I read The French Lieutenant’s Woman on a bet from my mother when I was eleven years old. A voracious reader, my mother proclaimed the book to be among the dullest she had ever encountered. “You’ll never be able to get through it,” she said. “Fuck if I won’t,” I thought (or might have thought, had my penchant for expletives been the same then as it is now).
A year later, I read Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy for my sixth grade library project. I chose the novel for the sole reason that I had heard it was the longest book ever written. It took me a semester to read, and though my presentation (in verse, obviously) lasted only ten minutes, the social repercussions of being such an outrageous, unprecedented show-off lasted easily until I (inevitably) changed schools.
It seems far too grandiose to presume that we are what we read. But if our persona as a reader is shaped, perhaps not by the books we choose, but by why we choose them, then this was my ignoble beginning: as a stubborn, competitive show-off.
I wish I could say that I was drawn to those books because of a precocious curiosity in their subjects. I wish I had lingered over Fowles’ Darwinian pontification rather than viewing it as bland nutrition that made the (disappointingly few, considering the title) love scenes seem that much more flavorful. But apart from the reasons given above, my outside interest in reading those two books was, at the time, negligible.
It wasn’t that I didn’t care for reading. There were many other proper, compelling books that I had proper, compelling reasons for wanting to read. But I didn’t want to read the books I wanted to read. I wanted to read the books I didn’t want to read. Let me rephrase: There was a divide between the books that I wanted to read, and the books that I wanted to want to read. And the latter category won over the former time and time again.
No doubt the years have stitched up the gap between what I want to read and what I want to want to read, because only children have that much to prove – right? We’ll see. Several years later, in high school, my English teacher assigned Gravity’s Rainbow to our class. This may come as a shock to no one, but about 100 pages or so in, she gave it up as a bold experiment gone hideously awry. Still, she was an unconventional teacher (there was a sign on the classroom ceiling that said, “If you can’t eat it, smoke it!”), so she gave the few of us who wanted to keep reading the option to form a satellite class. In exchange for being able to skip school, set our own assignments and conduct this “class” at our leisure (responsibilities we handled with unwavering diligence, if I recall), we had to successfully convince her why we wanted to continue with this mad novel when (in what I assume to have been her subtext) we had already demonstrated ourselves to be Pynchon-unworthy morons.
Until recently, when I began writing about literature, I’d all but forgotten about that exercise in Pynchon, and what I wrote to my teacher at the time. But though I’m no longer particularly fixated on the psychology behind my persona as a reader, I now desperately want to define my persona as a writer.
I’ve heard it said that when you’ve found your style – whether in writing or any other form of creative expression – like a successful love affair, it just flows. For a long time, I fantasized about writing the sort of obsessively analytical criticism that involves impossibly vast theories and encompasses broad surveys of literary works. (Admittedly, this is a peculiar fantasy.) But now that writing is actually supposed to be, well, lucrative, doubts begin to arise. That genre of writing, for me, is far more about effort than flow. It doesn’t always come easily. It isn’t always so natural.
Oh, well. Perhaps not all of us, as writers, are cut with the analytic capabilities of Harold Bloom. Given years, of course, I might be able to achieve something passably close to maybe the worst thing he’s ever written. But it might be a waste of my potential as a writer (not to mention my finances) slaving to be a second-rate Bloom when I could be a first-rate someone else entirely.
The existential struggle of settling into the sort of writer I am is not so different from coming to terms with the sort of reader I am. Perhaps not all of us are meant to read Gaddis. That’s not such a curse, is it? We all can read Gaddis, we should certainly try, but to fruitlessly labor – at the expense of reading books with which we share a natural chemistry – might once again be a waste. Perhaps we should stick to what we’re good at reading, just as we should stick to what we’re good at writing.
But, my inner Vikram-Seth-reading obnoxious brat whines, I don’t want to just write what comes naturally. I want to write the harder stuff. If writing about literature, for lack of a less irritating word, is my “art,” then what do artists do if not struggle and suffer for their art? And implement unsound financial policies?
I want to read the harder stuff, too. I don’t exactly recall what I wrote to my teacher about Gravity’s Rainbow in school. I probably breezed over the fact that I didn’t understand it much, and that I was intimated both by its size and by the bizarre labels it seems to generate, like: “Requires Proficiency in Calculus for Even Elementary Understanding.” But I do remember writing to her that although I wasn’t quite sure what sort of reader I was yet, I wanted to read Gravity’s Rainbow because I knew that was the sort of reader I wanted to be.
Since then, as a reader at least, I’ve come to see the struggle in a very different light. A few years after Gravity’s Rainbow, I struggled through Of Human Bondage – which made the process of reading the novel actually resemble human bondage. Eliot Fremont-Smith, in his New York Times review of Pauline Réage’s The Story of O, described the use of the “deliberate stimulation of the reader as part of and means to a total, authentic literary experience.” Struggle is such a stimulation. I was as frustrated by my compulsion to finish the book as I was frustrated by the incredibly unsympathetic protagonist Peter Carey, and the inexplicably poor decisions he made again and again. Peter and I commiserated in our frustration. We united against the author, our common enemy. Finally, on the last page of the book, Maugham writes, “It may be that to surrender to happiness is to accept defeat, but it is a defeat better than many victories.” I knew exactly what Maugham meant right then. And just like that, all three of us were free.