My Next Reading Assignment

I recently got back in touch with my uncle, which is a great thing. I never meant to be out of touch with him, it’s just one of those things that happens. He’s a person whose company I enjoy greatly, though you can count the time we’ve spent together in hours.

Aside from our family affiliation and male pattern baldness, the most obvious thing we have in common is a fondness for books. When we saw each other recently we shared a little small talk, and then I asked what he’s been reading. “I’m reading all of the Pulitzer fiction winners,” he said.

“That has to be, what, 100 novels?”

“Around there. They didn’t award the prize every year, so it’s a little less.”

“I just finished reading biographies of each president, so I’ve been looking for a new reading project. Maybe I’ll follow your lead,” I said, but there was no maybe about it. I couldn’t wait to hit the bookstores and start building my pile.

What really drew me to the idea of the Pulitzer list was more writing than reading. The presidential biographies were interesting, but they were a bit of a slog. The books themselves were examples of a genre of writing that I’m not particularly interested in pursuing, and the information they contained wasn’t really fodder for the kinds of writing that I like to do. Neither politics nor history are my areas of expertise, so aside from being a more informed person–which is reason enough to catch up on my history–I was never quite sure what I was going to do with that information. I squeezed one short story out of those 40+ books, not a very good return on my time investment (other than that whole more informed person thing).

Similarly, my pleasure reading bunches up around favorite books and authors. I reread my favorites again and again, and as a result I can mimic those authors fairly well. Often I do so unintentionally. What the Pulitzer fiction list offered was a structure for reading contemporary American fiction that was certified “good” but that I might otherwise never read. Sure, there are several books on the list that I’ve read, but there are many more that I haven’t, and you haven’t either. Honey in the Horn? The Able McLaughlins? These are long lost titles that in their day earned the Pulitzer seal of approval but didn’t make the leap to perennial classics. Not only would I potentially find some new favorite books to work into my rereading rotation, but I’d gain exposure to award-worthy authors whose styles I might want to crib.

Essentially, I wanted those Pulitzer prize winning authors to teach me how to write a novel worthy of publication. Do common themes recur through the majority of those books? What’s the most popular story shape? How about point of view? On average, how many characters do these authors juggle? What about page counts and chapter lengths? Sure, I wanted to enjoy my reading, but more importantly I wanted to try to find the blueprints of these successful novels.

That’s an odd thing to confess, given that I paid the University of California a considerable sum of money to teach me to write. They did, but the focus of my degree program was writing about writing. That’s no fault of my alma mater, of course: I should have chosen a school with a better creative writing program. Regardless, I left college long on Shakespeare, theory, and criticism, and short on the fundamentals of novel writing. I’m too much of a misanthrope to join a writers’ group and workshops and how-to books seem like a hustle to me, so since college I’ve basically just splashed around in the shallow end, churning out short pieces and imagining the novel I would write if I could figure out how to get that snowball rolling down the hill.

And so my uncle’s suggested reading list has become my own one-man master class in novel writing. As I read each Pulitzer winning novel, I jot down various metrics that I find meaningful. I pay close attention to moments when my attention lags and try to figure out why. Opening and closing sentences receive much scrutiny, as do the establishment of both time and place. I’m not reading to be entertained, I’m looking for the load-bearing walls.

I’m only about a dozen books in–only 80 to go–but so far I think that this has been a much more useful exercise than my presidential biographies reading list. Aside from the structural questions I’m getting answered, I’m occasionally reminded why some authors have earned their spots on my lists of favorites. Vonnegut may have never earned a Pulitzer, for example, but I find his style far more appealing than that of some of the more literary types on this list. On the other end of the spectrum, some of the Pulitzer winners read like grocery store paperbacks. I guess if there’s a point here it’s that awards don’t mean much.

Awards weren’t really the point of this exercise anyway. The Pulitzer for fiction is just a vehicle for generating a list of published novels that aren’t James Patterson. I could have shaped my next reading assignment around the National Book Award, the Man Booker prize, Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, friend recommendations, Oprah’s Book Club, or a game of Pin the Tail On the Novel at my local bookstore. All I really want out of this exercise is a better understanding of the blueprint of long fiction.

And now I have something to talk to my uncle about. He’s one cool dude. I don’t know why we keep losing touch.

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