There’s this strange idea that writers should only read the so-called good stuff to be good writers themselves. While it is true that what we read effects us as writers, it’s not a good idea to read just the classics to develop your skills as a writer. Let me unpack the myth of the elevating power of classical literature and explain the benefits of reading outside that cannon.
A writer runs into a lot of this in the academic sphere. Professors, even creative writing professors, swear that by reading less “quality” work, i.e. work that they deem unacceptable teaching material, a young writer is doing themselves a disservice by lowering the quality of their own writing. This bothers me because, well, cannon is too easily effected by what is considered acceptable. Native American, African-American, etc. and women’s fiction didn’t used to be thought acceptable. Now some colleges teach Ceremony, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Beloved, The Color Purple, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and more, but we can’t trust that they aren’t still under-representing certain voices or simply judging books by their genre instead of by their contents. It’s also a silly idea that we can’t learn from the mistakes of others. If I read a bad novel, I can articulate what it did wrong. That’s a good thing. That makes me a better writer. One playwright that taught me said that the best thing for him as a writer was being a literary manager at a theatre and reading bad plays that were submitted.
Also, let’s not pretend that Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, The Turn of the Screw, The Pilgrim’s Progress, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, Invisible Man, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Jane Eyre, Ulysses, To the Lighthouse, and so many other books of fiction are without flaws and are written in the style that modern writers should aspire to, as if modern readers want contemporary work written in those archaic styles (maybe some of them do). But contemporary work is hardly taught in modern classrooms, and some of that isn’t what I would consider masterpieces either, like The Road by Cormac McCarthy or Under the Dome by Stephen King (and I like Stephen King). Some of the cannon is absolutely awesome and definitely worth reading as a writer, but don’t start writing like Henry James!
US writers definitely need to read work from other countries, and by other countries, I don’t just mean the UK. Some of the best works of fiction out there weren’t written in English: The Tin Drum, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Bless Me Ultima, The Metamorphosis, Midnight’s Children, Blindness, Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, and so much more, more that I haven’t read, more that I can’t remember. US writing, like any cultural art form, often gets stuck on the same narrative tropes and structures. Part of the reason that House of Leaves is so good is that Danielewski clearly read some of Borges’ short stories. Tropes, techniques, and plot structures are all almost entirely culturally inherited. Reading work outside your culture is an absolute boon for you as a writer. In fact, experiencing narrative work of any medium from outside your culture is helpful, movies and TV shows help too! While everything will go through an extra sieve of translation, the major plot techniques and character archetypes will be there even after translation (most of the time). So I strongly suggest reading foreign fiction to expand what you consider fiction.
So it’s not fiction, but it is prose. There’s also this old saying for writers: Write what you know. And you should (try to) know more. Teaching yourself about new things, learning about different perspectives, and researching history and culture will help you be a better writer. It’s especially important for preventing looking like a jackass. If you don’t know about cars, but your character is supposed to, you don’t want to write something that makes a reader who does know about cars go “uuuuh . . .”. Writers who don’t research are very obvious, and while the idea that we as fiction writers can just make anything up is tempting, it looks bad if having never been to Kansas, you describe it in a way that is cliche. It reminds me of all the cowboys I see in Phoenix fiction. I’ve never seen a person walking around in a cowboy hat and string tie here. In fact, I didn’t see much of that in Kansas either. So it’s important to prevent stereotype through the use of research, and sometimes that means reading nonfiction, or going even further (like learning to play the guitar, shoot a firearm, or going to a place). Nonfiction is also a great source of inspiration. Maybe someone has already written on the subject, but you haven’t, and maybe your version is better. It’s a good idea to give it a shot, even if ten other writers have already written a Pearl Harbor story. Take a chance that your story is worth reading.
I really don’t understand the hate that genre fiction, specifically westerns, romance and chick lit, sci-fi, and fantasy, gets. “Oh, there’s so many of those novels that are bad!” Yeah, and there’s a lot of bad classic, literary, commercial, and award-winning novels out there. Just because an award committee or a bestseller curator or the academic crowd says a novel is worth reading, doesn’t mean it is good, not by looking at the technique and skill in the novel. I’ve read plenty of bad fiction that was taught in academic classes, made the bestseller lists, and won awards. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road comes to mind as landing in all three of those categories but having very little narrative skill and technique involved. It wasn’t engaging. The characters were flat. The prose was uninteresting. The dialogue was insufferable. “But it has something to say!” Every work of creation has something to say, has intent. That doesn’t mean it is good. Even if you like the message, it doesn’t make the work good. And genre doesn’t automatically mean that a novel is bad. There are actually some genre novels that I consider technically better than those that are considered better novels based on theme alone. I do think theme is important, but I do not think it can prop up a novel alone, or any form of narrative. Without the support of strong narrative plot, character development, prose, and emotional engagement, a theme is useless. The four things listed in the previous sentence are what makes a novel enjoyable, and the theme is what makes the reader think. I’ve seen genre fiction do these four things and present a theme. So don’t count out genre simply because someone with an inflated sense of authority tells you it isn’t good. And don’t assume that same someone isn’t pulling one over on you when they say this book is good when you can’t stand it. Don’t think that makes you a lesser writer for not loving it. Recognize the faults in everything you read, and be willing to give something with a label a chance. And even if the genre fiction you’re reading isn’t good, you can still learn from it and be a better writer for having read it.
