Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Reading Habits #4: Author, Writer, Novel, Book

Read what you can, when you can, wherever you can.

Are you reading a novel or a book and is it written by an author or a writer? As questions go, this is an unintelligent one, I admit. Do not answer if you think I’m insulting yours. Still, I’m curious. I spent my formative years thinking novels were written by authors and books were penned by writers. One was fiction, the other non-fiction. I read them that way. 

The line between novels and books and authors and writers—assuming there really was one—got blurred around the turn of the century when novels came to be increasingly referred to as books written by people who could be either authors or writers. Over the years the internet, and specifically blogs, has more or less obliterated the line that, I suspect, only I could see. Now I often refer to a work of fiction as a book. It sounds more cerebral. Inversely, non-fiction can never be a novel. It will always remain a book.

Looking back, I used to think that anything that told a fictitious story was a novel. All paperbacks, be it pulp or popular fiction, fell in that category. Everything else was a book, such as a book on history or economics, a book of stamps or coins, a record book or a book of account, the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible, a dictionary or an encyclopaedia, a rule book, a book of recipes, and so on and so forth.

Yet, there were grey areas, like Shakespeare, the Classics, and humour. The Twelve Works of the famous bard was a book, a volume actually. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is more a book than a novel. And P.G. Wodehouse wrote humourous stories and books. Although works of fiction, they are best referred to as books.

My thinking, thus, may have been the result of the disdain with which novels were looked upon, outside of the family. “Oh, you’re reading a novel. Which one?” And when you showed the cover, “You’re reading a Chase, I see. Have you read Nehru’s Discovery of India? You’ll learn much from this brilliantly written book.” You'd think I was reading erotica.

The dilemma hasn't resolved fully when I think of The Lord of the Rings by Tolkien and Harry Potter by Rowling. Novel or book, author or writer? I think I’ll just sit quietly and read.


Noted author James Reasoner has written an interesting post on his Favourite Reading Spots over at his blog Rough Edges.


For previous Reading Habits, look under ‘Labels’

17 comments:

  1. I came from a culture of nonreaders. Even now, I can bring up a subject at the dinner table with "I was reading something the other day. . ." and there's this patient silence that waits until I'm done and then the conversation goes on with something else. I suppose, it's no different from having someone's disapproval because there are better books I could be reading.

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    1. Ron, I come from a family of writers, journalists, and artists, and nearly everyone read books or drew pictures. My paternal grandfather was an editor with a British publisher of high school English grammar and composition textbooks. He used to review non-fiction books for newspapers which, along with magazines, also inculcated the habit of reading. I read a lot during my youth, not so much thereafter, and now I'm playing catch-up with the many books I ought to have read a long time ago.

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  2. When I was a fairly young person I didn't differentiate between fiction and nonfiction in reading. I just read everything as it landed in front of me. Today I find myself reading both as well, but most of my friends and colleagues, if they are readers, read only nonfiction. I never really thought of the differentiation between authors and writers as being tied to this. I tended to think of "writers" as being more my type of person though, and authors as being a bit more snooty.

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    1. Charles, I turned my attention to non-fiction only about a decade ago although I'd been reading both western and oriental philosophy prior to that. I understand non-fiction better now than I did until a few years ago. My areas of interest are politics, wars including Cold War, and historical fiction from any part of the world. I still read more fiction, though.

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  3. Either/or. I know what you mean, Prashant. To my mind, there is a great difference between fiction and non-fiction even if sometimes the 'non' reads like fiction or vice versa. My father used to get very annoyed with me when I read at the dinner table (can't say I blame him) or even if he thought I was reading TOO much. That seems inconceivable to me, but he was not a reading man so that must be the explanation. I too have a lingering idea that authors write non-fiction and writers write regular books. Although a lot of the non-fiction published today is nothing but junk (movie star pap and such), still the idea lingers. I'm currently reading a couple of non-fiction books which I am enjoying very much. But as with most things, I have to be in the mood for it. And lately I seem to be. Thanks for a terrific post.

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    1. You're welcome, Yvette! I grew up in a family of readers and I was exposed to all kinds of literature from the Classics to a variety of fiction. Now a family of four, we all read though our tastes differ. I remember reading comic-books at the dinner table; I think I turned the pages faster than I put morsels in my mouth. I didn't have any digestive problems! My father and I shared a common interest in comics and we read them together. In fact, he encouraged me to collect comics often buying them on his way back from work.

