Balance between fiction, non-fiction and poetry
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In 2016, I started tracking my annual reading stats, organizing my finished books into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry: my passions as someone who reads and writes across genres. With Craft in the Real World fresh in my mind, I keep thinking about how Matthew Salesses states in “An Example from East Asian and Asian American Literature”: “Writers need to read much wider and much deeper, if we want to know enough craftsmanship to start critiquing other writers fairly and really writing for ourselves.
As 2019 dawned, I noticed a trend in sharing my reading numbers. Year after year, novels, short stories and collections of short stories took first place: 34 books in 2018 (out of a total of 52 books), 26 in 2017 (out of a total of 40 books) and 15 in 2016 (out of a total of 32 books). My year-end stats and stacks revealed that I was clinging to fiction, and literary fiction, and I wanted to fix it. So, I focused on balance. At the end of 2019, I read 107 books: 42 fiction, 38 poetry and 27 non-fiction. Better, but not my best.
A book juggler, my sweet spot is three, but sometimes I read up to five at a time. Typically, I strive to get a fiction title, a non-fiction, and a poetry book over the weekend. Occasionally, instead of a memoir or essays, I read a novel and a collection of stories, like this weekend when I cuddled up with Quan Barry’s We Ride Upon Sticks and A House Is a Body by Shruti Swamy. Another weekend, I paired adult fiction, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, with a mid-level novel, Ophie’s Ghosts by Justina Ireland. Even when I don’t balance genres well, because of impending library due dates or reading an ARC before it comes out or looking for an assignment, I think about going back to genre on break in my next bundle.
Usually I read poems before I write and in fleeting moments: during commercial breaks, while waiting for a coconut latte in the drive-thru. In my reading corner, lounge doorstops, which I sip little by little, next to the window overlooking the white crepe myrtle. There I completed The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde and When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through, and am currently, column by column, going through ‘Ōlelo No’eau: Hawaiian Proverbs and Poetical Sayings. I reserve my dedicated reading time before bed for prose. With this longer time frame, I flip through a chapter or an essay by lamplight, or devour pages for hours that lead me to grabbing a cup of tangerine tea or coffee with cream sweet the next morning.
Sometimes people ask me how I juggle so many books and keep them sorted. A short answer has eluded me so far. In 5 tips for reading several books at the same time, Adiba Jaigirdar advises readers to “read different genres”. Jaigirdar writes, “Nothing will confuse you more than reading several books that have too many similarities.” It may be (more so) my secret.
At the end of 2020 I finished 165 pounds. For the first year, poetry takes the lead with 70 titles. (I credit The Sealey Challenge for this astronomical change, for encouraging me to fill every day in August with a poetry collection or a reading book.) I read 59 fiction titles and 36 non-fiction titles . Stunned by my progress, I approached 2021 with the same technique and tenacity.
During the last months of the year, my concentration declined. I read two books, sometimes one, at a time – rare for me. In those days of ragged brains, I alternated between genres, trying to give equal affection to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. According to my records, I spent my 2021 with 171 books: 74 poems, 67 fiction and 30 non-fiction titles. Not my worst, but not my best attempt at balancing either.
Maybe I lost sight of my overall balance while dealing with the weekly details. Although I know I read more non-fiction than my tally report because, across all devices, anywhere from three to 19 windows constantly shine with essays demanding my attention. A big reason why non-fiction received less of my love for prose in 2021: I had decided to read more genre fiction: fantasy, horror, romance, and so on.
Keeping in mind last year’s reading habits, I intend to better balance fiction, non-fiction and poetry in 2022. I see myself as a writer reading mostly where my creative interests are concentrated: novels while I revise my manuscript, poetry like I find the way of the genre after too many years in a personal poem-desert. Maybe if I engage in non-fiction it will help shake the dust off some essays. Crossed fingers.
In The Perks of Reading Across Genre as Both Bookseller and Writer, Marissa Levien suggests, “That’s what reading on a large scale can do for you: grow your brain. It’s like the literary equivalent of traveling or trying new foods. Just in case you also need a reason to juggle genres. If you ask me my favorite, I can’t tell you, but I can share what I’m carrying from room to room this weekend: Good Talk by Mira Jacob, One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston and There Should Be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza. And I can tell you where I have traveled in essays, stories and poems. I can tell you the sweetness that I tasted from reading.