© Daniel Aureliano Newman 2018
Jason Guriel’s essay “The Case against Reading Everything” (The Walrus, 13 Dec. 2017) argues provocatively against “reading widely.” This nearly universal piece of advice is “wrong,” writes Guriel: it’s what fashionable posers do, not writers “worth reading.” This stance is not as elitist as it sounds. Though openly scornful of writers who bounce “between high and low, between Mina Loy and Mini-Wheats boxes,” it is really an insult to all writers equally.
My typical reaction to such an essay is to emit annoyance privately, then get over it. But this one demands an actual response, even if it puts me on the side of “practically scripture.” It’s not that “reading widely” needs a defence, but that Guriel’s type of argument is frivolous to the point of recklessness. His article is yet another manifestation of that suddenly ubiquitous contrarianism we see in our politics and in our social media, a naysaying whose claim to authority rests on the putative bravery of saying what no one else dares say.
Under the rubric of “some real talk”—a chilling echo of telling it like it is?—Guriel lays nuggets of wisdom like this: “most writing isn’t worth consuming.” Who could disagree? But, then, what does this have to do with reading widely?
Guriel positions himself against Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King, naming these two particularly prolific authors among the many others who advocate reading widely. He claims, rather dubiously, that real authors do not, in fact, follow their own advice. Real authors read deep, not wide!
James Joyce, hardly a hack, read almost everything. Ulysses sparkles with fragments of advertising slogans, popular songs and romance novels that Joyce consumed along with his Shakespeare and Yeats. Faulkner prescribed a mixed diet of “classics” and “trash.” The shameless snob Nabokov devoured comics and mystery novels. In one week in 1932, Samuel Beckett read Vanity Fair, The Origin of Species, Moby-Dick and Point Counter Point—and perhaps some cricket news. Virginia Woolf favoured the Novel for its ability to “lick up with its long glutinous tongue the most minute fragments of fact and mass them into the most subtle labyrinths.” It is a “cannibal” genre, she writes, able to use any and all information, high and low, to “clasp to its breast the precious prerogatives of the democratic art of prose.” And that’s just a few dead masters.
For William James, genius arises from spontaneous combination of thoughts that jostle in the human mind. The “highest order of minds” are creative not because they are sparsely furnished but because they are “a seething caldron of ideas, where everything is fizzling and bobbing about in a state of bewildering activity, where partnerships can be joined or loosened in an instant … and the unexpected seems the only law.”
Marianne Moore poached material from all over, including the post-game broadcast of a Yankees–Tigers game. In “Poetry” she spells it out:
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and
school-books”; all these phenomena are important.
But a poem, Moore continues, is not just the sum of its sources:
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry.
It’s not your sources, it’s how you use ‘em. Missing this point, Guriel dubiously implies that wide reading makes for careless writing. What would Flaubert say?
Sloppy writing has many causes, but I’ll bet a limited range of reference is worse than broad horizons. I once met a would-be writer who boasted he read only Hemingway. Predictably his writing was awful; also, it was nothing like Hemingway. Guriel praises “devotion and obsession” to a single author or genre, but you can’t learn to write like Hemingway by reading nothing else. What makes him Hemingway is in large part the fact he isn’t Joseph Conrad, or Nella Larsen, or Henry James. And the most distinctly Hemingwayan features of his writing are, to a great extent, just modified Flaubert, Sherman Andersen, Gertrude Stein and journalistic prose. “Devotion and obsession” lead out as well as in.
This brings me to the contentious claim that “the real problem with telling young writers to fan out across genres and forms is that it doesn’t help them find a voice. If anything, it’s antivoice.” What is “voice,” anyway? It’s a metaphor, and a misleading one. If there is a problem with how “young writers” are taught the craft, it’s that they’re told to “find a voice.” It means nothing, unless it means find your niche and stay there. That’s fine branding advice, but literature is not an ad campaign. Did Auden have “a voice”? Does Edna O’Brien? Jennifer Egan? Zadie Smith?
Guriel likes his writing advice “thrillingly precise,” but writing is not like following a recipe for tap-water. The last and most important item in George Orwell’s rules of writing was “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” “Use fewer em dashes” is good advice for writers who abuse them—but bad advice for me!
