Friday, May 1, 2009

In Praise of Reading Widely

Back when I was a grad student at the University of Arizona, one of my Creative Writing professors asked me what I liked to read. 

“I’ve always been a fan of Japanese fiction,” I told her, “and I like a number of other Asian writers, too.” At the time, I had just started reading Romesh Gunesekera, Arundhati Roy, and Michael Ondaatje, and had recently been impressed with Nguyen Thi Hiep, Duong Thu Huong, and Bao Ninh. I’d also read everything translated into English by Mishima, Kawabata, Oe, and Tanizaki, not to mention various works by dozens of other Japanese authors. The fact was, if I hadn’t applied to graduate programs in Creative Writing, I would have applied instead to programs in Japanese Literature.

When I shared with her my affinity for Japanese fiction, she shook her head and laughed at me. 

“A serious writer,” she said gravely, “reads real fiction. If I were you, I’d stick to American writers and hope something rubs off.” 

Of course, I had been reading plenty of them, too, and by that point in the term it was apparent that she really didn’t like me. I never did determine, however, if she was merely trying to put me down or if she really believed that nothing good could come of reading Asian fiction. 

Last year, when Horace Engdahl, an official of the Nobel Foundation, publicly dismissed American literature as being “too isolated, too insular,” and said that Americans “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature” and are therefore ignorant, I heard an echo of my professor, though it was Eurocentrism rather than Americentrism speaking this time. 

I’m not about to say that fiction from one part of the world has more merit than fiction from another part, and the Nobel Prize, though laudable for its intentions to reward outstanding work, seems rather subjective in the end. To me, it’s dangerous to condemn all writing (and those who read it) from a shore not one’s own. 

Just as it’s essential for writers to read widely between literary genres and periods, it’s no less important, in my opinion, to read widely across literary traditions. Not surprisingly, Japanese writers tend to have a different aesthetic than their counterparts in the West, and their focus – traditionally, anyway – on nature, understatement, the profundity of silence, and the perception of beauty in the possibility of things, offers much to learn from, and – dare I say it? – perhaps even incorporate, in some small way, in our own work. (Just think of the artist Hokusai’s influence on European Impressionists in the 19th century.) 

Atop my list of Japanese fiction are five novels in particular. Each is unique not only to Japanese fiction, but to fiction anywhere in the world. The first is Snow Country, by Yasunari Kawabata. The second is Confessions of a Mask, by Yukio Mishima. The third is Dark Night’s Passing, by Naoya Shiga. The fourth is The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki. And the fifth is The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobo Abe. Rather than review or even describe any of these novels, I’ll leave it up to you to find these and, I hope, relish them for their fascinating novelistic qualities and their superiority as some of last century’s most engaging works.

For anyone interested, Junichiro Tanizaki also provides brilliant insight into Japanese aesthetics in his long essay, “In Praise of Shadows.”


justin nicholes said...

Great post. I loved Fumiko Enchi's THE WAITING YEARS and would recommend that one, too.

Sapuche said...

I'm with you there, Justin. I read that in college and read it again a couple years ago on my own. I'd love to get any other recommendations...and they don't have to be Japanese authors, either.

A. E. Santi said...

Wonderful post, David. I've always enjoyed reading as wide as possible, picking up influences. Being the son of a latin american critic brought me to Borges, Paz and plenty of others very early on. I've been surprised/dismayed when I've read in places said a writer or a group of writers from one country have become "in vogue" or what not, as I've always just thought they were good writing--period.

Sapuche said...

Thanks, AES. I agree with you completely about good writing: it can’t be called “in vogue” if it reaches beyond superficial appeal and changes how we view something – i.e., writing, a part of the world, history, and so forth…which is exactly why reading across cultures is so valuable, I think. It challenges us – and writers, in particular – in new, exciting, and unpredictable ways.