Last outing I promised a follow-up to my "historical cosplay" posting, one focused on anachronistic language in historical fiction. I'm pushing that one to next time around, and taking up something different.
Today I'd like to talk about the book that saved my writing career (such as it is).
Well over a decade ago, before I'd published anything, I was living in another state, working a new and stressful job, far away from family and friends, eaten up with frustration that my then work-in-progress was languishing half-finished on my computer, too beat down mentally by a (did I mention it was highly stressful?) new job to come up with a coherent thought, let alone any new words for the mystery novel on which I had been at work for the previous two years.
It looked like I might never finish my stalled book, let alone publish anything.
Enter Yale professor, literary critic (and arch literary snob), and apparently not-so-nice-guy Harold
Well, not literally, of course. I came to know Bloom through his work. I've never met the man personally.
|Harold Bloom in one of his happier moments|
By any measure Bloom, now in his early 80s, has had a storied career in literary criticism. He published his first book in 1959 (six years before I was even born), and is an acknowledged expert on everything literary from Shakespeare (one of his specialties) to the work of the post-modern author Toni Morrison (whose worldview he not very surprisingly disagrees with, all while acknowledging her prodigious talent as a writer).
I didn't know any of this when I came across his book HOW TO READ AND WHY at the local (late, lamented) Borders. I was completely unfamiliar with Bloom and his work, but the book looked interesting, so I picked it up and started on it.
Then as now I started a lot more books than I finish. Time was nearly as much of a priority then as it is now (which is saying something, because I've got a ten month-old crawling around underfoot cutely sucking up every single nanosecond of spare time available to me these days!).
But from the first page I knew I was going to finish this book.
Put simply, Harold Bloom might be something of a pompous ass who hates "popular fiction" written by the likes of Stephen King (and others), and can apparently be plenty insufferable.
I don't care.
The man has serious chops. His language alone was worth the turn of another page, and another and another. His insight into some of the works on which he was commenting was both illuminating and a flat-out joy to read. Dipping in to Bloom's book, I began to enjoy immersing myself in figurative language again, remembered what fun it could be to be "playful" with it, for lack of a better phrase. (Hmmm, maybe I ought to have used "cavort"?).
(Warning: the coming description comes over ten years after having read the book in question. Please forgive me if the fog of time and middle age has blurred my recollection of the facts as I recall them)
This book starts up with some personal anecdotes about Bloom's life as a reader, and then begins to delve into which authors are worth reading, and why. Each of these summaries of the books on Bloom's "hit list" is brief, engaging, and written in evocative, soaring language that had me captivated from the get-go.
Many of the giants of literature (Shakespeare, Austen, Proust, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Milton,
Nabokov, etc.) have
works included for assessment and exposition, as do poets such as
Houseman, Walter Savage Landor, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Emily Dickinson ,
and (of course) the obscure, doomed, brilliant poet Hart Crane- object
of Bloom's first literary crush (And after delving into his stuff as a
result of reading about it in Bloom's book, I confess that I too am an
admirer. Quirky trivia point: Crane was born into a wealthy Ohio family.
His father invented the Life Saver candy and made millions off of it.).
There are also brief treatments of the work of so many others too
numerous to mention.
Reading this book, an entry at a time, proved a palliative for my months' long writer's block. Within a week I was writing poems (I hadn't written so much as a laundry list for the better part of a year by this point). By the time I finished the book I was back hard at work on my novel, brimming with ideas and wracking up high daily word counts again. And although I've been blocked at various times since, it's never been for very long, as I've realized what cures it for me: reading a timeless work that inspires me, and helps break the log-jam across the stream of invention.
I've since gone on to read others of his works (SHAKESPEARE: THE INVENTION OF THE HUMAN, and the book he wrote on my favorite of the Bard's plays: HAMLET). I got a lot out of each of them, but for me, the most important is HOW TO READ AND WHY, obviously because of the personal connection and the joy of initial discovery.
Your mileage of course, may vary. But looking back now, with nine books published (eight still in print, knock wood), countless short stories sold, my first "mistake" novel finished (and never published, but actually finished!) and another near completion, I can look back on that arid period of creativity and see that the first oasis to cross my line of sight was a remarkable little book by the always difficult, definitely worth the considerable trouble, absolutely literary genius, Harold Bloom.
Feel free to respond at length in the comments section. We Sleuth Sayers looooove us some comments!