time with than the poems Plath wrote before she really came into her own as a poet in 1962 or so (many of which are poems I like a lot, but those poems possess more of an ability to wound, because by then Plath had tremendous control over the language that sometimes seems to take control of her in the earlier poems, keeping her from expressing pain in words and phrases that draw blood. Her mastery destroyed some of the distance that makes the earlier, less accomplished poems, more aesthetically compelling to me).

I also read the play (well, monologue) Thom Pain (based on nothing) by Will Eno, a theatre piece I'd heard many good things about, but those good things eluded me in reading it. I can see how it could be an excellent vehicle for an actor, but as a piece of writing it didn't do much for me -- as opposed to, say, something like "Terminal Hip" by Mac Wellman (collected in The Bad Infinity) or The Fever by Wallace Shawn, both of which are extraordinary when performed well, but also have at least some interest as written texts (at least for me). Now I'm reading Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, a play I never got around to reading before, despite intending to multiple times.

In any case, I'll be returning to novels and short stories soon, and will report what I find. Because being on the jury for the Fountain Award kept me reading lots of 2004 stories, I've read hardly anything from 2005, and need to remedy that soon.

I wonder if and when people find themselves burning out on certain types of writing -- what's your experience, O my readers? Can you endlessly fill yourself with one sort of book or story and feel no indigestion, or do you need a varied menu? (Most editors, I assume, read a lot of similar things and don't, at least for a while, end up hating it all.) Are you the sort of person who reads an author's entire collected works before moving on, or do you jump from one author to another? When do you know it's time to change your reading habits?


  1. Well, I'm now officially burned out on 70s nurse novels and Regency Romances. I also cannot read another word of that bloated borehound Henry Miller.


  2. I always thought Tropic of Cancer was a nurse novel.

  3. Generally speaking, I even have to mix up fiction and nonfiction. Otherwise it's like a steady diet of pepperoni pizza. I mean, I like pepperoni pizza. But not that much.

  4. In general, I do not become burned out on a genre, sometimes finding that I've read the same type of books for 9 or 10 months.

    The one thing I absolutely can't do, however, is read in the same genre I'm writing in at the time. If I'm in the middle of writing a fantasy novel then I tend to move toward anything else - mainstream, thrillers, even biographies or history.


  5. I read a lot of Childrens/YA fiction for work, which I try to break up with adult stuff. I can read about five mysteries in a row before I have to switch genres, but only if it's five cozies or five hardboiled. OTOH, if I'm on an author jag (catching up on the earlier works of a newly discovered fave) I can do the run before I have to switch to something else.

  6. Unless I"m really, really taken with a particular author, I can't go too long in one genre or style. If I read too much of one type I become burned out on reading in general (a very frustrating place to be). I'm usually good for two books of a related type at a time and then I need to switch.

    A more difficult problem for me is a sudden interest in something new. Even if I'm enjoying a book I can easily become distracted by another book, theme, or style, that suddenly becomes necessary for me to read. In the past month I've been distracted by Arthurian legends, the history of evolutionary thought, Joseph Conrad, intelligence gathering, deep ocean/deep space, Stanislaw Lem short stories, chapbooks, and some other things that flitted through my brain too quickly to recall.

    hmmmm....either I don't have the staying power to get burned out or I burn out wayyyyy too quicky...

  7. I don't burn out permanently, but like you I need a frequently varied diet. That's one reason I'm no reviewer.

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  9. I tend to be similar. If I read 2 or 3 of the same type books consecutively, I tend to burn out on them for awhile. This reached a peak in the mid-90s when, after reading sf exclusively for a long time I was unable to read a single sf story for nearly 2 years. Thankfully, I got over that eventually.

  10. Two Howard Conan novels in a row is too much.

    Must... take... months... off... between.

    Ooops. Did I admit to reading old-school Conan novels?

    But yea, it's true on my end as well - too many "literay" books in a row or too many SF/F in a row burn me out pretty quickly. What's worse is reading work by the same author (particularly those who stick to formula) right after another. You work out their tricks pretty quickly, and stop enjoying all their quirks.

  11. I (very) occasionally will become so enthusiastic about an author that I will read as much as I possibly can by them for a few weeks. I enjoy it, but I'm always aware that the enthusiasm will wane eventually. The authors I get enthusiastic about tend to be all over the map, in terms of genre.

    In general, though, I skip genres from book to book, just to keep it interesting. I tend to have a fairly short attention span, otherwise.