There was a really interesting little story on the NPR segment “My Guilty Pleasure” this week, about a writer feeling guilty admitting his love for Stephen King and John Irving in an MFA setting. I found this to be somewhat interesting, given that, in my opinion, John Irving and Stephen King are both writers to be emulated–successful, prolific novelists with wild, fertile imaginations, rich characters, and diverse bodies of work–and shouldn’t earn anyone’s derision, even if their work is not to a particular person’s taste.
Later in the story, the writer (Joshua Braff, a novelist himself and a graduate of the MFA program at St. Mary’s College), says:
My guess is there are M.F.A. students sitting in class right now, burying the fact that they’ve read 12 vampire novels in the past two years. Be truthful, is my advice. Take your sunglasses off inside and tell those people whom you really enjoy reading. And if they smile-giggle and a hush comes over the room, don’t do what I did and lie to your classmates. Be proud of the books you’ve absorbed. Revel in your guilty pleasures.
So, with that encouragement, here is my confession: I am an avid consumer of Charlene Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series, the books on which the campy, ridiculous show True Blood are based. They are trashy and I adore them. (There are ten of them, not twelve, but I still think that Joshua was speaking to me.)
On a more serious note, I think that it’s worth pointing out that when a writer reads a book that they enjoy–even a “bad” book with no real redeeming literary qualities–there is still a small amount of influence that is happening. You might not be able to directly link the contents of a bodice-ripping romance novel or a Twilight with something that you’ve written, but when you consider your “bookshelf”–not just the books you own, but all of the books that you have read in your lifetime–you are looking at the thing that has shaped you into the writer that you are today. I am a conglomeration of Madeleine L’Engle and Roald Dahl and Shel Silverstein and Calvin and Hobbes and Michael Chabon and bad science fiction and good science fiction and Michael Faber and Ray Bradbury and The Dark is Rising and John Bellairs and Isabelle Allende and Sarah Waters and Winesburg, Ohio and Ann Patchett and Harry Potter and yes, Charlene Harris’ vampire books, not to mention the thousands of other authors and individual novels and stories (not to mention the authors that I haven’t heard of, the books that I haven’t read), passed through a lens of age and experiences and perspective and experimentation, leading to every single sentence that I write. The same is true of every writer.
Take pride in your bookshelf! Or, at the very least, don’t be wildly ashamed that you’ve never read a particular author, or that you have. If you have, embrace them. If you haven’t, ask the person making that disbelieving face if you might borrow their copy of that particular book, so as to become familiar with the writer. That is how I ended up with a stack of Philip Roth books from a member of my cohort. Win.