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Editing - On Reading

One of the things that baffles me more than anything in the world is people don’t read books, but want to write them. Actually, let me start again. One of the things that baffles me more than anything in the world is simply people who don’t read books. I mean, who are these people? I don’t like to use the words ‘idiots’ to describe people, but needs must. All I can do is tell it like it is.

There has been a lot of research done into the matter and while I’m not one to quote ‘statistics’, the evidence is clear. people who read are more intelligent. They have greater empathy. They are better at problem solving. The have greater emotional acuity. They are better looking. They smell nicer. And they are much, much better lovers. That anyone doesn’t read books is baffling, given all of these obvious advantages.

But the thing that baffles me more than anything in the world, that is even more bafflingly baffling than just not reading books (‘idiots!’) is people who don’t read books who then try and write them. Baffling! Really, really baffling. I do a lot of editing and teaching, across a range of genres and levels of ability, and grow more and more appalled at the number of these people who exist among us (I know I’m not referring to you, good reader – the pile of books beside your bed shows what an avid reader you are, and you would have finished them all by now if you weren’t so busy being a much better lover than a non-book reader).

I find myself lying awake at night, when I’m not reading or making love, wondering what is going on in their collective head. I guess their theory is that, despite the millions of books that have been written in the roughly 6000 years since Barry the Sumerian put the first glyph on a hunk of limestone, there is absolutely nothing to be learned from any of them. After all, it’s just words, innit? We all use them. So a book is just a bunch of them put in order. Simple.

As I’m sure you can guess, this is, for me, a complete anathema. First of all, books are the most tremendous objects in the world – within them lie worlds, ideas, glories, tragedies, and all that other stuff that you don’t necessarily get plonked down on the 18.22 to Swindon each night. (They are also weapons of war against the growing tide of folly that threatens to overwhelm us all, but that’s another story, and if you’re ever lucky enough to be stuck at a party talking to me I’ll be happy to chat to you about it, if you have three or four hours and can just have the decency to be quiet.)

have been written by a huge number of people who have tried, failed, tried again, failed better, found new ways of doing things, rediscovered old ways of doing things, worked out that if you tell the story through the eyes of B rather than A then theme C actually works better. They have shaped language, been shaped by it, embraced melodrama, battled against melodrama, found how to shift time and narrative, found out how to make it stick. They have written works that uses language so spare you could cut glass with it, and language so lavish you could wear it as a hat.

To take an example. I’ve been really struggling with a chapter in the book I’m writing at the moment. The chapter is a complete bastard – I’ve thrown it into the air so many times to watch it fly, only to see it plummet back to earth in a mass of beak and feathers. I hate the damn thing. But my character has to get from point A to point B, physically and emotionally, so I’m stuck with it.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a book called The Family Mashber but an author called Der Nister. Picked it up second hand. Had never heard of it. Written in the 1930s, set in Berdychiv, which the internet tells me is in Ukraine. A Jewish epic. Life, love and death. Glorious stuff.

The book is brilliant, but that’s not what concerns us. In one chapter there is a major scene between two characters, which we have been waiting for. But Der Nister doesn’t start with them. he starts with a minor character, outs the key characters in the background. To use film language, he puts the camera where we don’t expect it. The key conversation happens, but the main thing we encounter is the minor character watching the discussion in the distance. The minor character displays confusion, has opinions, drinks tea. the scene unfolds in a way that is utterly different to what is expected, and makes us more tense because we cannot hear the conversation.

It is brilliant. So I’ve nicked it. That’s how to write my chapter. I’d been focussing too much on my main character, his anguish and all that stuff, and it was all turning to melodrama. Don’t have a close up on him going a bit mad. Have a close up on the family downstairs who wonder what is going on up there. Move the camera somewhere unexpected. A little lesson that I couldn’t have thunk of. thank you, Der Nister, whoever you are.

Oh, and don’t worry about nicking stuff. That’s what writers do. Sure, maybe hold off cutting and pasting whole chunks of other books, but technique-wise, go for your life. T S Eliot famously said ‘good writers borrow, great writers steal’. But bad writers do nothing, usually because they haven’t read anything, so there’s nothing to steal.

Because here’s a simple truth of the editing/ teaching world – you can ALWAYS tell the writings of someone who doesn’t read. If they are writing poetry, the poems ALWAYS sound like diary dump, or like a series of heart-rending banalities. If they are writing novels, you can hear the pounding as very simple things you come to know how to do deftly by reading are hammered into place. The only thing louder is the sound of me groaning as I read the first page.

So – keep going on writing courses, as it keeps me in a job. But if you really want to learn how to write books, then for the love of God, for the love of all things decent, please please please make sure you read books too. Because, after all, if you aren’t really interested in buying books and reading them, then why should anyone be interested in buying and reading yours?

Heading off to make love now. Later dudes.

Peter Salmon is an Australian writer and editor living in the UK. His first novel, The Coffee Story (Sceptre, 2011), was a New Statesman Book of the Year. He has written frequently for TV and radio, and for broadsheets including the Guardian and the Sydney Review of Books.

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