Not just a week ago, I wrote a post on the importance of being a reader as well as a writer, but I shall now do what I always seem to do — contradict myself. Perhaps writers shouldn’t read.
Yes, it’s a bold statement, but, before you dismiss my comments as either literary blasphemy or mere PR stunt, please hear me out. I am not arguing that authors should never read; that would be ludicrous. I am about to argue that perhaps writers should stop reading while writing.
Four specific examples have arisen lately.
I recently met a creative writing PhD candidate working on a novel for her dissertation, and she said that in the first year of her PhD she read both primary and secondary sources pertaining to her theme (primary source being novels while secondary sources were critical analysis), but by second year she had to stop reading.* She felt that the work of other authors was too influential. She stated that as she read back through her work, she could spot whom she was reading at the time of each section. She felt that she wasn’t finding her original voice, so she’s planned to stop reading primary sources until she finishes her PhD.
This actually seems quite reasonable and logical. No one wants their novel to be a patchwork of unintended plagiarism. However, in the flip side of this argument, how much of the unintended inspiration could be reworked through editing, making the novel stronger in the end? Of course, this is only a rhetorical question, as the answer would be different for every writer.
But this PhD student is not the only individual who has recently expressed concern over reading while writing. In the last couple of months, I’ve had three different conversations with three different authors, each of whom told me that they do not read while writing.
One said that he specifically can’t read others work while he’s in the editing process, because he begins to edit the others person’s work – even if that other person is, for example, Shakespeare. He stated that he gets into such an editing ‘frame of mind’ that he can’t help but rewrite the work of others.
Another such writer recently told me that he can’t read specific authors while he’s writing, because their style is too different to his own. He stated that he can’t enjoy the books because all he can think about is, ‘I wouldn’t have written it that way’, or ‘I wouldn’t have taken that plot twist.’ And finally, a very distinguished author recently told me that he never reads while writing, because he finds it distracting.
You may have noticed that I have not put names to these authors. The reason is two-fold. One, I have not had a chance to ask them if I could reference their conversations in my blog, and it would be rude to simply drop names without confirming their participation. Second, the conversation could be misconstrued, and people could think that these particular authors do not read – ever. And, I sincerely do not want that to happen. For all four of the above mentioned individuals are talented writers, intelligent people, and have read more books in one non-writing-month than most people have over the course of their entire life. They simply do not read while writing.
So, I should give you an example with a name. A good friend of mine, Emilie Staat, of Jill of All Trades, is a veracious reader and an excellent author. She is a fiction author as well as a literary critic and a magazine writer. I asked her, ‘Do you read when you write.’ Here is her response:
I do read while writing. But I find myself reading something that is unlike what I’m writing (for example, romance novels, young adult lit or mysteries) for the pure pleasure of it. The funny thing is that whenever I consciously try not to read something too circus-related, it pops up in unexpected places. I’ve found influence in the strangest places, but I’m not scared of it anymore.
I have kept a record of my reading for more than 10 years. I find that this is important to remind me what might’ve been influencing me at different stages of the process.
Now, if you’re wondering what about the ‘circus’ aspect of her comment, please let me explain. She’s writing a novel that is set in a circus. Therefore, her comment could be amended to ‘I don’t read books that are similar to my own theme and style while I write.’
It is here that I’m going to throw the rhetorical spanner (or ‘wrench’ for my US compatriots) into the works. If you don’t read what is similar to your own work, how do you know what’s out there? How do you know where you fit into the greater body of your genre, theme, world of literature?
But this too poses problems. No writer can be familair with all works of fiction, not even in one genre. New works come out everyday. Books are published in other countries. Fictions are now on the internet, in downloadable format, in books stores and in second hand shops. Reading, in order to know how and where your novel fits into the literary scene, could be a full time job, leaving no time for writing. Plus, every writer wants to believe that he/she is original, and there’s nothing worse than stumbling across a published book that’s close to the one you’re writing. That’s a kick and the pants few authors can come back from.
I think all these authors are correct in their own ways. If something in your own life (such as editing your manuscript) is keeping you from enjoying a book, put that book down and come back to it later. And, as does Emilie, avoid books that are similar to your own. That way you’ll side step any issues of originality or unintended influence.
But, here’s the bold print, don’t use that novel that you plan to write as an excuse to not read. If you’re not in the process of pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, then reading is a must. There should be no excuses if you’re not actively writing, because, debate aside, all authors will tell you that reading is the most fundamental tool a writer can have. While putting that tool down on occasion may be a necessity, it can never be completely ignored.
It is here that I would like to end with Emilie’s wonderful quote, ‘I’ve found influence in the strangest places, but I’m not scared of it anymore.’
*For my American compatriots, the PhD system in Britain is quite different from the US. There are no classes. Instead the student begins independent research immediately, and continues on with a large research project. A full-time PhD can last from three to five years, with four years being the average. Most creative writing PhD students in the UK will complete a novel (or some other specified large body of work) as well as an extensive critical accompanying piece.