The Long and Short of It

Sometimes, I just want to sink into a thick, wide-ranging novel. Getting lost in a world completely unlike my own, or sliding deep into the consciousness of a character—my earliest reading memories are of experiences like this, whether I was reading Black Beauty or Little Women.

Over the last several years, I’ve been drawn a bit more toward work that is lean and spare. I suspect this is because I feel inundated by news and social media on all fronts (who doesn’t?), and I long for something focused, quiet, and controlled. Then again, sometimes the best way to drown out the everyday noise and chatter is to dive deep into a long book. It’s like food cravings: sometimes all I can think about is pasta drenched in a hearty meat sauce—but then, on another day, a crisp, fresh salad calls my name.

Lately, I tend to ping-pong back and forth between these reading tastes. I’m reading Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. James’s book is over 600 pages long, and is the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Drawing on African myths and narrative traditions, James has created an entire universe which, while rooted in African sources and sensibilities, is also profoundly original (the book includes maps of the various regions and locations which the characters inhabit, such as The Darklands, The Blood Swamp, and The House with No Doors) and unabashedly expansive (it also includes a list of all the characters, which is helpful, given that there are over 50). I’ll be honest: I don’t want to enter the world of Black Leopard every day. It’s a violent and complex one, and sometimes, after a day of work and kids, that’s not what I want. But even on the days I don’t visit, I marvel at the scope of the book, and the many threads it weaves.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis clocks in at just over 700 pages—but it includes about 200 stories. The longest are no more than 8 or 9 pages; the shortest, a paragraph or two. Many of them are singularly unnerving, not only in content but in form: how does she compress an entire narrative down to a couple of pages? When I read Davis, I often finish a story and my first instinct is that I’m disappointed that it’s already done. But this isn’t because the story seems incomplete—if anything, it makes me a little sad to realize how succinctly a story, or a life, can be summed up (not that it’s easy to do as a writer!).

Reading Marlon James, I’m reminded that, as a writer, I have the right to go big, and to offer my readers entire worlds. Lydia Davis, meanwhile, reminds me not to burden my stories and poems with anything they—and the reader—don’t need.

I’ve now tried my hand at writing a (still unfinished) 250-page novel, as well as several poems that are no more than a page. I’ve written lyrical essays that clock in at 15 pages, and barely 1 page. The writing has its own necessary length—whether it’s 500 pages, or 5.

Reading Like a Copy Editor

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I write poems and short stories for fun (except when it’s completely frustrating), but I copyedit the work of others for (a little) profit. Usually when I tell someone what I do for a living, the first question I get is, “What exactly does a copy editor do?” followed by, “how are you different than just, you know, a regular editor?”

My response is that I don’t help the author revise the rough drafts of the book, when characters, plot, and structure are still being formed and shaped. By the time I start working on a project, the editor has already done that, and the manuscript is (hopefully) in good shape. But it still needs a fine-tuning, and that’s where I come in. Not only do I check spelling and grammar, but I watch for consistency, logic, and flow: Wait, on page 3 she was “Catharine” but now on page 23 she’s “Catherine”—which one is it? Or, did this king really rule from 1350 to 1580? Ah, nope, that should be 1380. Better make a note to check that throughout. Looks like this author is really fond of the word “ambiguous”—this is the fourth time she’s used it in this chapter. I’ll suggest she use “unclear” here instead.

What kind of person makes a good copy editor? Benjamin Dreyer, the copy chief at Random House, offers his opinion in his new book, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style:

“Copyediting is a knack. It requires a good ear for how language sounds and a good eye for how it manifests itself on the page; it demands an ability to listen to what writers are attempting to do and, hopefully and helpfully, the means to augment it…I do think it’s a craft whose knowledge can only be built on some mysterious predisposition. (The one thing I know that most copy editors have in common is that they were all early readers and spent much of their childhoods with their noses pressed into books.)”

Dreyer’s insightful description suggests how my copy editor and writer sides interact and, I hope, support one another. I’ve been focusing on writing poetry for the last year—and more than any other genre, poetry demands an attention to the sound of language in the ear, and the look and layout of language on the page. (Plus, I was definitely a young bookworm.)

