Wednesday, July 29, 2015

After Austerlitz

Last term, I took my first creative writing class. I needed something new because I was burnt out on literature classes and the endless dissection and search for meaning. A creative nonfiction class was available with an excellent professor and it turned out to be a life-changing experience for me. As part of our final assignment, I had to assess what I learned and what I needed to work on.

One of the things that I realized during the class was that I don’t read nearly enough. For someone who is pursuing their masters’ degree in English literature, I am woefully under-read. In the portfolio review that I submitted at the end of term, I explained in a roundabout way why that is:

"I need to read more books. I generally do not read unless it is for class. It’s becoming clear to me that good writing requires good reading. I need to know what’s out there so I can try to emulate a style, or avoid writing something that’s already been written, or just see how people are playing with form. 
I tend to avoid reading for two reasons: I am afraid I will accidentally pick up an idea or style from another writer. It’s clear now that’s unavoidable. If I see a style I like, I can try to write that way, or try to figure out what the writer did to make me like the work so much. And there are only so many ideas in the universe: writers are bound to overlap, so I shouldn’t let that stop me. 
A few years ago I bought a copy of Creative Nonfiction. All the writing just seemed so self-conscious, as though it were being written to be published. I feel that way about a lot of writing. It sometimes feels like writers are manipulating words in a self-indulgent way, and I know that’s something I want to avoid. Even when I try to read The Best Short Stories of 2009 type collections, things seem so forced. But maybe I need to read what I consider bad writing in order to understand what’s going on there as well. 
So right now my goal is to read creative nonfiction or even some short stories to just really see what’s out there. First up: Dictee and The Emigrants. I have a feeling that Sebald is definitely in the same vein as what I am trying to accomplish: create more of a feel than a story per se. (Update: yes, we now know I love Sebald.)"

After handing in my portfolio, I proceeded to devour books. I came to WG Sebald first, because my professor said there was something about one of my pieces that reminded her of The Emigrants. She described the book as “A meandering story with lots of descriptive passages about 4 people who all commit suicide” or something along those lines. Well….that sounded…..intriguing? I’ll discuss The Emigrants in a later piece, but after that book I moved on to Vertigo followed by Austerlitz followed by……well anything I read can now be described as Before Austerlitz or After Austerlitz.
After Austerlitz, other books and authors became a challenge to read. Austerlitz, if it turns out to be your cup of tea, is a haunting and life-changing work.

Recommending books to others is a crapshoot. Like music, movies, or television, we all have our own specific tastes. I can’t read a “beach book” or “chick lit” and it’s not because my air quotes indicate a lack of respect for the genres. Any book that makes it to publication has something going for it and an audience for it. I can barely tolerate a “serious novel” but that’s because I have realized over the years that I am a contrarian. Tell me something is good, and I will immediately dislike it. I can’t help myself. But that's another story....

So I send you in search of Austerlitz with a caveat: It’s a good book….to me. That doesn’t mean it’s a good book to you. So peruse a few pages and if it seems like your cup of tea, give it a go. It’s not an easy read, and it’s not a traditional read, but if you find yourself After Austerlitz, welcome.

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