Friday, April 23, 2010

On reading books (inspired by Norm)

Norm has an interesting post about his own personal approach to book reading, taking as his leaping off point the comments of a couple of writers on their own approaches to writing/rewriting.

Norm writes:
For my own part, nothing on earth would succeed in sending me back to a book I'd written some while ago, to amend, rewrite, add and excise. Of course, Elizabeth is talking about a novel - not the kind of writing I've ever done, I'm sorry to say. But how unsettling it would be to have to think oneself back into a whole set of questions, assumptions, arguments; to correct and improve, but at the same time preserve what's there in its general shape. Too hard. I prefer to move on to something different.
For those who do write 'non-fiction', the situation can be more problematic than perhaps Norm's example suggest. For the academic scholar, especially those doing PhDs and moving into academic publishing, there may be considerable need for and expectation of rewriting. This is not least because a PhD can very rarely be easily turned into a book because they are so often written for such very different audiences.

Although Norm was using the example of Elizabeth Baines revising her earlier published first novel for a new edition (an act that to me suggests a new text completely is being produced, albeit under the same name*), the 'rewriting' (and re-evaluation) process that Norm describes as being "so hard" is - perhaps unwittingly - happening anyway in his work. Certainly it is common in academia to take an article and expand/amend it into a book chapter, or vice versa. Maybe Norm has never done this, but this may make him fairly unique in academic writing.

For authors, especially non-fiction authors are frequently 'rewriting'. But this happens in the sense that authors will frequently write on variations of a series of connected ideas and issues. After all, they usually have gathered some level of expertise on a subject, even if they are veritable polymaths. Thus, taken as a collective whole, one could argue that Norm himself has across his various publications rewritten, refined, corrected and improved, and questioned his assumptions as he comes unfresh to each piece of writing. Because writing is a cumulative experience, one where we never write 'fresh' but from everything we have written and read prior to that seemingly 'new' publication.

Interestingly, these processes of re-writing that Norm so fiercely rejects I think find an echo in his resistance towards narratives that do not clearly and quickly set our their stall.

Possibly this derives from Norm's strong engagement with academic writing, where the sort of clarity required for following an argument is necessary. Perhaps building on his sense of not revisiting the writing process for his own works there is also a sense of completion and certainty in narrative that has transferred into his reading of fiction.

Of course, ultimately there are as many ways of reading and writing, of approaching what we want from a narrative and producing narrative structures, as there are writers and readers.

And possibly that is as it should be.

* the issue of 'new editions' of fiction always puzzles me especially where these texts are changed. I can understand publishing a manuscript/first version of a text. Perhaps what Baines is trying to capture is more of a 'Director's Cut' version, as used so often in movies, where things that got lost in the editorial process are restored. But this further raises questions about whether these changes should ever be restored. And does it remder it the same text as it was, or a different text entirely.

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