This morning a friend asked me to describe my professional methodology in ten words or less. At first I did it in seven: Pitch, sell, write, edit, polish, submit, publish. Then I had to fiddle with it and rounded it out to ten: Create, pitch, sell, write, edit, polish, submit, revise, promote, publish. I would have liked to pen something more lyrical than a string of ten verbs that sound like the instructions on a shampoo bottle, but to me the path to publication is not an especially poetic experience. Being a professional writer is a job. You do these things -- you do the work -- or you don't publish.
I felt almost a hundred percent happy with my response, and my friend liked it a lot, too, but something was still missing. I figured out what last night while Mom was watching Jeopardy, her favorite game show. I sat down to keep her company and play Fourth Contestant to amuse her. As long as there are no sports categories I can usually guess about 85% of the responses correct (and last night I went 100% correct for all the answers to both the Alcohol- and Hittite-related categories, which I'm pretty sure most writers would probably nail.)
Then came the Final Jeopardy question, the category for which was British Novels. As soon as the relatively simple clue about a Thomas Hardy book went up I knew the answer: Tess of D'Urbevilles. Everyone has read that book, I thought, so everyone would get it right.
No one got it right. One guy came up with Jude the Obscure, the lady answered Clearwater, and the champion didn't even bother to guess. As Mom nagged me for the thousandth time about trying out for Jeopardy (she's sure I'd be the show's all-time greatest contestant; I'm sure I'd get nothing but sports categories) I smirked a little. How could three grown adults not have read Thomas Hardy? I mean, Tess of D'Urbevilles may not be as widely read as A Tale of Two Cities or Jane Eyre or Cantebury Tales, but it is a classic. This trio were young but obviously college-educated; the lady was some kind of teacher. How do you go to college and not have dudes like Thomas Hardy pounded into your skull?
In one sense I could understand their ignorance. I never cared for most classic literature, and I've gone to a great deal of trouble to avoid reading some of it. Not all; Shakespeare and Chaucer were decent, and aside from The Grapes of Wrath, which I still wish I could burn from my brain, Steinbeck was okay. Conrad and Chekhov were ghastly, though. Faulkner puzzled me as much as Melville repelled me, but I plowed through them. Attempting James Joyce is like trying to read when you're seriously inebriated, but I do try once a year, and he's actually helped with understanding Faulkner. I developed an infantile fascination with Poe in high school that I eventually outgrew, but I still have some moments when I ponder the psychic bruising Hawthorne inflicted. I loved Austen, loved Charlotte Bronte, and went wild for Wilde, and still read them all the time. So if I'd been on the show last night I would have wagered everything in the final round because I am well-read, and if I hadn't read the book in question I would have figured it out.
Which is exactly what happened last night, because while I got the right answer I've personally never read Tess of D'urbevilles. I did the exact same thing a few nights before with the Final Jeopardy clue about Classic Lit Novels. I guessed Anna Karenina as the correct answer even though I've never read the book (the reference of the train in the clue made me think of all the movie posters I've seen with Anna standing next to a train.)
My triumph didn't last long as I began to wonder just how many classics I've been consciously avoiding reading, and why, so I wrote up a list of the first that came to mind:
Anna Karenina -- Russian literature seemed so depressing that after the compulsory Chekhov-Cherry-Orchard assignment in school that I dodged as much of it as I could.
David Copperfield -- They made me read A Tale of Two Cities in the ninth grade and that was enough Dickens to last me forever. AToTC is also the only book by Dickens I've ever read, so add the remainder of his backlist.
Gone with the Wind -- Grandma loved it, Mom loved it, I haven't even watched the movie. I still don't think anything about the Civil War is even remotely entertaining.
Moby Dick -- they forced us to read Billy Budd in school; I think that was the tenth grade. That was such a revolting experience that when it came time to read the whale book I decided getting an F was better. One of my fondest memories of school, in fact, is remembering the look on that teacher's face when I turned in my book report, which consisted of four words: I didn't read it.
War and Peace -- Too long, lousy title, and again the mental scars left by Chekhov.
Wuthering Heights -- Too many girls in school worshipped this book for me to do anything but run from it as fast as I could. Until the cat cartoon came out I always thought Heathcliff was a stupid name, too.
Aside from my natural aversion to Gone with the Wind and my reluctance to join the Wuthering Heights herd, I think school ruined me for classic lit. While I now appreciate that most teachers want to instill a love of reading in students, the majority of the books they demanded my generation read were too depressing, wordy, heavy, ponderous or simply boring. What kept me from hating all classic literature was the public library. There I discovered on my own Austen and Shakespeare, Bronte and Thoreau -- I read classics all the time. This was due to my method of browsing at the library, by starting at the A shelf in fiction and gradually reading my way to Z. If I came across a book that was too difficult to understand or that didn't engage me, I just put it back and went to the next author.
I also know that my mental blocks have kept me from discovering some great books. Case in point: Chekhov truly did ruin Russian literature for me; I wouldn't voluntarily read any Russian author until I picked up a book with a strange cover, didn't look at the author's name and was spellbound by the tale of what it's like to spend one day in a Soviet labor camp. That novel, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, remains the one book I think everyone in the world should read.
Which brings me back to the fact that I knew the answer to the Final Jeopardy question without having read Thomas Hardy's book. Over a lifetime I've acquired a mental Cliff-notes type library of knowledge about books that I've never read, basically so that I never have to read them. My Never-Read classics library is pretty good, too; I've had long conversations about Gone with the Wind with unsuspecting folks who remained unaware that I've never once read the book or watched the movie.
Feeling superior to three Jeopardy contestants who had no knowledge of Thomas Hardy when I'm really no different from them makes me feel like a cheat and a bit of a hypocrite. The reason for that? Goes back to the one word that I left out of my professional methodoloy, the eleventh word that I believe is absolutely vital to any writer's process: READ. Read anything and everything. There is no cheat code for reading, either. You have to get a book and sit down and read it.
So today I am ordering a copy of Tess of D'Urbevilles. Yes, I'm going to read the damn thing. Cover to cover if possible, or as much as I can stomach. Then I think once a month (or as often as I can stand) I'm going to try reading all the other classic lit I've been avoiding since school. I'm not expecting any life-changing experiences, and it's likely that I won't finish a lot of them, but I will give them a try. Maybe that will help me empty the shelves of my Never-Read classics library and someday shut the place down for good.
So now it's your turn: what's on the shelves of your Never-Read library, and why? Have you ever considered overriding your natural inclinations to read any of those titles? Let us know in comments.