      There are times when I enjoy reading non-fiction more than fiction. A really well-written non-fiction, in terms of style and depth, can hold me spellbound and it actually puts me in the mood. Nehru's DISCOVERY OF INDIA, which I mentioned in my post, is a good example of what I mean. I reproduce the opening lines below:

      "It is more than twenty months since we were brought here, more than twenty months of my ninth term of imprisonment. The new moon, a shimmering crescent in the darkening sky, greeted us on our arrival here. The bright fortnight of the waxing moon had begun. Ever since then each coming of the new moon has been a reminder to me that another month of my imprisonment is over."

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  4. I have no patience for people who disdain readers who prefer fiction over non-fiction. I've learned a lot more about human nature from reading novels and short stories than I have in any textbook on sociology or psychology. Bah! to the non-fiction snobs who look down on readers of fiction.

    I think way back in elementary school teachers tried to tell us that someone who wrote a book was an author while someone who wrote a letter, say, was a writer. But these days I think the term author is entirely pretentious and should be reserved only for libraries as int he case of being asked, "And who is the author of that book?" That's it. To me anyone published these days can be called a writer. Less than a handful deserve the honorific of author which implies so much more literary skill and talent. At least to me.

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    1. John, I have actually met people who looked down upon popular and pulp fiction although I never let their opinions sway me. The common argument was that novels corrupted the one who read them. My parents were very supportive of whatever I read. On the other hand, non-fiction books were considered ennobling. I remember, my earliest initiation into non-fiction was with George Bernard Shaw's essays in my school textbook. We had to read the passages and answer questions in our own words as Comprehension, a part of the English curriculum. I enjoyed the English class because of the way my teacher read out the essays and because I used to be in awe of Shaw's prose. I haven't read his work in decades.

      The "author" or "writer" debate is open to interpretation. I agree, it is easier to become a writer (of all things) than an author (of a literary masterpiece).

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  5. Prashant, nowadays of course, one uses the word 'text' a lot.

    And reading Chase was always a little risky because of the lurid covers.:) I remember a professor dismissing him (without having read him) as trash.

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    1. Neer, I loved reading James Hadley Chase (British writer René Brabazon in real life) in my youth. I think I read all of them back then. The "lurid" covers were probably one of the biggest "hoax" on readers of that time. I'm scratching my head to recall if there was even kissing in Chase novels which were pure crime stories. Chase was considered "trash" by many as was the pulp fiction of Harold Robbins and Irving Wallace although Wallace wrote a couple of good books.

      Robbins' 79 PARK AVENUE, which was made into an American television miniseries, and A STONE FOR DANNY FISHER, and Wallace's THE SECOND LADY, the kidnap of the President's wife by KGB and her replacement by an imposter, were some of the better novels. THE SECOND LADY was also made into a Hindi film called SHARARA, I think.

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  6. I don't believe I have ever pondered the difference, probably too busy reading!

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    1. Col, I suppose that's the only way to look at it. How does it matter whether one is reading a novel or a book written by an author or a writer as long as one is reading? There I have started the debate all over again! “Too busy reading”—that sounds good.

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  7. Very interesting Prashant - initially I thought you were making a distiction vbetween literature and mere popular fiction. I think there are more or less serious writers - some non-books can at best be described as 'journalistic' rather than literary perhaps, though it can be argued that even a stylist like Ian Fleming deployed a 'heightened journalistic style' as Anthony Burgess put it - an interesting conundrum Prashant, thanks for the food for thought.

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    1. You're welcome, Sergio. Thanks for your kind words. This was just one of those things that occurred to me. The term "book" has wider connotations and can be applied to so many forms of writing unlike a "novel" whose scope is restricted to a fictionalised tale. Your mention of "journalistic style" of writing reminds me of British journalist and author Anthony Grey (SAIGON, PEKING, and THE CHINESE ASSASSIN) and his American and Australian counterparts, Arnaud de Borchgrave and Robert Moss (co-authors of THE SPIKE and MONIMBO), who put their vast journalistic experience into some excellent fiction.

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  8. Very interesting things to think about. I had never thought of people being snobby about non-fiction vs. fiction. I think either is fine, it is just whichever you enjoy. I would love to read more non-fiction, but I usually cannot get interested in the writing style and it takes forever.

    What I do not understand is people who don't read either, and only read newspapers and magazines. Which is fine for them, but I would be lost without my books (novels).

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    1. Tracy, if it weren't for my interest in fiction, I'd have read more of non-fiction, particularly in the field of philosophy and political science which has some excellent thinkers and writers. I don't mind the writing style as one can hardly expect pace and excitement in these books. I'd, however, like to read them in physical form rather than as ebooks. I know people who have read only newspapers and magazines all their life.

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  9. I've never agreed with any disdain for works of fiction - they have such an important place in the world. My daughter studied English literature, and in their theory classes, there were strange questions about 'what is the author?' and 'can the reader decide what this book is?' Perhaps you should take up literary theory Prashant....

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