To Read as A Writer
Moderator: First let me introduce the four writers present here. BTR is a writer, art critic and English literary translator currently living in Shanghai. Noemi is a Hungarian poet and Ph.D. in English. Jaime is a Spanish journalist and writer. Mao Jian is a professor at East China Normal University, mainly engaged in the study of Chinese literature and film. A good writer must be a better reader. Today, the theme of our workshop focuses on how to read like a writer and we will explore the stories on the writers and their reading experience. So whose writings do the writers like to read?
BTR: I’m not an American literature lover but like European literature very much. I had translated Paul Auster’s work and red a Frenchness from him. In American literature, I love Vonnegut most because he is an exception in American literature. The most unutilitarian literature is always from Europe. However, the concept of Europe is very big and it is not easy to summarize in a word. Among European literature, I prefer Spanish literature, French literature and Italian literature. In Spanish literature, my favorite writer is Roberto Pollano. Reading his works is like opening a door and entering into a new universe. Enrique Bila Matas pointed me in a new direction. He himself has large amount of reading experience. Showing respect to the precedents’ literature works, he created post-modern creative method of collage and wrote his own writings. The pleasure of reading French literature lies in style and form. My favorite is Wu Lippo’s potential literary workshop, such as George Perec’s The Puzzle of Life and Raymond Gno’s Style Practice. Style Practice is to tell the same story 99 times, which is of great challenge to style and translation. If you read in French, there will be much more understanding. To sum up, in addition to the mastery of style, I have also expanded the use of Chinese when I read the above works. Because the history of vernacular writings is still short, there is still much room for development.
Neomi: I always think that people who is good at singing or drawing can be the happiest person in the world. I am not good at neither of the two, but I’m good at the game of words. And to me poetry is a combination of singing and drawing. I become a poet. When I was in my childhood, I especially liked to read children’s poetry aloud and enjoyed the rhythm of reciting poetry. It was quite mysterious. Later I discovered some novels and detective stories about India. At the age of 15, I returned to poetry and wrote poetry in Hungarian. I held the view that Hungarian is the most poetic language in the world, because it is musical, very refined, and metaphorical. Hungary also has excellent tradition in translation. For example, it was frequently seen that books like 100 Poems From Around The World and so on, both the original version and translated version. I got to know many famous writers such as Keats, Eliot, and Apollinaire from the poems. I read a lot, later published my first poetry and became a young poet. Then I mainly read prose, during that periods, I did not want to read serious writings any more. I like two writers very much, Alice Monroe and Kazuo Ishiguro. I read their works a long time ago. Afterwards, both of the two writers won the Nobel Literary Prize. My taste is not bad! In addition, I also like historical works, for instance, A Brief History of Everything.
Jaime：just now, as I left from the hotel, I was chatting with a writer. He said that if you don’t know what to say, you can reverse the topic. Tonight, the topic is read like a writer, then you can talk about writing like a reader. Writers start from readers and are less likely to become writers if they do not read widely. The relationship between a writer and books is very close and intimate. Just like what my favorite writer ever said, it seems that you are able to find a best friend from books. You don’t necessarily know about the writer, not even a writer who may have already passed away, but you can still be friends. Reading has changed my life and the way of my everyday path. Reading a new book is like a new friend who invited you to his home. This home is equivalent to his brain, creation, source and background. Whenever I arrive in a new country, I feel confused. Reading a book on this country is very helpful to me. I have been in China for more than four years and I am half a Beijinger. When I first arrived, I read a lot of books about China, such as the works of Yan Lianke and Mo Yan, which enhanced my understanding of China.
Mao Jian: as I teach in university, I meet students asking me to write a reading list for them every year. Usually, I suggest them to cultivate healthy taste of reading, read everything. These years, I had read a wide range of books as columnist, from rumors to great classics, everything. Columnists are light readers, just like traveling on the surface of the earth. They can connect many things. But the world is changing, and light reading can no longer meet the needs. So I think when the times change, reading will change. Light reading is no longer suitable for entering the world because the world itself is fragmented. It seems that we have a lot of choices, but actually we are being reshaped by this world. How to reshape the integrated self? What is redemption? Reading will be one aspect of redemption. You can focus on a writer whole-heartedly, and gain feedback from reading him/her, and construct yourself. For example, I was reading Jane Austen recently. I read not only all of her writings, but also the historic background where she was in. When I taught film lessons, I made the same remarks, that people can only watch 50,000 films during the whole lifetime. But if you can focus on one director, you have a vertical axis. In short, reading is the way to rescue yourself in a fragmented world.
Moderator: Next we will discuss two questions. The first is what books to read, where to start, and what methods to read? The second question is how many writings to read can be enough?
