Pages and Words: On Reading
If you’re going to write, be a voracious reader as well.
Reading is perhaps the most important thing one can do if one wants to be a writer. Whether you are writing fiction, non-fiction, biography, history, etc, reading, as the saying goes, is fundamental. I would say that if you are a writer of fiction, reading all of these types of books is fundamental. Fiction writers need not only concern themselves with fiction, after all. Be voracious in your reading. Read for your pleasure, of course, but also read as a form of education. When I read, I read for the story first and foremost. That’s what gives me the most pleasure. A really good story can help open your mind to looking at the world in a different way than you did before you started it. It can make you think about your own attitudes towards things, allow you to think about them, reassess them. It can help you from developing and clinging to shitty attitudes, that is, if you’re not the kind of reader that reads only things that merely justify your already existing point of view. That does nothing. That’s dogma. That’s propaganda. Secondly, I read to see how a particular author works. Why did he/she do this or that? Why this structure and not that? What made he/she chose to describe something this way, or not that way? And so on and so on. Taken in combination, it can only benefit anyone who wishes to write, no matter what kind of book they are writing. I’m only going to concern myself with fiction here, since that is what I do.
Side note: I couldn’t write a biography or a history book if my life depended on it. I have a tremendous amount of respect for writers who do write these kinds of books: the research involved, how to put it all together in a form that is not only educational but entertaining as well. Hats off to them! I find that even for fiction writers, these kinds of books can also be a valuable tool. History books are obviously useful for fiction writers who are interested in writing Historical fiction. After all, you need the knowledge of whatever time in history you are writing about. Travelogues can be useful as well for fiction, allowing you to “visit” a place that you haven’t been to or might not able to get to. (The advent of sites like YouTube and Google also provide a wealth of creative opportunities but that’s another subject for another time).
When it comes to reading, it has been said that whatever one chooses to read is such a personal thing. Everyone’s tastes are different. Some enjoy Literary fiction, others like Genre fiction, others like more mainstream fiction, romances, “Mass Market” fiction, etc, etc. I am one of those readers that will read anything, no matter the genre. I will admit my preference is for more Literary novels but I will read so-called Popular fiction too. Some of it isn’t all that terrible. The one thing any aspiring writer with goals bigger than merely writing a bestseller has to understand is this: just because a particular novel is popular, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s automatically a bad book or has bad writing. (I recall an incident where I bought some books at Barnes & Noble recently where the woman working the cash register just couldn’t contain herself from letting me know what she thought of my choices that day. For the record, it was Mario Vargas Llosa, Primo Levy: Approved; and Stephen King: highly disapproved. It was amusing to me her inability to grasp the idea that one could like all different kinds of fiction, just as one could like different kinds of foods, films, art and music. If the mantra “If it’s popular then it can’t be good” were actually true, then the Beatles must have been the worst rock band on the face of the Earth.) This attitude is “Hipster” nonsense to me, the attitudes of the “In Crowd”. It’s very limiting and in a lot of cases it’s cutting of your nose to spite your face. If you read these kinds of novels and hate them that’s one thing. To hate it without even bothering to crack open the cover is another. Smacks of pseudo-elitism to me.
For a long time I found myself limiting what I read. I stuck mainly to Literary fiction over the past 15 years or so. It was, and is, a wonderful reading experience and I learned an awful lot from the authors of these books. Literary fiction showed me the many different approaches on can take writing fiction. A book did not necessarily have to be linear storytelling. It did not necessarily have to follow a particular structure (although it may be structured in it’s own way). It didn’t necessarily have to have a “story” in the sense that most people are familiar with. Sometimes novels such as these are merely “slice of life” tales or experiments with language and/or structure (i.e. “A Meditation” by Juan Benet, “Rayuela” by Julio Cortázar, “Marks of Identity” by Juan Goytisolo or “Alphabetical Africa” by Walter Abish). All of these experiments and differing ways of approaching fiction had a profound influence on me and all of these sorts of experiments found their way into my first novel, for better or for worse.
However, I also love a lot of what they call “Genre” fiction as well, particularly Noir and Mystery novels. These writers influenced me as well, particularly Raymond Chandler, Mickey Spillane, Andrew Vacchs, Lawrence Block, James M. Cain, Dashiell Hammet, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, Caroll John Daly and a host of others. Some of these books were not only entertaining but very well written as well. I devoured these sorts of books.
When I was struggling to come up with a follow up to my first novel I tried to figure out exactly what the problem was. Did I only have one book in me? Was that the best I could do? Did I shoot my load? I thought about that for a long time and then one day something occurred to me that seemed so obvious that I was amazed I hadn’t thought of it before. I finally figured out what was limiting me. Myself. In what way was I limiting myself? Simple: I was too hell bent on reading only one kind of fiction. I started to think about how I enjoy other things in life. Music, art, films, food, what have you, and I realized that I never limited myself with these things, why should I with the type of books I read? After all, if one could like The Beatles and love Punk Rock, why couldn’t he read a great variety of fiction as well?
When I was a little boy, my mother would often read to me and my two sisters from this very old children’s story book. (Another aside: Many of these stories are no longer considered “appropriate” for children to read or hear, imagine?) I used to love it when it was “story time”. I think this is what got me interested in reading in the first place. Reading lead to me wanting to write my own stories and I did quite often, tons of them. It gave me much joy to do so, especially on days when it was raining and none of my friends were around (or if I was punished!) I used to allow my imagination to run wild, writing all kinds of stories. I only wish I still had them now so I could see what they were but I do remember them being ghost stories or horror stories, war stories, baseball, etc, whatever interested me at that age. At some point my parents bought me a manual typewriter, which I used all the time (remember this was the early-mid 1970s), sometimes driving them crazy with the clacking of the keys at all hours of the night. I used that damn typewriter until I was well into my twenties. I wrote a lot of things, but never took it all that seriously. It was just something I always enjoyed doing. Back then, it didn’t matter what kind of story I was writing. I just wrote whatever I felt like it. It was this freedom, this opening of the imagination that I remembered that made me have this sort of epiphany. The hell with it, I thought. Do what pleases you and write whatever the hell you want. Ever since then, the floodgates opened and the ideas came pouring out. I haven’t felt so productive in years.
So this is my two cents on the topic. If you want to write, read a lot as well. Don’t limit your intake. Don’t allow some ridiculous notion of what is “acceptable” rule your choices and/or your sense of imagination and creativity. Take it all in and then decide how you will utilize what you learn from it. You’ll find your own voice. You’ll find yourself coming up with something that is truly your own. Don’t be concerned whether or not something is “Popular” (read: “uncool”) or not. Allow yourself the pleasure you deserve. In the end, we all have our own preferences anyway and everyone is different so it doesn’t matter. The point is, as Joseph Campbell used to say, “to follow your bliss” and be true to yourself. Writing is a hell of a lot of work but it should also be fun too. It shouldn’t be drudgery. If it is, then perhaps you’re better off doing something else, something that gives you joy. Write for yourself first and foremost and never, ever, ever allow anyone to make you justify your choices or what you are aspiring to do.
So go pick up that book you’ve been too “embarrassed” to be seen with and read it. You may learn something from it, for better or for worse.
No tags for this post.