Reading For Writers

If you want to write, you must also read. That’s as close to a truism as anything that deals with writing. Think about it: The great writers can even get away with not following the first rule of grammar: Every sentence must contain a noun and a verb.

I have gone as far as to make the analogy, writing is like tennis; if you want to get better, then play with people who are better than you. That’s why I read books I don’t even like by people like Ernest Hemingway. He’s a master, but his books are too stark for me. Even J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy barely held my interest. Also, I just finished reading Elizabeth Strout’s The Burgess Boys. If this book had been written by anyone besides Ms. Strout (I loved Olive Kitteridge!), I wouldn’t have finished it; I might not even have picked it up. The second half was far more interesting than the first half, but I almost didn’t get there.

I love plot. Sure, characters are important, but introspective characters alone bore me to bedlam. So, here’s the rub. If a person wants to elevate her writing toward levels approaching Pulitzer Prize winning authors, does she have to give up mysteries and thrillers that specialize in plot? Must she read books that bore her? And, what about reading books that are so good (David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or Téa Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife) they make the writer feel like an illiterate fool? Should a writer give those up lest she gets too discouraged?

I suppose there’s no steadfast writing rule for this quandary either (see Paragraph One). What might hold true for one writer, wouldn’t necessarily hold true for all. Have you ever stopped to consider that each of us is made up of all that we have consumed? You are what you read. I wish I could see David Mitchell’s list of favorite books, nay, his ENTIRE reading list. For even the books he didn’t like as well must have influenced him in some regard. Right?

Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood, for example, are highly acclaimed writers, but now that I think about it, I don’t aspire to be their literary heir (forgive the self-agrandizing possibility that that might ever happen). For now, I’m going with Tom Perrotta’s philosophy. He has said (although I can’t find the exact quote) that while writing a novel, he likes to read mysteries and thrillers to reinforce the idea that all books, even literary fiction, need to be more and more exciting as they progress.

One female, literary great I can relate to is Joan Didion (especially in relation to this blog post). She once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking … ” I now know that I will continue to read the best writers—occasionally—so I know what they’re doing, but I will never give up mysteries and thrillers because I love a riveting plot.

How about you, fellow writers? What books do you like to read, in general or while writing? Are there any great books you intentionally avoid? And if so, why?

I love your comments, so chime in if you have a minute!

4 Replies to “Reading For Writers”

  1. I like to cross genres for inspiration. I’ll read poetry before writing an essay. I’ll read essays before writing a story. If I read Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and then sit down to write a short story, what I produce will be a cheap pastiche of his work. Right now, I’m reading the easily digestible philosophy of “The Trouble With Being Born” while thinking up ways to write a personal essay.

  2. ‘You are what you read.’

    So true, Karolyn! When my kids were very little, I quickly realized that I had neither the time nor the energy to write. I settled for reading instead (something I could do – even in the middle of the night in the rocking chair with a baby). I also truly believe that what goes in, comes out, so I considered reading time my writing prep. Writers need to read great literature and page-turners. Learn from every book, even the ones you might not love. Some advice to writers from Zadie Smith: ‘When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.’ No turning back the clock on that one, but I do believe it’s never too late to start reading well!

    1. I agree, Trish. We can’t turn back the clock, but we can teach and encourage our children (and one day, grandchildren) to read! Even though I always have a book (or two or three) going, I know I’ll never get to the end of my ToBeRead book list. I also know I’ll never stop trying!

      So here’s to Reading! And also Writing!

      Thanks for your comment!

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