In July, author Michael Ondaatje was awarded the ‘Golden’ Man Booker Prize, when his novel The English Patient was voted the most popular Man Booker Prize-winner of all time.
In his acceptance speech (which you can read at http://lithub.com/michael-ondaatjes-golden-man-booker-speech-is-really-great/), Michael said this:
I’ve not read The English Patient since it came out in 1992 and I suspect, and know more than any one, that it remains cloudy with errors and pacing.
Setting aside the self-criticism, I found it interesting that the author has not read his own book since it was published, all those years ago.
Oscar Wilde told us, ‘If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.’ Certainly, my own bookshelves are crammed with novels that are well-thumbed; I have read books like The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Les Misérables by Victor Hugo so many times that the spines are lined and the pages imperfect.
But my own novels, from the first published, Burning Embers, to the most recent, Aphrodite’s Tears, are almost as new. More objets d’art on the shelf than beloved reads. I do take one of my novels down from time to time, and enjoy the feeling of holding the book, and perhaps read a passage or two, but I have never re-read one of my own novels from cover to cover.
The core reason is that I am not the reader of the story, I am its creator. That means that when I read one of my own books, I am too aware of the writing – the craft, the inspirations behind the words – to just read as a reader does. It’s like a magician going to a magic show; when you know how it’s done, it’s hard to be swept up in the wonder.
As I read, I find myself analysing sentences. Flashing back to earlier drafts. Editing a phrase (arbitrarily). Recalling where I was when I wrote the scene. Remembering inspirations – my honeymoon on the Greek islands, for example, which was the foundation for Aphrodite’s Tears. So, try as I might, I can’t just re-read the book; in a sense, I find myself re-creating it.
When the New York Times asked several authors to re-read their novels, it was apparent that the writers struggled to read as readers; they could not turn off being the creator – and editor – of the work.
George Saunders, author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, writes:
I don’t think I’d read ‘CivilWarLand’ in its entirety since it came out, in 1996. Reading it again was a little panic-inducing, actually. Like if someone said, ‘Hey, we just found a compilation home video of you, circa 1990-96! Want to watch?’ Well, you do and you don’t.
He goes on to unpick the novel from his present perspective – to find fault, in fact. Ultimately, he decides:
We come back to what we’ve made and find out it’s been changing all along. We’ve changed, the artistic context around the story has changed, the world has changed. And this is kind of wonderful and useful. It made me remember that the real value of the artistic act is not product but process.
For me, writing is all about this process. The products – the novels – are important, but what is essential is writing the next book. Writing is not a destination, but a journey. I have written since, in childhood, I learned how to write, and I will continue to write, ad infinitum. And read, of course, for all writers must read and read – but not, as it turns out, our own books.