Now do I have your attention? I’ve been meaning to muse about this for awhile now. Only about porn tangentially. More about an aside in a movie review that said what pornography is usually accused of is its tendency to “inflame and coarsen.”
Inflame I understand. People look at dirty pictures or read sexy stuff to get hot. Fine. It’s the “coarsen” that interests me. And not even that, actually. It’s coarsen’s opposite — refinement. If bad writing coarsens, does good writing refine?
I’d like to hear from anybody who has made a habit of reading good writing and who therefore feels more of a connoisseur, more tasteful and discriminating. And I’d especially like to hear from someone who has felt coarsened by bad writing. Not just dirty words, but bad writing.
P.S. Porno+graphos = writing of harlots. And there are all kinds of harlots. Not that I’d know from personal experience. I just read a lot.
I teach freshman composition at the college level, so I read a great amount of writing that is pretty rough (some of it is pretty good, though, too). Sometimes I have so much student writing to read that I can't read much published fiction for a week or more. During those stretches I'm DYING to reach for a book from my "To Read" stack.
I feel that when I'm reading lots of strong writing, I do write better because I'm able to pick out those things that make the writing strong and try to use them in my own writing. I really love reading those books that shatter me with how amazing they are stylistically and dramatically–like The Book Thief or The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing or Speak. Books that open for me new possibilities of what words and story can do free me in a way that freshman writing seldom does.
That said, I still learn a heck of a lot about writing and process from my students and responding to their work–some things I couldn't learn from reading only published work, which is the product, the very end of the process. And witnessing how my students' skills sharpen from draft to draft, from essay to essay, is very rewarding.
On the other side, reading terrible fiction can teach via negativa, or can teach what pulp does well – keep us interested.
I'm ashamed to admit I read one of Terry Goodkind's novels. Though I learned quite a bit from it (beyond the many, uh, interesting uses for a magic wand).
The hardest part about pursuing a master's degree in writing has been learning to read beautiful writing and not being distracted by it. I used to read very quickly, for plot, content, escape. Now I ponder every sentence, every comma. Makes it very hard to read the entire book before it is due back at the library.
But, if the aim is to soak up stylistic details from good writing, it may not matter that I don't know how the story ends. But I'm still curious. Hopefully, it'll become easier to read the good stuff more quickly. Or maybe one day, I'll have more time to read it slowly and finish it before I rack up $7.50 in fines.
What's really interesting is that I have a intense, visceral reaction to some of the literary novels that have been published in the last 10-20 years. Reading them is like getting a bucket of negativity upended over my head. The writing is so very very beautiful but the events in the book just make me want to stick my face in the waffle iron and end it all. What the hell is this crap! How on earth can you Choose Life after reading one of these books? The world is filled with suffering and adultery, alas; no point in dying; we might as well live and suffer some more. Then I have to clear out my brain by watching "Dude, Where's My Car?"
Hm, that turned into a rant I think.
BTW Ron, Roger Sutton offered you a plot: http://readroger.hbook.com/2010/05/book-plot-2.html
It was a good rant, Melinda. My sister would agree with you; she has stopped reading "literature" because she says life is relentlessly depressing enough, and the beauty of the iceberg isn't enough to make it not crush you to death. 🙂