Plenty of actors famously declare that they don’t watch their own movies. Johnny Depp told David Letterman on The Late Show: ‘In a way, once my job is done on a film, it’s really none of my business. I stay as far away as I possibly can… I don’t like watching myself.’Tom Hanks, meanwhile, told Shortlist: ‘I don’t watch my own performances – who does that? That would be madness. I’ve seen all the movies once, but I don’t need to see them again, because they don’t change.’
Does the same mentality apply to authors? Should author re-read their own books after publication?
According to prolific bestselling author Wilbur Smith, the answer is a definite ‘yes’. He told the Independent: ‘I read a tremendous amount. Right now I’m reading my favourite author – Wilbur Smith. Many of the books I have written were 30 or 40 years ago and I have forgotten the plot.’
Smith’s reason for re-reading, then, is to come at the book afresh, as a reader. But Margaret Atwood, conversely, says: ‘You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You’ve been backstage. You’ve seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat.’
I think it depends how much time has elapsed before the re-reading, but certainly I have found a kind of magic in re-reading my own books. The other day I took down my debut novel, Burning Embers, from the shelf to read a few lines, and before I knew it an hour had gone past and I had read more than a chapter, and fallen in love all over again with Coral and Rafe and the wild and savage beauty of 1970s’ Kenya.
I re-read my books for the following reasons
To revisit story worlds I once loved
To reconnect with old friends: the characters
To examine the writing style
To compare my older works with my newer ones
When I read, often I do feel like that brand-new reader who does not know how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat. I can read a passage and think, ‘Goodness. How on earth did I write that?’ After I put the book down, I feel reconnected to my purpose as a writer, and keen to sit down and let the muse speak, and write and write and write.
Re-reading your own book is not, I think, an act of vanity. Wilbur Smith’s declaration ‘Right now I’m reading my favourite author – Wilbur Smith’ may appear egotistical, but it is in fact just honest. I am reminded of my favourite quotation by the great writer Toni Morrison: ‘If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ That, in essence, is the author’s raison d’être. We write the books we most want to read; so it is of no surprise that we may still want to read those books sometime later.
Some authors see earlier books as stepping stones to the next great book, and will point out perceived flaws and weaknesses in earlier style. Other authors go so far as to renounce early books (Ian Fleming, for example, attempted to keep The Spy Who Loved Me out of print; Stephen King worried that his 1977 novel Rage inspired a violent shooting and asked his publisher to pull it from the shelves.) But most writers, like myself, treasure all past works.
That is not to say that I immerse myself in my own fiction regularly. I firmly believe that great writers are great readers, first and foremost, and so I read a wide range of fiction and non-fiction. But occasionally, when I am seeking escapism or a reminder of who I am as a writer, I take down a book from the Hannah Fielding shelf and I re-read. As Tom Hanks says, the artistic work does not change, but that does not mean I don’t want to experience it again. To do so is grounding and nostalgic – and it can also be inspiring; because the book does not change but the reader does, and with each reading we can learn something new.
What do you think? Should authors re-read their work? Do you revisit past creative works, and how do you feel when you do? I would love to hear your thoughts.