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?