BTR: Teacher Mao’s strategy is good. Read a writer’s writings and materials related to him/her. But sometimes reading is like eating, you need to be balanced. For example, to buy books on Amazon, if you buy one, the system will recommend many related books. The second question, I also feel the same, as my eyesight is not as good as before. There are several ways to solve it. The first is listening to book, followed by is reading in a broad sense. Surfing on the Internet and go to exhibitions are all reading. Sometimes you go through a movie version of a novel and read it later. It also produces good judgment. For example, Satan tango, I first watched the movie and then read the Chinese version of the book. I was very surprised because it was still great to read the novel after watching the movie. It is a very rare example. After reading it, you will find that each of the presentation method has its own characteristics.
Neomi：I will answer this question from a different perspective. For example, elegance is not what you wear, but what you refuse to wear. If you want to understand what you don’t want to wear, first you need to know what you don’t like. Just like building your own identity, you keep learning and reject something. Generally speaking, people have a gentle aspect and rebellious aspect. But first they must learn to obey and then rebel. So when it comes to reading, at the beginning people should read systematically. It is like to destroy a castle people should first build one. You need to know your likes and dislikes in the process of systematical reading. So when people are young, reading should be systematic and extensive. When grown up, people become picky and only read what you really like and really need.
Jamie: I’m more radical in methodology. I think that reading will continue only when a child finds the pleasure of reading. Reading is the process of discovery. When I was in university, professor gave me good reading advice, to start from Bible and the classics alike. I had read almost every suggested classical ones. So for a long time, I wouldn’t read works of the living writers, and even read only one works of each writers. This is a bit extreme, but it has laid a good foundation for me. Because vertical reading helps bring about other thoughts. When I grew up gradually, I became picky and read only the books I liked. There are other methods, such as honestly record the works that have been read. In addition, compare the works you read each year. So how to be a good reader? You can try to mark with a pen when you read, and you can see your own thinking when you read it again in the future.
Mao Jian: In the past, in the craftsman era, people can be a master as long as they endure 10,000 hours of practice. Today’s question is not how wide you read, but how deep you read. For the second question, I think people can across genres when reading, or practice a lot. Sometimes reading 10,000 romantic novels is not as good as to begin a genuine love relationship.
Question & Answer
Audience 1: Today’s topic is to read like a writer, but why should readers read if they won’t become writers? Why spend a lot of time in reading? In the utilitarian era, reading clearly cannot bring direct economic benefits. From the writer’s point of view, why do ordinary people read?
Mao Jian: Your actions today explain why you read. From my own reading imagination, it is to encounter a better self. Time is short. The less time is, the more classics we read. To confirm a better self in the classics. Classics are like amulets of your own nation. Reading the classics is constantly confirming a better self to the subconscious of your nation. You feel fulfilled when reading the classics, because you meet the best ancestors and feel the warmth within.
Jamie: Interesting question, the first reason, because I like it. In addition, there are more levels of reading. Reading let you experience what the precedents had experienced. For your problem probably had been written by them. Reading opens up another world and makes you a part of the current world, so that you can better deal with this world.
Neomi: Reading can’t bring you economic benefits. Hundreds of years ago our ancestors went hunting, slaughtered animals, and ate raw meat. However, in the 21st century, we do not behave like that. We go to work and exercise to get the energy our body needs. So human beings are not animals, because human beings can think and have imagination. Reading is like training muscles by running and trains our imagination. Our ancestors invented the indirect way of communicating via words. Therefore, we can become friends with writers and escape from loneliness through reading.
BTR: Reading also has practical functions, textual functions, for instance your copywriting outplays others’. Reading can also be a kind of way to imagine the world, because sometimes the boundaries between reality and fiction are not so clear.
Audience 2: I have a question for Jamie. As a reporter, you need to keep reading and knowing relevant materials. How to strike a balance between report reading and literature reading?
Jamie: A well-known Spanish writer doesn’t like newspapers. He thinks newspapers are junk, because he has always lived in the library. As a reporter, it’s important to keep up with the world. If you don’t follow the pace, you have no say.
Audience 3: Researchers, critics, and ordinary people have different reading perspectives. In the process of becoming a writer, how does the reading perspective change from an ordinary reader? What is different from an ordinary people’s perspective?
Neomi: Different orientations and directions. Critics want to know what is in the text and what they want to express. Writers are more practical and wants to know how it was written, what kind of techniques and new techniques had been used. They focus on the invention of the text. Writers are like craftsmen get a watch and take it apart, observing the delicate parts and putting it back together to see if it can work again. This is the guiding issue for writers when they read.
Moderator: are there any works that you feel it is frivolous but enjoy reading it?
Mao Jian: Underground reading, a bit porn. But not feeling very guilty, because all the readings were experiences. I even read books written by Qiong Yao (A female writer who wrote a lot sentimental love novels, and the novels were very popular at that time.)
Neomi: Cooking books. Especially with illustration inside. BTR: Except Sex, What Are Men Thinking About. It turned out to be blank when opening.