“Not to Read” is Essential for Writers and Readers Everywhere
Some thoughts on Alejandro Zambra
I’ve been binge-reading some books by Alejandro Zambra recently. This all started some time ago when I asked Thomas Morris, the author of We Don’t Know What We’re Doing, what writers he was most excited about right now. He pointed me to the Chilean writer and recommended My Documents, Zambra’s short story collection published in English by Fitzcarraldo Editions. I was working in Waterstones at the time and managed to find a store that had a copy, but proceeded not to read it for nearly a year. But when I did, I was hooked. I started with “Memories of a Personal Computer.” Without spoiling anything, I can tell you it has one of the most sublime and perfect endings to any short story I have ever read — and from that point on, I couldn’t put it down.
Not to Read was published almost perfectly in time with my finishing My Documents. It was one of those books that you find at precisely the right time, and not just because I’d just finished his stories. Not to Read is an essay collection on reading and writing, and I haven’t been writing recently. I have been feeling overwhelmed and overworked and just exhausted — lacking in inspiration and energy to write. Not to Read is a welcome relief. Somehow Zambra seems to bring such clarity to notions of creativity. It is essential reading for young readers and writers everywhere, because the way he writes about his process is like an antidote to the typical discourse around creative writing or pursuing an artistic life. Zambra simply loves literature, and he inspires the love of writing through his work.
More so, there’s a certain honesty to Zambra’s prose that could be described as confessional. But confessional writing is usually thought of as autobiographical or even thinly veiled. In confessional fiction, the idea is that a suitable alias is chosen, some details conveniently changed, and the author then writes as though writing about themselves, but under the pretence of fiction. Though “confessional,” as a label, is only ever applied to writing by women that fits these criteria (and often when it doesn’t). It’s used as a way of belittling the work and patronising, or even invalidating, the author. Charlotte Bronte was plagued in her time by the assumption that she was, in fact, Jane Eyre herself (and was introduced by one of her literary heroes as “Jane Eyre” in public). Yet male writers, even when thinly veiled and self-absorbed, are for whatever reason described in more elusive terms. If this is to be believed Knausgård or Cummings or anyone else bend the form of the novel, blending form and genre. They don’t confess, apparently.
So with Zambra I actually quite like the word “confessional” — partly because it is so rarely applied to men — and partly because the word needs to be challenged. I don’t think there needs to be a veil, or a slight of hand, or a conceit. I don’t even think to be confessional it needs to be fictional. As confessional, Zambra is just straightforwardly addressing the ideas that most absorb him. He’s not writing about himself, disguised. But he is writing, blatantly, from his own voice. Not his authorial voice, but his voice. Or at least it feels that way.
But in terms of fiction, the idea of confession is even more interesting. In The Private Lives of Trees, the protagonist becomes interested with the idea of writing about a man who is obsessed with his bonsai — which is also the topic of his Zambra’s novella Bonsai. The protagonist is writing the novella that Zambra had already written. In some of the stories collected in My Documents, Zambra writes from the perspective of a variety of characters with very Zambra-esque traits, many of whom are professors and writers (which aren’t so uncommon as protagonists in literature for that same reason.) Though on reading his essays you realise are more similar to the author than at first glance.
Nevertheless, the characters, protagonists and plots aren’t where Zambra’s voice really lies, but in his concerns. The reason his writing feels confessional and honest is through his perceptiveness — the depth of his concern. When he writes about the topic, it’s because, for years maybe, he’s been thinking about it. Like in “Memories of a Personal Computer,”:
“I don’t know if that winter was really as terrible as I remember it, or if I just couldn’t hack it, but the fact is I got into the habit of warming my hands on the CPU, and one day I even put in my bed and slept several nights with my arms around it. I like that image: an object that at the time seemed so sophisticated ended up serving such a basic purpose as keeping me warm.”
An idea that breeds a short story. Not so unusual. But then he goes off again in an essay on the topic of his story:
“Did novels change when we began to write them on a computer?”
He has a reply more than an answer. He does answer it: yes. But he’s not leading us to a specific point of view so that we will agree with him. He’s exploring an idea that tickles something in his brain. And as a writer, what’s itching your mind most is reading and writing. How we read; what we read; why we write; how we write. Why should we read big books, find them important, bother finishing them? Does the ebook kill books; are writers self-absorbed; who are we writing to; and why, why do we see publishing as the goal of a writer. And what does it mean to be a writer, or a reader?
This is why the essays in Not to Read feel like they come from the same place as his stories and his novels. Not to Read is not Zambra in the non-fiction mode, nor is his fiction simply Zambra in the fiction mode. They’re both the same voice, the same mode, finding a way to explore the things that bother or beguile him, with form being merely an outlet for that voice. Which I guess is why I’ve been finding his writing so uniquely pleasurable — because of the honesty of that voice. It’s not writing you see past in order to figure the writer out; it’s more transparent. You read, and by doing so, you meet the writer.
And perhaps this is a Holden Caulfield-esque mistake — the idea that you can just meet the writer through their work. That you, in some sense, know them intimately. That may not be how it is; but that’s how it feels, anyhow.