The problem with reading novels while I’m writing one is that they make me feel woefully inadequate about my work. For example, I’m currently reading Perdido Street Station, the seminal steampunk novel by China Mieville, described in this Goodreads synopsis:
New Crobuzon is a squalid city where humans, Re-mades, and arcane races live in perpetual fear of Parliament and its brutal militia. Isaac, a brilliant scientist, is asked by a bird-man Garuda to restore his power of flight. But one lab specimen threatens the whole city: a vividly colored caterpillar eating a hallucinatory drug grows in order to consume all.
Beyond the bizarre and fascinating story, there is Mieville’s prose:
“I turn away from him and step into the vastness of New Crobuzon, this towering edifice of architecture and history, this complexitude of money and slum, this profane steam-powered god.”
“The nightmares were splitting the membrane of sleep. They were spilling into the everyday, haunting the sunlit realm, drying conversations in the throat and stealing friends away.”
“That is what protects me here; that and the illusion I have fostered, the source of my sorrow and shame, the anguish that has brought me to this great wen, this dusty city dreamed up in bone and brick, a conspiracy of industry and violence, steeped in history and battened-down power, this badland beyond my ken.”
Over the top? Pretentious? Show-offy? Absolutely! (Is complexitude even a word?) But Mieville is flexing his linguistic muscles with a purpose: to convey the mood of the characters and the harsh reality of the city itself. One reviewer on Goodreads summed it up:
“Mieville takes the strange and innately repulsive concepts and unflinchingly uses them to carve out the setting and the characters of his story. His amazing imagination and brilliant descriptive skills make this loud, boisterous, filthy, and terrifying place so incredibly vivid that it seemed to me that I actually spent some time there, lived and breathed it, actually felt it.”
Yet while I’m enjoying the novel, I’m in awe of his artistry, and jealous, and when I return to what is now a third revision of my novel the words on the page seem lifeless and dull.
However…. prior to Perdido Street Station I read “The Martian” by Andy Weir, a novel with a great premise (astronaut stranded by his crew mates on Mars) that is a publishing success story: it was self-published by a first time novelist, sold 350,000 copies before getting picked up by a major publisher.
And the writing sucks. Big time. I wish I could be more eloquent. He makes basic fiction writing mistakes and offers pedestrian prose — and that’s being charitable. Again, I quote from a Goodreads review:
The dialog is stilted and awkward. The characters are all one-dimensional and flat. They almost seem like an afterthought. The emotional and psychological trauma rendered by all these near-death experiences and complete and utter isolation? What trauma? There’s no mention of that anywhere. … It’s a terrifyingly cool premise. It just wasn’t what I was expecting. I was hoping for an emotionally-taxing, horrifying, survival drama, but instead got a cutesily witty astrophysics manual.
(Guess which of these two books is getting made into a Ridley Scott movie starring Matt Damon? The answer is obvious, and I’m fine with that, because the story in “The Martian” deserves to be filmed. And it deserved to be written by someone who can write).
Yes, reading while I’m writing can be a difficult thing. It can intimidate me, depress me, and make me want to give up. But sometimes, as with “The Martian,” reading while I’m writing also makes me think: “Shit, I can do better than that!”