I met Tomas at a writing workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I was very late, because I’d done the math wrong on the length of my drive from Flagstaff. I walked into a warm little home full of people I didn’t know chatting comfortably. Tomas immediately made me feel welcome in that room, and across the weekend, he made me feel over and over that I belonged at the table. I don’t think I was a very good student in that workshop (though I can be nice, I’m a know-it-all and impatient), but Tomas thanked me for being a friendly face at his readings and for buying his fascinating, well-made zines.
He is such a generally kind man, so friendly and easy to grin, that I didn’t think he’d have many negative things to say about books. Naturally, Tomas came up with ways to talk about books he hates that shed more light on their authors rather than less.
Tell me about your book-hatred.
After conversing with friends and students, I was told I don’t really hate books (though somehow my dislike of Jhumpa Lahiri was mentioned twice by two different people); rather, I can be a hater. Meaning envious. Meaning catty and jealous. Though I was also told that I usually own my hateration as well as attempt to be transparent in my writerly envy. I’m slowly learning the fine art of compersion.
Give me some examples of books you hate.
Books I hated in various degrees and ways: Bluets (though really loved it especially rereading it after reading The Argonauts); Go the F**k To Sleep (totally cash jealous, especially since it is such a universal experience for parents or child care providers and a playful way to explore exhaustion, creativity, parenting, but so poorly realized in that narrative); Roxane Gay’s Hunger (not really hate, more strangely disappointed in the flow of it, but there were some powerful, powerful moments within the memoir); Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy (I swear I’m writing something that is crafted exactly like it—so that’s straight-up envy!)
Tell me more about Bluets and Hunger (and Jhumpa Lahiri while you’re at it). I still haven’t managed to read Hunger, but I think Bluets might be a perfect book.
I agree now, but initially I totally didn’t get Bluets (perhaps I still don’t—do you ever get a book?). Today, I think it’s better than The Argonauts. Sometimes books teach you how to read them and sometimes books speak to you when you’re ready to hear them. Now I’m getting too hippie-dippy, but you know what I mean. I had the same experience with Roberto Bolaño.
And it’s interesting with Hunger. I just felt like it needed a better editor; it read a bit clunky to me. In fits and starts. Though maybe stylistically I wasn’t used to her choices. Maybe I’ll come to realize how necessary the style was. That’s the beauty of reading.
Lahiri ironically reminds me that things can be too edited, too smooth. Like there was nothing particular about the book. It read exactly as I expected it to, no surprises. Kind of like a paper plate. Ouch. Now I sound mean.
I think I manifest my reactions to books as playful hate because otherwise I find myself deflated, like the act of writing is pointless because look at how many people already are doing it, look at how many people already explored the same theme or subject or issue.
Boy, do I ever relate to this.
Basically, I can easily see everything through the lens of scarcity, as if once something’s been done, there’s no reason to do it again. But I totally know that’s not true because I enjoy and find inspiration in reading book after book that addresses similar issues: undoing toxic masculinity, the contours of desire, the subtle art of loving others…little stuff like that.
Well, I’m glad you’re not thinking too deeply about it.
I wish to take my socially conditioned, competitive sense of success and push myself to be the best writer I can be in reaction to those feelings around other books. If they can, then I can!
That’s the spirit! Do you think any of your disliked books have changed your reading habits?
This may be TMI, but sadly no; I rarely learn a lesson the first time, so just because I didn’t like something once, of course I’m gonna try it again. That might be good for book reading, thankfully, but not for, say…relationships or drinking.
What about your writing habits?
In some ways my negative reaction to certain books enables me to lighten the fuck up in my own writing process. Because I realize writing is not about being the first to explore something or write in a particular way; it’s about the honesty with which you do it, the genuineness. So, I just write and take bits and pieces of what I find crafty in others and try it in mine. Or if I see how a writer comes off sounding too pompous or too glib, I think about that in my own stories. I learn by what inspires and irritates.
My theory is that we learn more about how to make good art by inputting bad art. But none of the books you mention is bad.
I guess you’re right. My occupation is a writing teacher and I teach mostly basic skills classes and with my students I point out what writers are doing with their sentences: the playing with punctuation, the sound of a sentence, the clarity in the simplicity. I model to them powerful writing rather than giving examples of ineffective or “bad” writing. I think I approach learning my own writing craft that way: in Gay’s essays in Bad Feminist she so marvelously balances the vulnerable personal anecdotes with her larger generalizations about politics or culture. I try to find how she did it, her pacing, her use of paragraphs, her sentence length, the balance point. I then try to find it in mine.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
Tyree Daye’s book of poems River Hymns is just divine. The simplicity. The clarity. The honesty.
Do you keep books or give them away?
Lately my mantra has been—I’d rather give it to you with a warm hand. Which is I think definitely a bit morbid as I adopted it when my youngest child was moving out and I was experiencing empty nest. I found myself in a house with hordes of things and no children. So, for the last few years, whenever anyone said they liked something of mine, I’d say, Take it. That’s the long way of saying, I have given away hella books in the last few years. Though maybe this all started after reading that stupid book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up!
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
More like dropped it out of my hands. Or tossed it aside. Like when Snape died. Or when good books get really bad, like slogging through Justin Cronin’s final book in his vampire series. Or when something is so strangely anticlimactic…like, I LOVED the first story in Her Body and Other Parties but when it ended, I was so confused, like I had missed something. Was it exactly like the folktale? Still boggled. Help me.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
Three books right now—Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust, World of Wakanda (the Black Panther comic series), and What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera. The first two I’m not sure yet how I feel, but I’m loving the last one!