Fiction Outside Your Demo
Say you’re a woman, your demographic typically reads literary or upmarket fiction, women’s lit, chickl it, or romance. Well, if you’re also a writer, you should probably read thrillers, war novels, westerns, and terrorism novels as well. And the same for the reverse. If you’re white and a writer, you should probably also read books by Native Americans (There, There; Ceremony; Where the Dead Sit Talking), African Americans (Friday Black, Beloved, There Eyes Were Watching God, The Color Purple), Asian Americans (The Joy Luck Club, Interpreter of Maladies, The Refugees), Hispanic Americans (The House on Mango Street, The Book of Unknown Americans), and others. And the reverse, though that’s not very hard in the US. Why is this important? Even if you are a minority and if you’re in the majority, it’s important to see many other sides. Everyone’s story is important; otherwise, they wouldn’t have sat down to write it and tried to get it published. So take the time to learn what they have to say. Take the effort to learn why people like it. Examine what makes it good, what makes it successful. Don’t take easy answers either. Most writers, unless nepotism is involved, work hard to get their novels published. There are millions of us, and it’s easy to be lost in the shuffle of query letters, so ask yourself what this writer brought to the table that got them published. Ask yourself what the publisher saw in the work. Ask yourself what our society wanted out of the work. The answers may surprise you. And don’t write off majority reading as just what a bunch of old fogies chose either (counter to the above section). Be willing to let the so-called cannon surprise you too. Also read Middle Grade and Young Adult novels. Some of them are great and the writing may impress you.
A teacher once told me that a wife can’t also be a whore which–besides not being literally true–is figuratively false. Read popular fiction. Seriously pick it up. It’s not going to ruin you. You may actually pick up something from it too. Like why so many people bought it in the first place. I don’t read a lot of it myself, but that isn’t because I don’t find it valuable, but because trends and I react like holy water and vampires, but I can understand why a lot of people find it engaging. Popular fiction isn’t known for its prose, but it’s certainly know for its engaging plots and interesting concepts. These are important things to know how to craft. Your prose can be really poetic, but if your plot isn’t engaging or interesting, you may not be able to hold a reader. So check out some popular fiction. I honestly have, and the techniques that make this fiction popular are important. But do not do what John Grisham did and read all the bestsellers to find out how to craft one every time you write a novel. You risk losing your spontaneity by doing that.
No, I don’t mean violently graphic or sexually graphic fiction (but read those too). No, I mean graphic novels, comic books, and mangas. Wait! Don’t click away! The Watchmen won a Hugo award, comic books have a long history of social commentary directed at the youth, and mangas open you up to completely new to you cultures. This form of storytelling is just as viable as prose fiction. Some of it can be very impactful. Don’t knock the medium just because it is different. It has it own techniques and heights of skill. They can also help you write action, create an epic story, and describe setting. How? Well, take your time looking at the panels, really examine the images, and consider how the image could be translated into words. Also enjoy the very differing art styles. No, the stories aren’t Shakespeare.
Except, apparently, when they are.
Jeeze, maybe it’s Shakespeare more often than I thought.
Seriously though, there can be some great inspiration and technique to be gained from visual storytelling. So give it a chance. Don’t be surprised if the first few dips into the giant depths that is graphic fiction aren’t all that appealing. Like any medium there can be quite a few stinkers. I mean, have you ever tried to read The Gutbucket Quest?
Learning from Reading
As a writer, you can learn from reading anything. Literally anything. Literary anything. Even bad things. But to do so, you have to be looking at the work with your craft eye open. I do this with other forms of storytelling as well, TV, film, plays. Reading (or watching) something while thinking about what it is doing with craft, what the author’s intent is, what the work is meant to do, and how it goes about doing it, can teach you how to write better. But it is important to separate your reading time and writing time from each other, as in don’t write on the heels of reading. Doing this could make your work sound imitative. This is the biggest pitfall of a lot of reading. But, otherwise, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. It’s the most important thing you can do for yourself as a writer.