But what do I not do when I copyedit? Well, I don’t scold authors for split infinitives. I don’t have a heart attack if a writer starts a sentence with the word “And.” My job is not to force a writer to align with unbreakable rules. It’s about supporting and strengthening the author’s own voice, through judicious application of grammatical guidelines and common sense.

Although, I’m with Mr. Dreyer on the serial (or Oxford) comma, when he notes that only “godless savages” do not use it.

Reading Outside Your Comfort Zone

by Kristen Holt-Browning 

In a recent interview, the author Roxane Gay said something that jumped out at me:

“I read everything. The number one thing I tell my students is read diversely. And I’m not talking about demographics, though that’s part of it. Aesthetic diversity, genre diversity. It matters because it just makes us better informed, and it protects us from our worst instincts. . . Anybody who tells me, ‘I only read literary fiction,’ I’m just like, ‘Well, you’re an asshole. What are we going to talk about?’ Literary fiction—a lot of it’s not that good! . . . My favorite thing to read is spy thrillers, which I just love. I also read romance novels, because they are fun, and they are sweet, and they’ve got a happy ending, most of the time. The world is shit, so—I need that happy ending.”

Reading this, I realized that I hardly ever read anything other than literary fiction. I think that, in college, I was so eager to dive into the classics, and so suddenly aware of the canon, that I snobbishly turned away from anything that wasn’t approved by the academy. And, after graduation, working in publishing, I was surrounded by people who, like me, were reading the latest literary novel, and I wanted to keep up.

Maybe it’s getting older, maybe it’s leaving New York and the publishing scene behind—whatever the reason, I don’t feel that pressure anymore. So, taking Gay’s words to heart, I picked up two fantasy novels by Naomi Novik: Uprooted and Spinning Silver. I had recently stumbled across a glowing review of Spinning Silver, which praised its original and creative use of fairy tale. Although I never read fantasy, I do love the fairy tale-influenced work of Angela Carter (if you haven’t read The Bloody Chamber, get thee to a bookstore now!). So, Novik’s work seemed like a good opportunity to take baby steps into unfamiliar literary territory.

In Spinning Silver, Miryem, the daughter of a moneylender, lives in a town that seems to be situated in an Eastern European locale, a long time ago. Her family is Jewish, and faces anti-Semitism that rings all too true. The villagers live in the shadow of the Staryk—creatures of ice who will do anything for gold. This doesn’t bode well for Miryem, who discovers she has the magical ability to turn silver to gold.

I was impressed with how Novik adapts and twists the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, and ingeniously subverts the anti-Semitic trope of the Jewish moneylender. She also explores the theme of female agency—without giving short shrift to the fantastical Staryk, and their unnerving ability to turn all the world to winter.

Similiary, Uprooted is situated in a Slavic-inflected, premodern world that is overlaid by magical elements. The protagonist, Agnieszka, is chosen in a longstanding ritual that takes place every ten years: a magician known as the Dragon takes a young woman to live with him for a decade, before he releases her and chooses a replacement. The village acquiesces to this sacrifice, receiving in exchange his magical protection from the Wood, a menacing, monstrous forest that seeks to encroach on the village year after year.

In Uprooted, Novik loosely adapts the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, but here, both of the main characters have magical abilities. I was pleasantly surprised to find that these books are well written, with fully developed plots and characters. She doesn’t fall back on the types of stereotypes that I’ve always ascribed to fantasy: there are no fire-breathing dragons or maidens in distress here. Novik may be a “genre” writer, but her books intelligently interrogate fairy tale and fantasy, while also engaging with perfectly “literary” themes like discrimination, gender roles, and social pressures.

Clearly, I’ve overlooked a lot  of great fiction by narrowly reading only one type of book; my future reading will definitely include a wider range of genres.

Have you read any romances, mysteries, thrillers, or fantasy novels that you loved? I’m open to recommendations!

A Year of Reading Like a Writer: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

by Kristen Holt Browning

When Julie first asked me to blog for the Get Lit website, I had no idea what to write about. Every week, Julie or Flora give their insightful exchanges with authors both local and far-flung, or Ruta provides great behind-the-scenes peeks into the book publishing world. What could I offer? Well, I read (a lot). And I write (a little). And so, from that banal observation, Reading Like a Writer was born.

