Novels Change Us

David Brooks of the New York Times wrote an editorial about racism and classism and what might be done to counter those attitudes. He commented: “Conversation can help, though I suspect novels … work better.”

I believe in reading and feel sure it is, for most people, the most effective path to many sorts of growth. The reading I find most valuable and enjoyable is fiction in general, novels in particular. Feodor Dostoyevski, Charles Dickens, Flannery O’Connor, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, Mary Shelly, Graham Greene, John Le Carre, Raymond Chandler, Jane Austen, Malcolm Lowry and others have so informed my knowledge and attitudes, I can’t imagine myself without the experiences they gave me.

Neither can I imagine myself not writing. I consider writing both my vocation and something I need.

I’ve often been asked why I don’t write a bestseller. Here’s my answer: bestsellers usually follow certain formulas, and I’m no good at writing to a formula. When I write and ideas come, if I try to ignore or alter them to fit a formula, my interest wanes to the point where I would rather wash dishes or dig holes in a rocky yard than write anymore. Besides the fact that, if I bothered to get tested, I would probably be diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, I’m reasonably sure that my need to follow the ideas that come rather than retreat into a formula is related to my hope of learning from what I write, as I have often learned from what I read.

One of my early stories — you can find it in my collection Cars: California Stories, is called “The Curse”. The curse it refers to is a wild imagination and the need to use imagination to make sense of the world. I suspect I’m hardly the only writer to be afflicted with that curse.

Please know I’m not suggesting that anyone should avoid trying to write a bestseller. If you can discover a formula and follow it to riches and fame, good for you, as long as you stay humble.


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