Even while I write with the aim of becoming part of a growing literary tradition, I manage to stick to the tried and true literary canon of old. When I head to the bookstore I have Steinbeck in mind, James Baldwin, the cryptic draw of Dostoevsky’s mad protagonists. Recently I have been reading work by living authors, ones who have discarded the acceptable literary norms for provocative plot twists and story structures. Reading newer books has been a revelation to me having realized there are fewer and fewer rules to follow, the author has complete freedom to write whatever he or she wishes. The only demand is to make their style work and from what I’ve seen, it has.
I was reading the introduction to the Best American Nonrequired Reading series by Dave Eggers when he broached the topic of young writers finding aspirational works. Eggers explained how the traditionally sanctioned novels of his youth were so ingrained in him, he found it difficult to read more contemporary books without having first read one of old. I can relate to this. I too have been plagued with literary monsters: Jude the Obscure, Grapes of Wrath, the Odyssey, all great pieces of art, but truly treacherous on the soul and brain at times. Why is it I despair over reading these, conquering them before I allow myself to enjoy a new world of writing?
For one thing, hierarchies of reading exist. Whether you’d like to admit it or not, we all have read a challenging novel and think highly of ourselves after its completion. People, especially writers, love the fabricated clout they anoint themselves with having accomplished this. For some it’s Shakespeare, others James Joyce, Thomas Hardy, and their tedious pages. No one wants to be that person who hasn’t read “the book.”
Personally, if a book hasn’t been required, or I haven’t had the interest, I’m not going to read it unless recommended by a friend. Who’s to say I’m a lesser than reader or writer because I’m not into what the next person is reading. Plus, people lie. Anyone can look up spark notes before going to a party, or reading. All that just to be one of the cool kids and it’s not even worth it.Forge your own literary path.