Protecting my will to write

This book is simply too good for me to bear (right now).
This book is simply too good for me to bear (right now).

Most of the time, when I put a book down without finishing it, it’s because it’s flawed in some respect. Maybe the writing is too full of obvious imagery for me to put up with it any longer (oh look that new character’s wearing green and gold. He must be one of the good guys). Or maybe the plot is too ridiculous, and the writer isn’t the sort of latter day P.G. Wodehouse s/he would have to be to pull it off. Maybe the language is too willfully obscure. Or the characters flat and unappealing, or altogether too perfect.

Sometimes though, when I put a book down, it’s because I’m the one who’s flawed. In the best of these cases, it’s because I’m at the wrong stage of my life to fully appreciate it.

Every once in a while, though, it’s because the writing is so very good it completely undermines my own ability to write. My inner editor takes over and whispers in my ear that I will never be able to write like this. Why do I even try anymore?

I used to grit my teeth through it, and finish the book, telling myself it was good for me. That to produce good writing, I needed to read good writing. Then, when I was done, I’d go shelve my work-in-progress and bury myself in technical writing gigs for weeks, months, and in one case, years, until the feeling had passed. Now I don’t. Now I simply stop reading, and file the book away on one of my to-read shelves, promising myself that I’ll read it one day, when my own first novel is finished and the beauty of the author’s gift with language is once again instructive, and not simply overwhelming.

I had written this off as my own personal craziness until I read this:

Many artists refuse to read newspaper reviews for fear they’ll be criticized, but Hilary Mantel has revealed she doesn’t even read the books of her rival writers because she worries her work will not compare.

“I haven’t read my rivals because I think it could be a deeply demoralizing process,” she told Radio 4’s Front Row program.

Of course, she’s talking about her rivals for the Costa Book of the Year Award, not some random book she picked up at her local bookstore on the recommendation of a friend, but still. Hilary Mantel, author of Bring Up the Bodies, which won the Man Booker Prize last year and now the Costa Book of the Year award, doesn’t read certain books because it would be too demoralizing for her.

Suddenly I feel a whole lot better about putting Sarah Waters’ Affinity off for another day.

So, does this happen to you? Do you have to put off reading certain books to protect your will to write?

What are you thinking?

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