I Know a Good Book When I Want to Write One

I wonder how many readers are also closet would-be writers? Are there people who love to read the sort of stuff I love to read who don’t also secretly wish they could write the sort of stuff I love to read? One yardstick I use for measuring the goodness of a book is whether or not it makes me want to turn right around and write one of my own (or pick back up one of the several lapsed projects I’ve started over the past decade). Infinite Jest is definitely one of those books. The Time of Our Singing was one. East of Eden was one. Things by Pynchon, for example, though I tend to think of them as good medicine — meaning I often don’t enjoy them a whole lot while I’m reading them, but afterward I’m glad I did it — don’t make me want to write.

The thing about Wallace is that he writes about stuff in ways that I can identify with in a voice that’s comfortable and familiar. He writes in ways that reach out to me, and I find myself thinking “well I could do that, because it’s familiar and I understand it.” But his writing is so obsessive and thorough and good that I know I could never do quite what he does. So I figure that any time I try to write after reading his work, I’ll wind up writing all these logjam sentences full of stuff about disconnection and sadness and beautiful precision that’ll wind up sounding just like a 17-year-old trying to imitate Wallace. I’m thinking of a lack of depth and maturity and originality.

When I finish a book like Infinite Jest, which I did last night (complete with a reread of the first 17 pages) I want to go create something of my own; I feel like I could pour out 10,000 words of something OK in an evening that the next evening upon a reread would turn out to be depressingly bad, or at least unartfully derivative. So among the many paradoxes or double-binds that Wallace presents me with is one more personal than most, in which his excellence simultaneously makes me want both right away and never ever to try to write a word of fiction again.

8 thoughts on “I Know a Good Book When I Want to Write One

  1. mattbucher September 6, 2009 / 9:38 pm

    Totally agree, Daryl. I feel this way about This is Not a Novel and Vanishing Point by David Markson, but maybe that means I fear death. I dunno. Pale Fire is another one that I think, wow, I want to do that! and then immediately realize it is impossible. Good post.

  2. Ashley September 6, 2009 / 10:44 pm


    I felt this exactly. It made me want to start writing, but I realized he’d already written exactly what I wanted. It made me feel one part giddily inspired and two parts unimaginitive copy cat. It felt just like shopping with Abbey when we were kids and knowing she’d picked out the coolest shirt/toy/etc. but that it’d be lame as hell to get the same one. I can’t imagine how anyone could write after reading IJ and not feel a little like a weak imitation of DFW everytime they said ‘like’ or used some compound preposition. It made me a little sad for a few days to want to write but to feel wholly unable. I wanted to ask you when I’d finished if IJ dis this to you as well, but I figured it might seriously bum you out since writing had occurred to you pre-reading (more/less unlike me). I even asked M if she thought it made you feel the same way.

  3. Dan Summers September 8, 2009 / 10:06 am

    This isn’t entirely on-topic, but I wanted to say that this:
    “Things by Pynchon, for example, though I tend to think of them as good medicine — meaning I often don’t enjoy them a whole lot while I’m reading them, but afterward I’m glad I did it — don’t make me want to write” is spot on.

  4. wheat September 8, 2009 / 1:12 pm

    It certainly has inspirational value for me. I haven’t taken a stab at fiction in a long time, but DFW’s attention to words make me want to write more, in whatever contexts present themselves, and makes me want to do a better job of it.

  5. brent jenkins September 8, 2009 / 1:44 pm

    I suppose that’s part of being a writer, least for me: to take the feeling and the beauty and the art from something that moves you and run with it. As you’ve said, this very understandable impulse/response is not likely all that healthy, as if there’s some lack within that impels us, some deep seated neurosis that says, I always want
    to be someone else, pretty much. Someone like DFW! As a poet, I spent years (it seems like) laboring under the influence of Jack Spicer. I just couldn’t shake it. I so wanted to write something like Jack. Predictably, whatever I’d come up with wasn’t very good. I’ve heard many sax players talk about Coltrane in the same way. On the less neurotic, insecure side this impulse is so much fun. It’s like a drug or a romance. With IJ/DFW, I really haven’t been so pleasantly obsessed since my Spicer days back in grad school. It may not be the healthiest thing in the world, but God! I love it. I love getting carried away and listening to all the DFW radio interviews and spending way too much time with the blogs and reading both the New Yorker piece and the Rolling Stone article and then reading the Kenyon speech and then the Federer piece–all this joy and longing and lust. But Daryl, lets make a pact right here and now: if we find ourselves two hundred pages into a novel featuring a couple of young guys whose Stanford-Binet scores are off the charts but who are also high school football stars who give up playing high school football to play tennis, which they aren’t very good at, and who take a job at a local fast food restaurant just as an adventure, and the entire novel mostly takes place as they sit in one of their grandmother’s basements talking and smoking high resin Bob Hope, well then we have to stop, put down the laptop and just walk away. Deal?


  6. Daryl Houston September 8, 2009 / 5:15 pm

    Brent, that is absolutely a deal. Bet’s off if they quit football for ping-pong, though. 😉

  7. itzadrag September 8, 2009 / 5:51 pm

    You folks are a scream! I’m happy if I write even one sentence that communicates well enough– like good-enough mothering– that the poor bloke on the other end doesn’t pack up a hobo bag and light out for the circus. Agreed on Pynchon: nutritional value, not a joy. PLEASE keep writing. You have fans.

  8. Zach September 18, 2009 / 8:45 pm

    Above anything else, finishing IJ makes me want to “improve” the grammatical laziness in both myself and everyone I know. My co-worker started getting annoyed by this ’round mid-July.

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