Stephen King slags adverbs, Kurt Vonnegut dismisses semicolons, but most writers prefer broad advice about work habits over commandments about style. F. Scott Fitzgerald: don’t drink and write (really!). Martha Southgate: learn from TV. Steven Heighton: embrace boredom. Henry James: “be one of those on whom nothing is lost.” Almost everyone who would know: read widely.
Which is, by the way, precise. It means precisely this: don’t read just one thing. For such a fan of precision Guriel is maddeningly vague about the nature of his beef. Is it writing about trivial things he deplores, or is it mixing “high and low”? How is reducing your use of semicolons related to “shutter[ing] your ear against mediocrity?” How does “reading the many, many new releases of middling poetry and fiction” result in “a failure to make judgments”? There’s a lot of questionable causality being bandied about in Guriel’s article, but most of it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Finally, how is his bogey the act of reading widely rather than, say, the fact of constant distraction? Ah, but the anti-distraction argument isn’t new!
Surely Guriel knows this. He’s the writer he is because he read widely at some point in his apprenticeship. So what motivates his article?
The generous answer: Guriel found a peaceful teapot, blew in some hot air. Maybe he hoped to replicate the hoopla caused by Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr. Difficult.” But unlike Franzen’s essay, “The Case against Reading Everything” is facile, cynically contrarian.
The less generous alternative is to take Guriel at his word. If his article is not (to quote Mike Spry) “pure lit-clickbait,” then it’s a puritanical assault on artistic curiosity, exploration and experiment. Its implication: what is good is what’s already known. To the old chestnut “Write what you know,” it appends “—and limit your knowledge.” The article wears the cloak of intellectualism but it’s deeply anti-intellectual. It upholds a fossilized ideal of high culture at the expense of the “seething caldron” of differences that makes culture a living thing. It grants indulgences to those who read only Marilynne Robinson—or only Rupi Kaur.
It’s irresponsible for a successful poet to promise “real talk” that justifies lazy provincialism.
Guriel’s animus against stuff “not worth reading” is inconceivable in a poet who productively references pop culture (the Beatles, Rubik’s Cubes) and whose poetry includes these lines:
a trifle’s potential—
its capacity for alchemy, actually—
can leave you longing
To my eye, this lovely passage devastates Guriel’s case against “toggling between high and low.” A cereal-box may be read for prophecy or revelation, but the poet finds the value of its immanent being, trivial as it may be. “Most writing isn’t worth consuming,” says Guriel, and “that includes cereal boxes.” What if you’re at the supermarket, wanting to know whether Fruit Loops are as nutritious as they look? More seriously, what if the world is full of accidental poetry and subtle beauty–if you look where you don’t expect to find poetry and beauty. Chances are, the box of cereal will not inspire your next great poem; but who’s to say it can’t?
“The significant moments of one’s life are ‘insignificant’ to other people,” writes Hanif Kureishi, who adds that “art” is about “showing how and why they are significant and also why they may seem absurd.” I thought I agreed with Guriel on one point at least: that cereal labels offer little in the way of inspiration. But then I actually looked at a box of Cheerios, and who could deny the potential poetry in its disclaimer: “Enlarged to show texture”?
The injunction not to read widely is the writer’s prerogative, of course. But it doesn’t seem conducive with one of literature’s greatest powers: to enlarge minute aspects of the world and our lives, to give them texture.
Beckett, Samuel. The Letters of Samuel Beckett, Volume I: 1929–1940, ed. George Craig, Martha Dow Fehsenfeld, Dan Gunn and Lois More Overbeck. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
Guriel, Jason. “Alchemy.” Poetry (July/August 2008).
Guriel, Jason. “The Case Against Reading Everything.” The Walrus (13 Dec. 2017),
James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. Penguin, 1985.
Kureishi, Hanif. “Something Given: Reflections on Literature.” Collected Essays. Faber and Faber, 2011.
Moore, Marianne. “Poetry.” Complete Poems. Penguin, 1994.
Spry, Mike. CanLit Accountable. 8 Jan. 2018. http://canlitaccountable.com/, accessed 16 Feb. 2018.
Woolf, Virginia. “Poetry, Fiction and the Novel.” The Essays of Virginia Woolf IV: 1925–1928, edited by Andrew McNeillie. Hogarth Press, 1994.