*today’s guest post comes to us courtesy of Hannah Baxter. Hannah is a recent graduate of The University of Missouri with dual degrees in English and Theatre. She currently works as an assistant at The Missouri Review and anticipates winning the hearts of TLC’s Secret Princes very soon.*
In regards to writers, there are two things about which I am absolutely sure: We are liars and we are lazy. That’s part of what makes us so delightful; however, it is not always the best combination for churning out meaningful literature. Yet when we do, the vast majority of us want to exclaim and host parties where food is portioned in such a way so that it fits on top of a crusty piece of bread and wine is liberally, sometimes carelessly, poured. After that, the words seem to flow effortlessly out of our otherwise lazy mouths. And do you know the most common topic of conversation at these cheese platter soirees? In my experience it is, and has been for some time, all of the impressive and oftentimes obscure texts we have on our shelves. Notice I did not say what we have read, because that, I’m afraid, is a very different thing. But don’t expect us to admit that freely.
As I write this, I have a rather old, stately looking bookshelf staring back at me, overflowing with a wide variety of novels, anthologies, and literary magazines. Most have been collected since I was about thirteen and stopped reading so many Sabrina the Teenage Witch box sets (they’re almost word for word with the shows!) For the superior I have Falkner and Kaufka, for the culture conscious I have Larsson and Palahniuk. For myself I have Schappell and July, and for hiding under my pillow I have Bourdain and Rowling. In short, my assortment is rather varied for the average twenty-something, but not compared to the virtual shelves of some of my more literary-inclined cohorts. There is, as I have recently discovered, a website by the name of Goodreads which acts as a sort of online anthology of every book you will ever admit to reading, and perhaps every book you’d never admit to liking, for which you can give it a dismal one out of five stars. Or, if you’d rather, every book you’ve ever claimed to have read and had it absolutely rock your world oh my god run out and buy this right now it will change your life I promise you I will never be the same again I just died. This, my friends, is the literary Facebook, a forum for scholarly judgment and mockery, another skill at which writers are so adept. I will admit I have roamed the shelves of my Goodreads friends, prying and judging their acknowledged online catalogue. Some I have met with undeserved, in most cases, disdain, while others have shamed me to the point of hurriedly clicking on my Amazon shopping cart and adding every book by every author whose name I didn’t recognize. Aside from my own feelings of intellectual inadequacy, what does this tell us about the average literature consumer? It proves, like I said, that all writers, and in this case readers, are liars.
I have talked to several of the people I work with at The Missouri Review, an established magazine with a supply closet full of every published issue, which I have of course read, and we all rather freely admit that we have not cracked every book that we have, or claim to have, on our bookshelves. For some, we might never complete this somewhat daunting task, while others promise that they are just waiting for the perfect rainy day. I like to align myself with the latter, although as I enter the workforce as not so blissfully naïve college graduate, I see those open afternoons slipping away with the imaginary rain. Is it more so that I find my staggering bookshelf a mere novelty to those who visit my house and exclaim, “Dear Lord you have a lot of books,” followed quickly by, “Why don’t you have a T.V?” or is that the shelves stand as a quiet reminder to get off both the real and literary Facebook and start reading all of these works that I spent my hard earned table-serving money on instead of shoes or food? I will admit it is probably a teensy bit of both.
Aside from the books which may or may not serve as intellectual decoration, I find it more troubling that so many of my friends and colleagues, self-included, often have trouble finishing the novels and essays that we do find the time to start reading. Not to say that my peers and I rarely finish a book once we start it, especially as I have a rather fool proof selection process, but every once in a while there is a piece that no matter how hard we try we just can’t seem to make it to that last paragraph. Of course everyone has certain tastes when it comes to literature just like music or fashion, but what is it about those of us who are more apt to pick up a novel instead of the remote that makes us so highly critical so quickly? I said that I have a nearly fool proof selection process; that is mainly for whether or not I purchase a book. It does not necessarily pertain to whether or not I read it (see above). I flip to a random page in the text and see if it can hold my attention long enough so that my eyes don’t glaze over by the time I reach the bottom. Now, I feel that this is a more accurate and fairer method than the more traditional first page verdict, which, as any good writer knows, is often the hardest and most intimidating part of the writing process. I mean, how would you feel if a person decided to just walk away based on the first ten words out of your mouth during a conversation? It’s tremendous pressure to hook a reader and keep them, which is why I find it so difficult to understand why we, meaning fellow writers and devout readers, are so harsh in regards to our fellow artists and enthusiasts when we should be the main source of support. It’s like the first page has become the literary world’s cover, and we just can’t seem to stop judging it with our upturned noses.
I have often contemplated this conundrum throughout my adult reading life, but the magnitude of its severity did not hit me until I seriously considered making writing my occupation. As naïve as that dream might appear given the current economic climate, I am nonetheless determined to find out whether or not I can hack it, or if waiting tables will get the best of me and I’ll join the regular workforce like a responsible, sane human being. Yet when I consider these tendencies I, my friends, and colleagues often display towards unknown works, I grow increasingly concerned as to the possibility of my success. To this end, I increasingly make a point of taking the time to stop and read several pages and varying sections of books that even briefly peak my interest, and more ardently promise to complete it if it ends up coming home with me in a small plastic bag. Maybe it’s my own selfish fear of failure, maybe it’s my now public admittance to not having completed, or started, every single book on my Goodreads account, but I hope that it is a small realization of the effort it takes to write anything at all, and the dream that someday, someone will put forth the same courtesy to me if I manage to create a small little paperback that sits on the overstuffed shelves of a new, struggling writer.