When Writers Don’t Read

The other day I was stunned to hear Oprah say on her show, “I don’t watch TV as a rule.” Huh?? You work in television, woman! Why despise the medium that provides your platform?

Her comment reminded me of a piece of advice that was recently discussed on the blue boards: “If you write fiction, don’t read fiction.” In other words, stop reading fiction, especially contemporary fiction, once you become a fiction writer. A lot of writers chimed in on this topic; some conceded they don’t read fiction while they write, although no one claimed to have given up fiction altogether.

I understand why writers might want to avoid reading another writer’s work while they’ve got a project going. They don’t want to accidentally adopt another writer’s voice, or they want to avoid the temptation of stealing someone else’s ideas. Or else they want to make more time for writing by sacrificing their usual reading time. But this method sounds a bit torturous to an avid reader like me.

Lev Grossman, the Alex award winning author of The Magicians, has also contemplated this method. He wrote about it on his blog back in October:

I can’t function as a writer unless I’m reading somebody else — somebody better than me — and stripping off parts and reverse-engineering special effects and so on as I go. Maybe I need somebody to compete with, or just somebody to remind me that things that seem impossible are in fact possible (for other people).

I’m inclined to work the same way. Reading a chapter of someone else’s book is like  taking a shot of espresso–it keeps me going. It puts me in the right frame of mind, like the author is sitting there with me waiting for me to jump in with my own story. I’ve even written while listening to a book on tape. Sounds weird, but you’d be surprised at how it gives you the sense that now is the time for storytelling.

I grant that this is just one method, and it might not work for everyone. Still, giving up fiction altogether is an extreme measure to take against accidental plagiarism. I’m of the mind that writers are meant to influence each other, that writing is a conversation, that you take from the classics and the myths and also from your contemporaries. How in the world could I write a story about aliens if those guys back in the 50′s hadn’t started that ball rolling? How could I write a quest story if I’d never read The Hobbit or Harry Potter or The Dark is Rising? How could I embrace my quirks and oddities if other writers of new science fiction weren’t coming up with crazy ideas about two cities existing in the same place at the same time or a guy living at Disneyworld? Stealing ideas is wrong, sure–but being influenced by them is the key to being part of the conversation.

I also hate to think what happens when we stop buying each other’s books. That lack of camaraderie only weakens the industry a writer hopes to belong to. And it means we’re not discovering some wonderful literature that’s being produced in our own time. Certainly there are gems to be found in classic literature (and I love to discover them), but today’s novels can also be timeless with the added benefit that they  address today’s issues (classic novels addressed the issues of their time and are still timeless, right?).

If you need space for your own thoughts while you write–okay, take a break from reading for a time. But I don’t see how abandoning fiction altogether makes sense for a writer. I have to assume that a writer writes because she loves stories. So why wouldn’t she also read stories?

Write books because you love stories; read books for the same reason. Don’t despise the medium you work with.

Parker Peevyhouse

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20 responses to “When Writers Don’t Read

  1. Ooo, I LIKE this post! I’m always shocked when people who write for children don’t read children’s books. It makes no sense to me. I look to my favorite books for inspiration, for an ideal that I might be able to write to some day. I wouldn’t be writing these books if I didn’t enjoy reading them. And considering that I’m on a first name basis with everyone at my local indie, you know that I’m doing my share to keep the industry afloat!!

  2. Parker Peevyhouse

    I find that inspiration to be key.

    Thanks for chiming in.

  3. Elisabeth

    I agree with Sherrie – I wouldn’t be writing books if I didn’t love reading them.

    Parker, your post made me think about BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis. They are full of quotes, references and homages to plays and books, even down to the naming of one of the characters.

    What I read enriches me as a reader, and what enriches me as a reader can’t help but enrich me as a writer.

  4. When I’m working on a novel, I tend to keep my reading to a different genre — maybe adult mysteries while I’m working on my middle grade series. I can understand people wanting to avoid reading similar work while they’re writing. (I knew one science fiction hopeful who could never finish writing a novel because every time he read one, he got a new idea and had to work with * that*.) But my experience as a teacher is that people who don’t read widely in the genre in which they write — and read contemporary work — typically write completely unmarketable manuscripts. That can range from having no idea of standard picture book length/format, to writing something in an outdated style. I get older students who are writing in the voice of the Nancy Drew series from the 50s. Avoiding reading current work isn’t keeping them original — it’s keeping them dated.

    In addition, networking with people writing in your genre (and with writers in general) helps your progression as a writer, from developing your craft to making connections for a sale to publicizing your work once it’s published. Am I going to tell all my writing friends that I refuse to read their work? I don’t think so.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      That’s a really good point–not reading today’s fiction can make your own writing feel dated. And when you’re writing sf/f, you need to be aware of which ideas have been done to death and which ideas are still fresh.

  5. I can easily imagine that Oprah simply doesn’t have time to watch other television — it must be incredibly demanding to run her own show and supervise the rest of her empire.

    And I’m one of those who doesn’t read at all when I’m in full-court-press on a book, either a revision or especially a first draft. I need to inhabit MY story world 100%, and I can’t do that if I’m spending time in somebody else’s world, too. And besides that, I have a day job (which is bad enough as an alternate world), and I simply wouldn’t get any books done if I was working, reading, and trying to write at the same time.

