Reading while Writing, or the Narcissism of Minor Differences

I’m currently reading a book.  A very popular book I might add, even among people I consider fine readers, which borders slightly on the subject matter of my current novel.  And I really dislike it.  It seems painfully thin to me, a thin construct of what a novel needs to be.  I don’t believe the voice. I don’t believe the landscape, the characters, the story.

It’s not unusual for me, and I think other writers will agree with me on this, that the closer I read to the book I”m  writing, unless its a goddamn masterpiece, the less I like the other book.  The  more faults I find in it.   I’ll slam it at parties. I’ll talk to it while I’m reading it, telling it I don’t believe a thing it’s saying.

Why am I being so harsh with it?

If I wasn’t working on similar subject matter,  would I dislike this book as much as I do?

Freud called it the Narcissism of Minor Differences–the more alike you are to someone else, the more you dislike them–exaggerating the differences, irritated with them for every way in which they are not like you.

It’s why writers have to be careful about reading, and especially reviewing, books which are on similar subject matter to their own–which, of course, are the very books that editors give them to review, and which they’re primed to dislike. Dangerous stuff, that.

I must say, writing my Russian book, I have done better reading memoir–no matter how poor the writing, at least they were there–or just great books, where you have to kneel in admiration of the writing.

I have four more books of the contemporary Westerner writing about historical Russia (Soviet era) to go, and am afraid that they will hit me the way the last three have.  So far, only Victor Pelevin’s Buddha’s Little Finger (a contemporary absurdist novel by a Russian) felt right.  Gladkov’s Cement, a Socialist Realist novel about Stakhanovite workers and a cement factory, was about as deep as this book I am currently reading.


I generally like to read poetry when I’m writing. Then I don’t compare, I just get that music in my head. It feeds me, it makes me want to write. I like to read works of art that destroy me with their beauty.  I’m hopeful about the new Fernando Del Paso novel about Carlota and Maximilian of Mexico, he writes a gorgeous prose.

Toni Morrison said the reason we writers are so dissatisfied with reading while writing is that we’re looking for something specific, something we can’t find, nothing’s quite right.   We keep looking for it, and it isn’t there, and it isn’t there… because we’re looking for a book that doesn’t exist yet.  A book that we have to write.

–Janet Fitch

13 Responses to “Reading while Writing, or the Narcissism of Minor Differences”

  1. I like that excerpt from Toni Morrison her books are a perfect example of this because of the chronological order, authors don’t generally write like that. You already know that you’re not going to please everyone but what matters is the people you do.

    You may not like the way this book is written but someone else will. Just like people will disagree on the book you’re writing now.

    Literature is an art and art is subjective.

  2. Exactly. Even as I’m reading it, I’m aware that people I know really like this book. It’s interesting to move from absolutes–“This book sucks” to realization that its subjective and depends on your mood and what it is you’re looking for at precisely this moment. It’s why rereading is so much fun. I remember hating Madame Bovary when I was in college, because she was such a doormat. Couldn’t see the humanity of that portrayal and Flaubert’s genius, only that she was no one I wanted to be.

  3. conanpb5k Says:

    “The Narcissism of Minor Differences” – one of my new favorite phrases.

    I feel as though voice + landscape + characters is one of the important equations to keep in mind while writing, huh.

    I was just reading April D.’s first chapter of thesis and saw a hell of a lot of landscape in there. (I too, cribbed a whole four-page exercise from my weather notebook and threw it in my thesis.) It really does make a hell of a big difference…

  4. Daisy Says:

    Would you tell name of the book you dislike? It’s not that I want to revel in your condemnation of it; it’s just that I’m so curious since I’m so interested in Soviet and Russian fiction. I understand if you won’t.

    • I never trash books I don’t like–especially by living writers–because of that subjectivity factor. Writing’s too hard and the casual slap stings more than you’d think. I’d much rather turn people onto books I love.

  5. Daisy Says:

    Oh also, thank you for teaching me the Narcissism of Minor Differences. I never knew that, though, I knew what is described.

  6. Amber Says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more!
    I find it hard to read much at all while I’m writing something of my own.
    However, there is never harm in a little inspiration 🙂

    So glad you started the blog!
    Keep up the good work!

  7. alisawood Says:

    I too was drawn to the phrase Narcissism of minor differences. Whenever I am annoyed with something, I find I am guilty of the same behavior that annoys me. It is eye opening and helps me to focus on where I need to grow
    instead of limiting myself by obsessing on someone elses flaws. I was very touched by your comment about being destroyed by somethings beauty. Wonderfully said and for some reason I wanted sob because I feel the same way and it’s so good to be touched to that point.
    Thank you for sharing your experience and insights.

  8. Well at least you have the comfort of having been published. It’s almost – with almost being the key word – doesn’t seem worth the crap agents give you about your work to even care if they sign you or not. First, your story needs a lot or work – then they say it will do very well. How utterly contradictory. And we’re paying them. Ugh. But back to main point, of course it’s all about us, we are immersed in our words, are we not? Sometimes I feel like one of the characters I’ve made up are going to text me to see if I can meet them at Starbx – maybe I just need a two month hiatus in Maui.

  9. Mitra Says:

    Just found your blog, Janet. I really loved this post. I find I’m always extra-critical of “ethnic” writers and cross-culture writers, nit-picking them to death (in my head), even when they’re really very talented. I was so troubled by the truth of what it is to write/ exist cross-culturally that for years I refused to write anything that involved those types of considerations…a mistake, of course, but my own “narcissim of minor differences”.

  10. theblackart Says:

    It seems I am perhaps one of the few that does not struggle with reading while writing my own pieces. But perhaps I come from a different arena? I cannot write fiction for the life of me, and I’m not sure it really calls to me (as a writer) – while I love to read fiction and it provides a wonderful escapism, I laughably have to think now that my only excuse in not pursuing it is that in writing it, I’d feel like I’m lying. Or perhaps I’m too narcissistic to extricate myself from my own character? Both are plausible, knowing me. I focus on poetry and memoir, and sometimes will even get my kicks through an academic essay (only really though if the topic is of my choosing). Words are a beautiful thing, and I cannot help but embrace them. Although, it could be said we are all over-critical of the place in which we write. But perhaps we are so because we love that place so passionately that we don’t want to see anyone mar it. In which case, it makes perfect sense you grow dissatisfied of authors who may have attempted similar subjects to your fiction – in writing your fiction, I assume you grow to love the subject so tenderly and intricately that to see them falter upon the line you are so gracefully attempting to whittle is something akin to a sin. You set such high sights for yourself and your vision that it grows easy for many others to fail to meet them?

  11. sharon mayberry Says:

    doesn’t “The Narcissism of Minor Differences” sound like the title of a Marquez novel?

    I love your blog.

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