This year, I committed to reading beyond pleasure—that is, while I still read for story and character and language, I also read to answer these questions: why did the author choose to write this poem/chapter in this way? What does it mean that the author chose to use this word, this image? Does it work? Why not, if it doesn’t?

Perhaps surprisingly, this didn’t turn reading into homework. I never felt like I was forcing a novel or book of poems under a literary telescope, or dissecting text merely for the sake of exposing its linguistic or structural innards. Rather, it felt like a deeper, fuller mode of reading: when a narrative kept me engaged, I thought about why. When a poem made my heart beat a little faster, I considered how the poet’s choices created that effect in me.

I also committed to keeping a book log (Logging Books, Logging Memories). As I glance through it, there are two or three novels there that have already disappeared from my mind. But others remain: for example, I am still thinking about, and deeply affected by, Rebecca Makkai’s The Great Believers (Empathy for the Reader).

In addition to keeping a book log, I’m also still reading a poem a day (Poetry Every Day). A daily practice of reading at least a couple poems has inspired my own writing in notable ways: for one thing, I often use compelling lines or phrases from a poem I read in the evening as the basis for some free-writing the following morning.

So, if you’re looking to adopt some new literary practices for your New Year’s resolution, might I suggest: write down what you read, and read a poem every day.

Finally, a word about the future direction of this series:  I’m obviously not the only reading writer here in Beacon. Going forward into the next year of Get Lit, I’d love to add more voices to this column. What are you reading? What have you read recently that inspired or influenced your own writing? Comment on our Facebook page or tell me at any of our upcoming Get Lit events this year, and I’ll share your recommendations and thoughts in upcoming columns and posts!

Language and Landscape

by Kristen Holt-Browning

I try to hike at least a portion of the Pocket Road trail here in Beacon at least once a week. On my last couple of walks up the trail, I’ve been leaving my headphones and podcasts at home, and instead paying extra careful attention to the rapidly evolving foliage, and the swollen creek rushing down the mountain—because I’ve been reading Landmarks, by Robert Macfarlane.

Published a couple of years ago, Landmarks traces Macfarlane’s explorations of the relationship between land, language, and history across the British Isles. I’m reading it slowly, savoring all of the linguistic nuggets he unearths, and it’s on my mind during my hikes in my own familiar terrain.

I’m only a couple of chapters in, but Macfarlane has already introduced and discussed several fascinating examples of nature-influenced language. For example, in the historical northern Scots dialect, “blinter” refers to the dazzle of winter stars on a clear night. Imagine—someone, at some distant point in Scottish history, looked up at the stars night after winter night, and knew he (or she) needed a word to describe this seasonal, regular part of his (or her) landscape and life.

Macfarlane’s overall point, as he notes, is that “language deficit leads to attention deficit.” He couches this point primarily in our linguistic relationship to the natural world, which places him in a long line of British writers and poets (Wordsworth writing about the Lake District, for example).

Americans have their own history of locating themselves and their language in the land (Thoreau’s Walden comes to mind). Last fall, I read Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, before I visited Arches National Park in southern Utah, because Abbey worked in and around Arches and Moab as a park ranger in the late 1950s. Like Macfarlane, Abbey believes passionately that our relationship to the natural world is sacred, and in danger of being lost—and worth writing about and recording, because

“This is the most beautiful place on Earth. There are many such places. Every man, every woman, carries in heart and mind the image of the ideal place, the right place, the one true home, known or unknown, actual or visionary.”

While Macfarlane locates people’s history in the geography of the British Isles, Abbey finds his own natural home in the desert:

“The desert says nothing. Completely passive, acted upon but never acting, the desert lies there like the bare skeleton of Being, spare, sparse, austere, utterly worthless, inviting not love but contemplation.”

I’ve never written directly or deeply about the landscape of the Hudson Valley—my own native, most-loved region. Macfarlane and Abbey make me wonder if it might be time to learn more about how people have traditionally spoken of and interacted with this land, and write about this sweet valley that has nourished three generations of my family. 

Time for me to hit the trail again, I think, and find some inspiration on the mountain.