The Rich and Secret Life of a Writer of Reading Guides
Je Banach on the Value of an Unheralded Genre
As a younger writer I sensed that there was A Great Conversation happening out there in the world, one that connected every writer and reader and lover of books, and there was nothing I wanted more desperately than to be a part of it. During this time, I could barely get by on my salary, and this felt desperate too, and so, it seemed that one good way to join this great literary cocktail party would be to find some kind of book-related work.
I sent an email to the literary critic Harold Bloom asking if I could help him with research, and he answered predictably but politely by saying that, no, he already had assistants in New Haven where he was teaching. I countered by responding that I “did not like to let geography limit me” and would he reconsider? I was stunned when he fired back a wordless email with the phone number of one of his editors.
A few years later, after editing two books and writing two others for Bloom’s literary series, the publisher announced that they would be shuttering their print series, and I was forced to ask myself: what next? The truth, I knew, was that the work had been a way of stalling. I had been hemming and hawing over questions of genre and form in my own writing—what I foolishly referred to as my “real writing”—to a stunning degree. Did I want to be a writer of fiction or nonfiction? Short stories or essays? What kind of writer was I? It seemed important to choose.
But I wasn’t sure what it was I wanted to commit to, and I had more bills, so I sent an email to Random House (back then without its Penguin) looking for work, and this is how I ended up with an extremely strange and dreamy career moonlighting as the writer of more than one hundred publishers’ reading guides to works of world literature—and with an unexpected answer to the pesky questions about genre and form and my writer-self that had previously hung over me like a wet blanket.
One of the first things you should know is that whenever someone has inquired about my work and I have mentioned that I write reading guides, I have invariably been met with two questions: What is a reading guide? and Why would anyone need one? This is because—unlike all of the other myriad forms and genres of writing—no one ever talks about reading guides.
It is a fact: People talk about fiction and nonfiction and literary criticism, essays and short stories, poems and novels and book reviews, but they do not talk about reading guides.
This makes it seem that guides are purely utilitarian, separate from or outside of all other kinds of writing, telescoped in, the kind of writing that falls outside the bounds of what writers call “real writing”—and perhaps ones written by those incapable of imagining themselves as artists are—but, if its writer is committed, nothing could be further from the truth.Because the reading guide is not generally acknowledged as a literary genre, it is able to evade much of the stickiness that gums up other forms and genres.
In response to the first question—What is a reading guide?, I would explain that most publishers’ reading guides are compact compilations of information about a book that they are publishing and its author. They typically contain a concise bio and an introduction to the work accompanied by suggested topics and questions for discussion (the heart of the guide) and a list of additional recommended reading for further consideration. Sometimes they are printed in the back of the book itself. They are offered to schools and book clubs and are used by some curious general readers, too. They are, to put it simply, conversation starters.
I would mostly get away with ignoring the second question—Why would anyone need one?— because the asker was not really asking a question at all but rather making their feelings clear, but I will share with you here my shocking answer:
Reading guides are not necessary.
What I mean is: One can choose to read a book without a guide just as one can choose to read a book without considering any of the criticism that has been written about it. So when it comes to understanding the merits of reading guides, it helps to think of it like this: It is true that you can consider a book privately, for and with yourself and without any guidelines or teachers, but it is also true that if you want to have a conversation about a book with someone else, one of you must initiate that conversation, and that is what I do with the guides. I start conversations.
So, reading guides are not necessary, but it is this fact that both unites reading-guides-as-genre with all other literature (after all, one could argue that novels and poems and book reviews are also not “necessary”) and sets it apart from all the rest and gives this genre its distinct superpowers.
Because the reading guide is not generally acknowledged as a literary genre, it is able to evade much of the stickiness that gums up other forms and genres and plagues their writers. When it comes to reading guides, no one sidesteps the work to focus on the life of the guide’s author. No one raises their hand to ask if what is in the guide was drawn from the guide-writer’s life. No one sits down to write a review of the guide they have just read.
But, like an evil witch in a fable granting a wish in exchange for one crucial thing, it is a genre that throws a cloak of invisibility over its author, whether one wants this or not.
While you, the guide-writer, are allowed to initiate conversation after conversation about writing, no one is going to talk about or acknowledge your life-long work as a writer at all. This may seem a harsh fate for writers working in this genre—that no one will notice that you have been doing “real writing” all along—but over time it also dispenses one of writing’s most valuable lessons: that the best writing is that in which its author is fully dedicated to the work, casting off as many of the constraints of ego or expectation as it is possible to cast off. I can say that I have been fully devoted to books, to others’ writing and to my own. Does any other genre offer as much freedom?
It is stunning to realize that where the critic may be pressed to draw conclusions about its subject, to offer a final-seeming, authoritative opinion, I have escaped to a wild landscape where form is dependent upon questions that are allowed to linger—lists of questions offered, but not answered, by their writer. A proposal from reader to reader.
And, unlike writers of other genres, I have been allowed to linger too—to be “writer” while remaining in this position as “reader,” albeit professional reader, for as long as I like, indefinitely, in fact—considering, still making up my mind, asking you from another room: Should we talk about it? What do you think?
In his 2016 Lit Hub essay “Actually, Criticism Is Literature,” the critic Jonathan Russell Clark writes about the strange, defensive desire that writers have to justify and define their place within the literary landscape and the accompanying struggle to figure out what we writers mean when we talk about “real writing.” The subtitle made no secret of his own determination: “Writing about the art of writing is an art unto itself.” If its author cares enough, a guide can be art, can be literature too. Real writing, it turns out, is the writing that we show up for. Through my strange dedication to this unexpected form, I have finally come to know what kind of writer I am because it is a place I have walked to and from literally a hundred times.
It is a wild privilege and a gift to get to walk with so many readers, to start so many conversations about books, a lamplighter dipping their flame to meet the next wick, but, like its literary sibling Criticism, it is work that leaves one with what Clark calls an urge towards “embarrassed justification.” The tiny stirrings of a crisis in the heart that whisper: Why commit to unnecessary work? Who am I to begin the conversation? But someone must start the conversation—we must all have the courage to start the conversation—and like the poet Virgil leaving Dante at the gate, after I have walked with you for a while, it is up to you to decide where you will go. I will go back to the beginning and start again.