On reading great writers

If he were still alive, June 28th would have been the 122nd birthday of legendary author Eric Ambler. Ambler is considered by many to be the ‘father’ of the spy novel/thriller genre. Graham Greene called Ambler “the greatest living author of the novel of suspense”, and indeed his post World War II novels have withstood the test of time and make for fine reading today. Ambler had an uncanny eye for staring into the future and his great, 1935 prophetic novel “The Dark Frontier” discussed the atomic bomb and the rise of nuclear weaponry nearly a decade before the first atomic weapon was dropped upon Hiroshima.

Since his death in 1998 at age 89 his books remain as popular today as they were a half dozen decades ago. But this blog is not a bio about Mr. Ambler, but rather something that I read about him in a 1998 online obituary.

The obituary noted that in a conversation with Eileen Bigland, herself a well-known, serious author, Ambler told her that he had been reading a lot. When she asked him what he was reading, he said that he was reading Nikolai Vasilyevich Gogol, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello and James Joyce. Upon hearing this, Bigland offered this advice: “Never read very good writers while you are trying yourself to write good trash. You’ll only get depressed.”

At first, upon reading this, it appears to be a nod to mediocrity. But upon further examination, Ms. Bigland’s words hold some worth. I recall talking with a member of our Ft. Lauderdale writer’s group a number of years ago. She was writing a romance novel set in 1940s New Mexico. But she had been reading a lot of Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts and she didn’t feel like her work measured up. She had become so disillusioned with her work that she had walked away from her writing project twice. At the time of our conversation, she had just picked up her novel where she had left off months earlier, and she really wanted to see it through to the end, just for the sake of completion. I told her that it might be wise to resist comparing her work to that of the great writers of the genre. Another member of the group said that she should avoid reading romance novels by anyone until her novel was complete.

So, can reading the work of great writers be detrimental to our writing projects? I think that if we compare our work to theirs it can, and in the case of my friend from the writer’s group, such comparisons had caused her to lose focus and discontinue a project that she really wanted to complete. A painter who compares her work to Rembrandt or Picasso will surely be disappointed if she is trying to paint like Rembrandt or Picasso.

I recall a radio interview with singer songwriter Jimmy Buffett many years ago, Buffett told the interviewer that he was aware of the fact that he was not the best singer in the world, or the best guitar player in the world. But he went on to say that he was the best Jimmy Buffet in the world. Maybe that is the key to it all – being the best that we can be without comparing ourselves to the best of the best.

So, all of that said, I will not be reading Eric Ambler for some time. Not until my project is complete.

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