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.