Posted on December 15, 2007 - by MG
Well it’s a fairly commonly held assertion about writing. When asked for advice to an aspiring author, some respond with that: Read as much as you can.
But should you?
Meeting up with my old college pal Christian Pattison, one of the team behind punk-poetry-pop-art-literary magazine “The Illustrated Ape” (buy issue 24 – it has a story by me!) – we discussed whether or not we actually agreed with this.
We found that we didn’t.
“Writers in particular need to be very careful about what they read,” noted Christian. We were both commenting on how little we read these days, because of time constraints.
In fact – I’d admit it – this year I’ve been working so hard on Joshua 2, Jaguar and the edit of Joshua 1 that I have read only 5 fiction books all year.
Harry Potter 7 by JK Rowling (juicy, satisfying conclusion to the series)
Darkside by Tom Becker (rollicking horror/adventure for children)
After Dark by Haruki Murakami (I love Haruki but this let me down…)
Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (beautiful, savage and sad…ahh, Gabo)
The Chase by Alejo Carpentier (terse yet densely descriptive also puzzling and evocative)
(I also re-read a few old favourites…)
Since what you read unquestionably influences how you write at the time, it’s important to choose carefully. Non-fiction is safer than fiction for a fiction writer. But once you’ve cracked the voice/style for your work in progress, you need to stay totally focused.
What we did agree was that writers need to have read a lot.
Christian and I both admitted to read nothing or close to nothing that is being currently written in English (as opposed to was written ages ago, or was written in another language and then translated). We agreed that if you’re serious about reading you should work your way through the great writers of the world, not just those who write in English. Mind you – easy for Christian to say – he’s got an degree in English Literature, so he’s read the canon, whereas I didn’t even do English Lit ‘A’ Level, so I haven’t…
I reminded Christian of the character in Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ who refuses to read any book that isn’t still considered a classic twenty years after the author’s death. That’s a good method for reading only brilliant books!
Anyway, we agreed that fiction writers should read:
comic books & non-fiction (for ideas), poetry and song lyrics, fiction that hardly anyone else is reading, the occasional zeitgeist-grabbing mega-blockbuster
The books that are being published now are written for people who like to read. They are not written for writers. Writers need to come up with engaging, original stuff. If you read what everyone else is writing you will likely produce something not a million miles from that.
If you can get over the fact that when the subject of conversation turns to ‘have you read…?’ you are going to have to say ‘no’ and look thick/ill-read/have no further contribution to the conversation…then how about letting go the urge to join in?
(Before you decide whether to follow this advice – there’s plenty of advice which says you should read lots of books esp in the marketplace you’re aiming for.)