I have often been afraid to read books for two reasons. One: when I am reading, I don’t do anything else. If allowed (and my husband sometimes accommodates me) I can spend the entire weekend shut away. If it’s a series, my family must subsist on powdered mac n cheese for a week.
The second reason is because I have always been afraid I’ll inadvertently steal someone’s style, or idea, and use it in my own.
Ideas seem to float around the universe, and I steal them even if I never read them. Perhaps I’m psychic.
For example, I was reading one of Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collections and noted a reference to a Dorothy Hamill haircut. My book…also has a reference to a Dorothy Hamill haircut. Will she think I stole it? Doubtful. Who didn’t have a Dorothy Hamill haircut in the early 1980s? It’s like putting a character in a Flashdance shirt, right? Yet, I didn’t even read her book until a year after I was done with mine, and I never read it anywhere else. This stuff kind of freaks me out.
Thievery happens, even when it’s not on purpose. In the author’s note to A LION AMONG MEN, Gregory Maguire penned an apology to author Susan Cooper for accidentally lifting material for WICKED from one of her children’s books.
I read some books by English children’s book author Elizabeth Goudge (writing in the 1940s) and noted similarities to both Peter Benchley’s THE LAST UNICORN and J.K. Rowling’s Potter series; indeed, there’s a blurb by Rowling on the new edition of THE LITTLE WHITE HORSE and Rowling even acknowledged Goudge’s influence.
Like in THE LAST UNICORN, the unicorns in Goudge’s book ride in on the ocean waves. And in Goudge’s wonderful book LINNETS AND VALERIANS, one of the villains is named Tom Biddle (Tom Riddle, anyone? Anyone?).
Why do I feel so gleeful when I notice these items? As though I just solved a mystery, or know a secret the author hid like an Easter egg? Does this mean that this sort of literary homage is good?
Being influenced and paying homage to other literature is part of how new literature is created, I learned. As it is with visual artists being influenced by those who came before, or filmmakers adding nods to their favorites in their own films. And so on.
Lifting something on purpose and passing it off as yours is something else entirely.
But not reading fiction is not the answer. The more widely I read, the easier it is to write. The more I write, the easier it is to appreciate others’ work– to understand how they plotted their novel, made that unlikable character unsympathetic, worked in that obscure literary reference unobtrusively.
Does that make sense?
I read everything now. Nonfiction (a great way to get inspired), literary fiction, children’s books, young adult, fantasy, even some sci-fi thrown in now and again. The only thing stopping me is lack time and lack of funds. The former somewhat overcome by keeping a book in the car, to read while I wait for my child to make her way across campus at pick-up time, or during the times when my husband is driving us somewhere. The latter can be overcome by my friendly neighborhood library, which always seems to have the latest and greatest on its shelves, as well as all the classics I missed by not majoring in English.
Which leads me to my next thought: “Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will
get you through times of no libraries.” Anne Herbert, THE NEXT WHOLE EARTH CATALOG: ACCESS TO TOOLS ed. Stewart Brand (1980).
And this, which has been stuck in my head since whenever that episode first aired: