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.