Edward P. Jones on Reading


I can’t off hand recall if I’ve ever read anything by Edward P. Jones, but I think after reading an interview with him at After The MFA, I will be putting him on my Amazon Wish List.

I was particularly alerted to how much Jones values reading, how essential it is to read as a writer and was very intrigued by this particular portion of the interview:

I mean, [Jones said] I didn’t grow up thinking that I would be a writer — that’s not the kind of environment I came from. You grew up to get a solid job, so that you won’t have to pray about your rent and worry about food. And I didn’t know any people who were writers. But the reading was always important, and I suppose that there’s no better foundation in the universe, if you want to write, than loving to read.

You come across people in writing courses with poor reading — they haven’t read enough… One of the first things I noticed, before I even thought about being a writer, I think I was in junior high school, and for some reason I was in some office killing time, and there was a typewriter there. That was the first time I ever typed. I typed my name and I was fascinated by the way the black words looked on the white paper. And I discovered books when I was in my early teens, and one of the things I noted, for example, was quotations. There’s open quotations, and then there’s the comma, or the period, and then end quotation. I had this student, an intelligent woman, and one of the things she was doing was that she had no idea how the dialogue technically was supposed to be written. As if she had never read a book that had dialogue. I always liked to have conferences, whether in my office or over the phone, and I was telling her about that problem. I said, “Go to your bookshelf and take down a book.” And it was if she had never investigated how dialogue — a simple thing — how dialogue is supposed to be written… The reading thing is the best foundation.

How does an advanced writing student not know the technical way to write dialogue? I thought my freshman composition students were the ones who were supposed to have such technical problems. How many advanced writing students are in graduate school who don’t know the technical basics? It’s one thing to experiment with how something is going to physically look on the page (although even a talent like Cormac McCarthy, who shucks many technical conventions, gets annoying; I’ve never have quite understood McCarthy’s purpose not using at least dashes to set off dialogue. Am I just missing something?). But, to not know how to write dialogue? I would make me suspicious of just how much or how well the writer has read. I wonder how true it is, as Jones says in the interview, how many writing students really don’t have a strong reading background. How do they expect to become writers?

To read the rest of this interview, go here.

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4 thoughts on “Edward P. Jones on Reading

  1. I’ve always been curious about how well-read MFA students are. I became biased against the MFA early in my graduate career just on hearsay evidence–some of the teaching methods I heard MFA students using as TA’s. And then I read John Aldridge’s “Talents and Technicians” and that further biased me, especially because Aldridge made the assumption that MFA students weren’t well read. I’m now not quite as biased–in fact have tried to get into MFA programs — but I’m still curious about writers who don’t have a strong foundation of reading. How well do they write? Do they publish?

  2. Interesting comments about being well-read… I actually felt like an illiterate when I got into my MFA program. Ultimately, I think one of the biggest benefits for me was the way that the program brought reading back into my daily routine. I don’t write every day, and I don’t think I ever will. It’s just not my style. But I do read every day and when I do sit down to write, I feel nourished and ready to roll.

    Thanks for the linkage to the interview. Glad you enjoyed it.

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