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My first time, and other teenage confessions…

June 22, 2011

Do you remember the first novel you ever read? I do.

It was a present for my 7th birthday –The Children of Cherry Tree Farm. It was also the first tryst in a long childhood love affair with Enid Blyton’s works.

And I was hooked from there.

So, let me admit to my uber-nerdiness: as 13-year-old, I liked Pride and Prejudice more than Sweet Valley High.  The first time I read Jane Eyre (aged 14), I stayed up til 3am to find out what happened to Jane and Rochester. (He was always punching above his weight, in my view).

Put simply, I am a sucker for ‘the classics’. It’s my life’s mission to bring George Eliot back into vogue. My cats are named Bronte and Austen. Yep, nerd-o-rama.

But I tell you this for a reason (not to simply impress or appall you). Being a decent writer depends on your education – and in this case, the schooling I received from my 19th Century buddies.

Reading widely is crucial to develop both your style and vocabulary. How boring would life be if you didn’t realise that ‘unwanted’ is different to ‘unwonted‘? And how would I know that, if not for the wonderful Anthony Trollope.

OK, I realise this post is heading down a self-indulgent path of Victorian-era veneration, so I’ll get to the point. Reading just one genre, style, medium or era will hamper your development as a writer.

And yet I see so many people in my industry who want to be great writers, but are content to swim in the shallows of popular commercial fiction and Fairfax newspapers. Sorry if it sounds snobby, but neither of those avenues will expose you to literary greatness.

At best, it will offer homogeneity and conventionality. At worst: bad writing, oft-repeated.

I don’t suggest you should read Dickens under sufferance (personally, I don’t know how it could be anything but delightful). But I do encourage you to go beyond the obvious.

Read translations from other languages. Read poetry instead of prose. Read English instead of American. Whatever you do, mix it up.

And if I’ve gone any way at all towards getting you pumped about the classics, here is a short list of writers I just love and want you to meet. (And if you have an e-reader, it’s mostly free!)

  • Dickens – his later works can be challenging, but David Copperfield is a great introduction
  • George Eliot – Middlemarch is her greatest but Mill on the Floss probably more approachable
  • Edith Wharton – a new discovery of mine, which I describe as Gossip Girl from the late 19th/early 20th Century (and Wharton won the Pulitzer Prize, which Leighton Meester never will)
  • Patrick White – back when I was Belinda White, I tried to start a rumour he was my uncle. Alas, no. But just read Voss and tell me he’s not worth the ruse.
  • Anthony Trollope – the thinking man’s Dickens, and a superstar, top-earning novelist in his day. I love the Palliser series. But everything he writes is awesome.
  • The Brontes – we all love Charlotte and Emily, but don’t forget young Anne – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is fascinating.

Ok, I’ll stop now, but if you need any more recommendations … I could go on and on.


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  1. * I got hooked at 9 by Arthur Ransome – Swallows and Amazons. A bit neo-imperialist British from this distance but you gotta start somewhere.
    * Recently revisited Trollope (on my Kindle – 6 Palliser novels for US$1, i.e. AU$ .96 cents) and was so impressed when the young Plantagenet Palliser went walking in Kensington Gardens to sort out things in his head and remarked on all the quidnuncs who noticed him there – just waiting to re-cycle that one somewhere
    * The flip side, according to Julia Cameron, to “read, read, read” is “write, write, write” – and not all of it work related writing either. Copying what you have read by other writers doesn’t have to count as plagiarism, just practice. Even if I have recently been considered to have been channelling Paulo Coelho.

  2. I agree that the classics are a fantastic grounding for those beginning their journey into a literary-soaked future. I love the classics (although for a long time I would never read them – due to a petulant teenage anti-establishment bent), and would also like to recommend Hardy’s Tess of D’Urbervilles, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness for that list of classics mentioned.

    I would also highlight that in the case of many other cultures, literature has not always been a formal arrangement of pages – rather a collection of oral histories and traditions passed down through the ages. This makes me think that in the future we may see a number of new ‘classics’ being written by some unlikely sources. Hopefully.

    Great post!

    • I actually read Heart of Darkness in Year 12, and thought it was so boring. I re-read it a few years later, and thought it was pure genius. Some writers you need a bit of maturity to appreciate.

  3. You should save quidnunc for Scrabble.
    And yes, channeling other writers isn’t a bad thing at all.
    And are you related to Patrick White by any chance?

  4. I gotta confess that I found Voss as difficult to penetrate as, say, Eckhart Tolle, so I don’t actually aspire to kinship with the great man. Now if my name was Kerouac …

  5. I did not enjoy Voss. I felt like I was taking every tiny step with Leichhardt through that desert. Love Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Trollope, Dickens etc

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