Recently I received a questionnaire via Facebook: ‘You have been selected to receive this meme because someone thinks you are a literary geek.’ There followed a series of questions about reading experience and preferences. I answered honestly, despite the fact that this revealed to my writer friends the yawning gaps in my reading. I may be a literary geek, but I’m an unbalanced one.
One of the first pieces of advice I give to aspiring writers is that they should read as widely as possible, not just within the genre they love / admire / want to write in. I am often shocked that some people who aspire to be professional writers read so narrowly. For young fantasy writers in particular, their book diet frequently stays within that genre, with perhaps a bit of science fiction or horror for variety. I do my best to explain that a broad reading diet allows writers to pick up a bigger vocabulary, a richer range of styles and structures, and a whole armoury of literary techniques and storytelling tricks. All this is valuable to a person, not as a fantasy writer or a thriller writer or a literary writer, but as a writer. Sure, you will learn something about writing fantasy by reading fantasy, especially if you select with some discrimination. This may enable you to turn out an acceptable, probably rather derivative novel. But you won’t write as interesting, as original, as satisfying a book as you would if your reading diet had been richer.
Many of my best story ideas have been sparked by non-fiction books or by newspaper or periodical articles. I may not aspire to write literary fiction, but I have learned a great deal about technique and breadth of vision from literary writers like David Mitchell (author of the magnificent Cloud Atlas) and master storyteller Jose Saramago. I’ve learned about pacing by reading mysteries and thrillers; I’ve filled a big basket with narrative skills picked up by reading folklore of one kind or another. I’ve learned about precision in writing by reading poetry. In my overall reading diet, I reckon fantasy (the genre in which my work is generally placed) makes up at most 10%.
The literary geek questionnaire reminded me how important early reading habits are in shaping a writer’s approach. A writer’s language, vocabulary and storytelling style are loosely formed from childhood reading, then broaden and deepen with exposure to new and varied reading material as an adult. I was lucky in many ways: as a child I had an excellent public library close to home, I had parents who loved books, and later I was involved with a fantastic local theatre where a repertoire from Aeschylus to Chekhov to Tennessee Williams was available. At my government, all-girls high school, the students put on a fully staged Shakespeare production annually, and in the ‘academic’ stream we studied a Shakespeare play each year, as well as classic English novelists and poets.
In those days (the 1960s) the curriculum for English Literature in New Zealand high schools was firmly based on English material. I don’t remember studying much of our own literature apart from Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield, and there were no Maori writers in the syllabus. Few American authors featured. I think we still considered ourselves a sort of England-away-from-home (or Scotland, in the case of my home town, Dunedin.) As a result, my knowledge of American literature was limited to childhood classics like Little Women and Huckleberry Finn, and to the aforementioned Tennessee Williams plays. At university I chose Anglo-Saxon and Old English, followed by the Elizabethan and Jacobean period.
Did I take steps to amend this later? Not fully. The Facebook questions revealed an embarrassing gap in my novel reading: I have never read anything by Roth or Updike (I could add a number of other classic American writers.) There are gaps in my acquaintance with Australian fiction, too. If no longer England-obsessed, I’ve remained Eurocentric in my tastes. There are exceptions. One of my reading highlights for this year was The Secret History by Donna Tartt, a novel I’d delayed reading because I thought it would be pretentiously literary. Boy, was I wrong! If you want a masterly lesson in suspenseful storytelling, read this book.
As writers, we continue to read and we continue to learn. Here’s a challenge for the Writer Unboxed community: identify a significant gap in your fiction reading, and the rest of us will recommend a book to fill it. I’m up for suggestions of an American classic. (I have read Moby Dick.)
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