Don’t know quite what got me started thinking about this the other day, but it struck me there’s a difference between books I really, really like and those I kind of wish I’d written. It’s difficult to pin down the exact nature of that difference. Despite the misleading title to this post, I don’t 100% literally mean that I wish I had written another author’s book; it’s more that there are certain books that leave me profoundly envious of some aspect or aspects of the author’s craft, art, vision or whatever, and make me imagine how immensely satisfying it would be to emulate their achievement in my own (different) way and voice.
For whatever reason, plenty of excellent books don’t elicit quite that response. My reaction to the vast majority of the books I enjoy is simply that: I enjoy them, and admire the writer’s talent, but don’t get that odd little twinge of aspirational envy. I’m not quite sure exactly how this works, but I think it’s down to specificity. There needs to be some very particular, distinctive element of a book that dazzles me in some way before I’ll get that ‘man, I wish I’d achieved/thought of that’ response. The presence or absence of that response doesn’t make me like a book any more or less, it’s just a subtly different mental reaction to the text. I’m a big fan of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion books, for example, but not in a ‘wish I’d written that’ sense. (Though I’d be pretty pleased with myself if I had written them …)
Anyway, I was gazing at my bookshelves, and one or two examples of this odd little phenomenom caught my eye. Books I kind of, but not really, wish I’d written:
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. For it’s adeptly handled density, visionary sense of an interconnected world and stupendously brilliant title. Honestly, I’d be satisfied with just coming up with a title for a book as awesomely intriguing, clever and fitting as that. That the enormous tome backing up that title is every bit as intriguing and clever is very cool.
Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock. A clear case of writerly envy, this. The central concept underlying this book, and all its sequels, is one I’ve always found dazzling in its simplicity and elegance: a wood that is larger on the inside than the outside, and has the power to give physical form to the mythic archetypes lurking in the subconscious of all those who enter it. I would like to have an idea as good and rich in potential as that, please.
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. An historical crime novel that’s about books, religious philosophy, medieval history and a whole lot more. To make such an intricately put together intellectual puzzle read like a thriller is a work of something close to genius, I reckon. Any writer with a grain of sense’d be pretty happy to hit such a pinnacle just once in their career.
Regeneration by Pat Barker. It’s a long time since I read this, but it’s stayed with me as one of my very favourite examples of ‘literary’ fiction. It’s about young men suffering from shell shock during the First World War, and is good in all sorts of ways, but what impressed me most about it at the time I read it, and still lingers in my mind, is the straightforward clarity with which it is written. The prose is not at all fancy or convoluted, yet it conveys very powerfully complex emotions and themes. Very clever.