I Know a Good Book When I Want to Write One
I wonder how many readers are also closet would-be writers? Are there people who love to read the sort of stuff I love to read who don’t also secretly wish they could write the sort of stuff I love to read? One yardstick I use for measuring the goodness of a book is whether or not it makes me want to turn right around and write one of my own (or pick back up one of the several lapsed projects I’ve started over the past decade). Infinite Jest is definitely one of those books. The Time of Our Singing was one. East of Eden was one. Things by Pynchon, for example, though I tend to think of them as good medicine — meaning I often don’t enjoy them a whole lot while I’m reading them, but afterward I’m glad I did it — don’t make me want to write.
The thing about Wallace is that he writes about stuff in ways that I can identify with in a voice that’s comfortable and familiar. He writes in ways that reach out to me, and I find myself thinking “well I could do that, because it’s familiar and I understand it.” But his writing is so obsessive and thorough and good that I know I could never do quite what he does. So I figure that any time I try to write after reading his work, I’ll wind up writing all these logjam sentences full of stuff about disconnection and sadness and beautiful precision that’ll wind up sounding just like a 17-year-old trying to imitate Wallace. I’m thinking of a lack of depth and maturity and originality.
When I finish a book like Infinite Jest, which I did last night (complete with a reread of the first 17 pages) I want to go create something of my own; I feel like I could pour out 10,000 words of something OK in an evening that the next evening upon a reread would turn out to be depressingly bad, or at least unartfully derivative. So among the many paradoxes or double-binds that Wallace presents me with is one more personal than most, in which his excellence simultaneously makes me want both right away and never ever to try to write a word of fiction again.