16 May 2013

The Book that Saved My Writing Career (Such As It Is)

by Brian Thornton

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
Harold Bloom in one of his happier moments
Bloom. Well, not literally, of course. I came to know Bloom through his work. I've never met the man personally. 
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,
Hart Crane
Hemingway, Nabokov, etc.) have works included for assessment and exposition, as do poets such as Houseman, Walter Savage Landor, Keats, Byron, Shelley, Emily Dickinson , Tennyson 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.

So let me throw it out to you, the readers of this blog, and ask, what is your own personal "Harold Bloom" moment involving a book that helped you through a rough patch?

Feel free to respond at length in the comments section. We Sleuth Sayers looooove us some comments!


  1. My " Harold Bloom" book is The Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English.

    For the past twenty years I have been trying to understand the nature of this reality and my relation to it.
    At one point, and many times since, my mind was feeling like a small boat on a stormy sea. One day I was wondering through Borders, it was my favorite place to spend time, to see what would call to me. I have chosen many books this way. A thin book caught my eye. The cover art was simple and captivating. I read the first line:

    "The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao."

    I stood there staring at the words knowing there was meaning just beyond my grasp. I bought the book, went home and spent the rest of the weekend reading it.

    Decades later I still do not fully comprehend the first chapter but, the person that wrote this understood. Knowing that someone, even millennia before me, understood it then I knew will too even if I can't formulate the question now.

    There are many translation of The Tao Te Ching most are very wordy trying to explain it to the Western mind. The Feng, English translation lets the poetry pull the explanation from within.

    I have returned to that chapter:

    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
    The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
    The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
    Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
    Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
    These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
    Darkness within darkness.
    The gate to all mystery.

    Each time I get a growing understanding. Sometimes big but mostly small understandings. Always I leave with peaceful outlook on the world.

    Thanks for the post Brian, you inspired me to think.

    Steve Hagerup

  2. If I've got one, it was Anne Sexton's The Book of Folly, which I read with joy in 1973 and which jump-started my thirty years as a poet. As a college English major, I loved words but was baffled by poetry, especially by Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, two favorites of my favorite professor, poet Allen Grossman (recipient of the MacArthur "genius award" among many others, and if you wanna read inaccessible poetry, look no further). They were the wrong place for a woman writer to start.

  3. What a wonderful post! I must find the book. Thanks!

  4. My "Harold Bloom" was a mystery writer, Ross Macdonald. After college, I struggled to finish a serious novel while using my break time to devour Lew Archer paperbacks. I finally noticed that Macdonald was hanging some pretty serious ideas on his whodunit frameworks (not to mention writing beautifully). Next thing I knew, I'd actually finished a book-length manuscript, complete with a murder.

  5. I have a horrible confession to make: the books that are jump-starting my writing career (which is fledging) are ones that made me say to myself, "Good heavens! I can do at least as well as this!" On the other hand, the ones that inspired me to want to write words that fly had the effect of also intimidating me. I'm thinking here of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, N. Scott Momaday, Linda Hogan, Leslie Marmon Silko. Those make me sigh with joy but think, "Oh lord. I could never do this!" So then I don't try. It's the really bad books that get me to open that blank page and put down my words. Like I said: it's embarrassing. But there it is.

  6. I agree with Anon immediately above. A handful of awful books from my library got me thinking I could do better!

    And thank you, Steve, for your inspired comment.

    Brian, this is one of the best post yet. Thank you!

  7. My "Harold Bloom" was Lawrence Block. When I was about 22 or so, I read his Writing the Novel from Plot to Print. I needed someone to show me the technical side of writing a novel. When I finished it, I went, "I can do this."

    Of course, it took another 12 years before I did, but that's on me.

  8. Sara Hoskinson Frommer18 May, 2013 10:45

    Borders (and our favorite local bookstore, Howard's) may be gone, but I just put a hold on the book at the library. That library has jump started me many times over.


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