Back in February 2010, The Guardian asked several authors to give their top tips on writing. While some of the responses were fairly standard – ‘Keep your exclamation points under control’, – it was Zaddie Smith’s suggestion that, ‘When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else’ that raised a bit of concern. Dominic Mitchell argued:
‘”When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.” What!? Christ mighty I’m a thirty year old man! How in god’s name is this helpful? Unless, I suppose, it’s directed at Booker Mom’s and Dad’s (like Tennis Mom’s and Dad’s) who want their offspring to grow up be top notch Whitbread winners one day. Even if I, concerned parent, followed this rule, what is Ms Smith suggesting? That I chain up little Harry in the basement with the works of Tolstoy and never let him see the light of day until he’s memorized War and Peace?’
To a point, I feel that I have to agree with Dominic.
While it would be hard to argue with the benefits of childhood reading*, the suggestion that one’s childhood should eliminate a career path is incredibly elitist. What about children who were not raised in ‘reading’ households? What about children who did not have access to books? What about children with undetected learning disabilities? What about children who are in schools that focus on subjects outside pleasuring reading? Are these people unable to acquire a passion and skill for writing and literature later in life? Are these children doomed to inarticulacy?
I think we can all agree that children who do not read face a harder road than those who do (not just in the field of writing but in all endeavours); however, it would be ignorant to suggest that they cannot acquire a reading habit post-childhood.
In fact, there are a number of successful authors who admit to discovering writing post-school years. Malcolm Gladwell writes in The New Yorker about the author Ben Fountain who was a lawyer before becoming an author.
Fountain’s career change from the legal profession to novelist doesn’t suggest that he wasn’t a childhood reader, but I have seen creative writing success stories myself. A young man joined one of my creative writing classes a few years back. He admitted to not having read much, and over time he also admitted to being schooled in an environment that pigeonholed him as unable to achieve anything other than factory work, thus discouraging him from writing and reading. But his story has a happy ending so far; thanks to the support of the lovely students in the creative writing class, this gentleman now has written two novels, several short stories and poems, is a veracious reader, is applying for College courses, and is even interested in being a literacy tutor. Thus happily proving Zaddie Smith wrong.
However, it is here that I get to the crux of this argument, where I shall contradict everything I have just said – in part, Zaddie Smith may be right. I am currently doing a bit of private creative writing tutoring, and over the past few months it has become obvious that one of my students did not read as a child, and problematically she still does not read. This was obvious from the start. Concepts that are basic to readers such as point of view, pacing, and grammatical structure had to be explained in detail as if she’d never come across them.
Here I’d like to note that grammar is a tricky thing in creative writing. Fiction authors often break the rules of grammar to create mood, tone and style. However, certain aspects of grammar, such as how to layout quotations and where to break-up paragraphs, become second nature to the avid reader. Which leads me to the advantages of reading as a child – certain aspects of writing become ‘second nature’ if you’ve been reading all your life. You will automatically, almost innately, understand how using first and third person will change a story. You know when (or even what type of) a climax should appear in a novel, and you’ll understand the importance of conflict. If you have not been reading all your life, these aspects must become ‘learned’ making writing a more difficult task.
Which brings me back to my private tutee, while she is a strong learner and has not shrunk from her task of writing a novel, she has a hard road ahead of her. Much of this came to fruition when it dawned on me that she was writing her chapters as if they were television episodes, and she regularly refers to films** instead of books. This is when she told me that she was raised watching television instead of reading. It is because of this that I feel she may be working harder than the writer who has spent his/her life reading every book they could get their hands on.
So then, what’s the answer if, as suggested by Dominic Mitchell, you can’t turn back time? How does the aspiring adult novelist who did not read as a child make up for ‘lost time’? I believe the answer lies in the present. Read now. Read as an adult. Read for pleasure and read critically. Read every genre you can get your hands on. Have an audio book or story playing in the car and on your ipod. If you become an avid reader as an adult, then the road to being a writer will get easier, and it won’t matter what you did during your childhood.
* When I say ‘read’, I obviously do not mean ‘illiterate vs literate’, or even that an individual has never read a book. I simply mean that the person is not reading for pleasure on a regular basis.
** I am an avid television viewer. I love telly and I love film. However, it is a different medium than novel writing, which requires different skills. Therefore, I often suggest that when writing a screenplay you should study film, but when writing a novel one should study the written word. Of course, the two can, and often do cross, but for the beginning writer it’s best to divide the mediums.