    That doesn’t mean I don’t read, of course! And totally agree with Elisabeth on the importance of knowing and sometimes being able to allude to the literary canon and language. I just tend to read the same way I write — in intense bursts in between stages of my own projects. But it is why my TBR stack is always pretty tall.

    The attitude I have found even more onerous lately from would-be writers is that there’s nothing but crap out there now. I agree that there’s *some* crap out there, but there’s plenty that’s not, and I guess I take that personally, now that I’ve been published. It also seems like just a less honest and less self-aware way to say, “I don’t read much.”

  6. Personally, what and how much I read depends on where I am in my own work. I tend to not read as much fiction when I’m working on a first draft or outlining. If I do read fiction during those periods, it tends to be outside of my genre. When I’m revising, I’ll read pretty much anything and try to catch up on my YA reading. I also read a crazy amount during the weeks between the end of a draft and the start of a revision. I find filling my mind with other stories is the best way to take a step back from my own work and clear my head.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      Hey, that’s a great method–using your reading to distance yourself from your project. I generally go into a reading frenzy when I finish a project anyway!

  7. Yeah, I agree with everything that’s been said about why we write. If you don’t love fiction, you are writing for the what? The fame? The money?! May I humbly suggest that people like that have chosen the wrong industry. I definitely understand the “anxiety of influence” side of the argument, though.

    I used to avoid fiction altogether when I was writing. Now I avoid all fiction except for whatever my YA book club is reading. The first rule of book club: Read the book. (The second rule: You do talk about it.) It is a little distracting to be on constant guard duty against anything slipping over the lines into my own WiP, but it’s not so bad with just one book a month, especially since the books are often very different from what I’m working on.

    And it is a great opportunity to read other things. I have rediscovered my love of big nonfiction books about WWII, for example. (With the iconic, recognizable characters and the clearly drawn lines between good and evil, they’re sort of the Lord of the Rings of nonfiction…) It’s also important for me not to *just* read what I write. It makes me feel like a Play-Doh Fun Factory: YA goes in an a big lump; YA comes out in a different shape.

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      “YA goes in an a big lump; YA comes out in a different shape.”

      I love this perspective.

      I hope your book club doesn’t also stage fist fights.

  8. TV is a medium, not a genre, so it’s not necessarily a contradiction that Oprah doesn’t watch TV. From what I’ve seen, her show seems to be about the people, places, things, and issues she cares about and wants to share with her viewers, so it makes sense that she would get her inspiration from a variety of sources that might not include TV.

    Writers benefit from non-book sources as well, but there’s no substitute for reading if you want to develop the craft of writing.

  9. I can understand being careful about not reading your own genre during a critical point in drafting, but I don’t think I could live without reading fiction, and specifically ya/mg speculative fiction. I write that stuff because I’m addicted to it, after all!

    When I was writing The Unnameables and needed a relatively archaic narrative voice, I read a little Jane Austen every morning before I started to work. No danger of plaguerizing her, since my characters were far from young English ladies on the marriage mart, but the flow of her language and her use of words was very helpful.

  10. I binge read (as an author, I think it’s important to live up to the stereotype of binging on something). One month, I won’t read, the next I’ll read ten or more books.

    I often don’t read when I’m writing first drafts. Or, if I do, I generally read in a different genre. I find it easier to not get confused or muddled with others in my genre that way.

    I’ve met a number of new and unpublished writers online who talk about how they don’t read, they don’t know what’s popular, they don’t know what folks are buying/selling and I think that it’s so sad. How can you want to making a living off books when you don’t even read them?

    • Parker Peevyhouse

      The marketing considerations add a whole new dimension to this argument. Because you’re right–it’s hard to find your place in the market if you have no idea what’s being sold. I don’t think a writer should be a slave to market trends, but knowing the market helps with business savvy.

  11. I feel exactly the same way, Parker. When I first heard about some writers’ non-reading rituals, it took me aback. Reading high-quality writing always gets me in storytelling mode. And yes, I’ll admit to fantasizing that my words might inspire some reader/writer someday. But um, I’m so far from that right now… okay, back to writing. ;)

    Thanks for a great post!

  12. I found this post incredibly reassuring. I always used to have books that I was reading and writing projects on the go at the same time. But then I read a few books and articles about writing that suggested a writer shouldn’t read while they are working on a project since they will adopt the voice and style of whomever they are reading. I had finished a couple novels, but by the end, I hated all of them. I was ready to try anything to improve my writing. So, I decided to take the advice, and I stopped reading fiction on the days when I was also writing fiction.

    Alas, here’s the thing: I work on my fiction almost every day. And when I’m reading a book, especially if I like it, I want to read almost every day. Having to choose between writing and reading completely messed up my work schedule, so that I went vast amounts of time without doing one or the other.

    No more! I’ve realized that everyone needs to find their own path in writing, and do what works for them. I’m currently working on a novel that I really love, and I think once it is finished (and re-written and re-written), I might finally have completed a project that I am somewhat happy with. And I am getting back into reading, even on the days that I write, and I find it both enjoyable and helpful.

    I guess the old line turns out to be true yet again: You shouldn’t believe everything you read.

    Thanks again so much for this article!

  13. Shaq Newton

    I disagree you don’t have to read novels to become a good writer. All you need is an instruction book and a dictionary.
    You can also use TV, movies, and the Internet. The only time I do read is when I’m forced to do it as a grade in school. I usually find a way to figure out the plot without having to read the book myself.

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