Sunday, March 20, 2011

Should I read Water for Elephants? Or not?

Circus literature in the news:

1. Water for Elephants, the mega-historical-hit novel, is about to be released as a mega-historical-hit movie.

2. Death-Defying Acts, a poetry collection of testimonies from circus performers, is a finalist for a national award given to books from independent publishers.

Which am I more likely to read? The novel? Or the poetry?

The poetry.

I’d very much like to read the poetry. The publisher, Wordfarm, is a fine young press that first made an impression in my home when my wife brought home a book called Bright Shoots of Everlastingness. It had a stunning cover and essays that included one that had appeared in Best American Religious Writing. Since then, Wordfarm has also published Alan Michael Parker’s funny, tender novel Whale Man.

Why I’m less likely to read Water for Elephants I can’t exactly say. Something about my reluctance feels like insecurity. The book is a big hit. It’s fiction about a circus. I’ve written fiction about a circus. Why compare? When I was working on House of Good Hope, I one day saw another book that put a cold lump in my gut. The Pact was, like HOGH, about city kids making a promise to return to the broken city they love. Their city was Newark; I wrote Hartford. In The Pact, the young men all return home and become medical professionals. It’s a true story, but it seems to me less true to life than the more complicated ending of HOGH. But The Pact has sold better. Much better. It may well be a better book than HOGH, but I haven’t read it.

I tell myself I need to read The Pact. I tell myself to read Water for Elephants. A friend once gave me a novel called The Aerialist. It’s about a circus. My friend recommended it. I should read that one, too. After all, the guy who designs Chevy’s mini-vans must look at Ford’s.

But then I tell myself: chill. Competition in the writing world might follow a different model. Sprinters on a track and field team don’t watch each other. The other runners are a distraction. Instead, runners focus on their own form. They rely on their strengths and try to mitigate their weaknesses. They study and practice and study and practice and when the gun goes off go like hell.

And I do study. All the time I read stories that inspire awe, stories about a serial killer called The Misfit, or a shell-shocked soldier in Italy, or an Irish woman who wants to write about Chekhov and oysters. Those gold-medal stories make me want to clear my desk, open the laptop and aspire.

Still, I wonder. What do other writers do? Read the contemporary books that are like theirs? Or not?


Patricia said...

You're onto something here, Michael. It is rather disconcerting when you discover a book that is somehow remarkably similar to yours. I often want to apologize to the author, swear that I had my idea first, etc. Do I read the book, though? I usually try; I don't always succeed. said...

Comparisons will be made between seemingly similar books, no matter what the writers have done or read. "Similar" books in this case are any that remotely possess a related topic. Ultimately it won't matter, I've decided, because no writer worth his/her salt will copy another--not even unwittingly. In short: you will be the writer you are, no matter the topic. So read what pleases you. A so-called similar book may inspire you in unpredictable, dissimilar ways.

Downs said...

Thanks, you two. I'm intrigued by Patricia's impulse to apologize as if she's copying or cheating. You wouldn't happen to have grown up Irish-Catholic? In a similar vein, I worry about the temptation to copy a book similar to mine while I'm still writing on my own. Call it the literary occasion for sin.

I'd like to hear more about writers who have been inspired in dissimilar ways as they read a book similar to their own, as houselove suggests can happen. I'm intrigued by that possibility, though I think I'd still rather read dissimilar work and synthesize unlike things.