When I first read Thom Jones, I dismissed his short stories as “easy reads”. Over a decade later, I think I will have to order them from Amazon again because I gave away the books (I had way too many) and I need to read them again. Sometimes, it is the prose you like the least that influences you the most.
I cannot remember the title, but there was a short story about a trauma surgeon who visits his friend and immediately falls into disliking with his wife. In the heat of a confrontation, he ends up having sex with her. He limps away in a damaged Jaguar. Having been around confrontational surgeons all my life, the story was much too familiar for me. It was not his prose, I believed at the time, that hit me, it was the familiarity. It reminded me of painful things.
But the story I am writing now (stuck in the middle of, actually) is a story with the same sentiment. It is about people doing things in spite of what their minds are telling them. As often happens, halfway into the book, the quality of my prose walked off a cliff and now it reads worse than the most embarrassing passages of Fifty Shades of Grey. I decided that I need to take some time off from writing and read something. After going through a mental list of authors, I realized I needed the rhythms of Thom Jones.
This has happened to me before. I could not stand Dickens. He seemed so ancient. Yet I came back to him again and again. Poe, I read and threw out and picked up again. I bought two volumes of A. S. Byatt’s Possession. Even the Holy Bible, with its maddening overuse of the word “and” has creeped into my prose.
The books that bore you, the books you never finish, the books you were bullied into reading, the books you read out of guilt or sense of obligation, somehow stay with you long after you have given up on them and when you are stuck in your writing you realize that you need them long after you sold them to the thrift store. They are like that asshole classmate who is now someone you have to call and ask for help.
Why do I need Thom Jones? Because he manages to project a sense of urgency and dread in perverse people. How does he do that? I need to read his books again and figure out how he does it.
You throw out a book disgusted by its ineptitude, then later realize you have to learn from it. If the same thing happens to book critics, then maybe a bad review is just temporary. Maybe someone who hates your book will have to eat crow later on.