A friend tipped me off to this interview on NPR– which was, knowing NPR, sandwiched between a half-hour piece on a Senagalese transgender jazz fusion band and Garrison Keillor falling asleep to his own reading of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”
According to Crawford Kilian, a columnist who taught fiction, there are a handful of authors who have historically ruined aspiring writers. He names Jack Kerouac, Ayn Rand, Ernest Hemingway, and J.D. Salinger. This has much to do with the seductive simplicity of most of their styles (especially Hemingway) that gives impressionable writers the narrow moat illusion– as in, “hey, I could do that, too.” But of course, as readers we don’t often understand what makes those styles work: “I think you might call it the kids-don’t-try-this-at-home effect,” says Kilian.
Funny thing is, as callers ring in to share their own personal cruxes, we hear some names like David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, and Charles Bukowski– guys who get plenty of imitators, but not because their styles appear generic.
That, I think, leads to worse writing.
My example: F. Scott Fitzgerald (the anti-Hemingway) busted me wide open in high school, and if not for him I might not be a Reading Bastard today. I loved his prose, which could be at once sharp and ethereal, and I was helpless to ape it. And in aping it, I relied upon it. In some underdeveloped corner of my adolescent brain, I thought that if I set off enough fireworks in a sentence, I didn’t need a real story or idea, or characterization to support either. As a result, my fiction writing “style” was merely Febreze in a truckstop bathroom.
What if you find yourself mimicking a favorite author? Kilian says the solution is to read someone who is completely unlike that author, stylistically, as an antidote. If you’re writing too much like Jane Austin, maybe you should read Stephen King, provided you enjoy both to see their comparative advantages.
And keep reading. When you find authors to admire, don’t emulate them, but see where they’ve gone and take it a step further.
One of the authors I say you can’t imitate, but you can still learn from is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most astounding books of the century.
And again, these writers are telling you, in effect, don’t worry about the choice of words, or the plot or the kind of characters we’re using. Think about, for example, writing a century-long history of a family and what kind of family would it be if it grew up in Schenectady instead of Macondo, Colombia. You know, play games with what you’ve learned from the writers you love and see what – they’re not the last word. It’s interesting gateways to somewhere else.