Why You Should Read
Dear Friday Five-O,
OK, I get it. If I’m a fiction writer, I should read more fiction. Everyone says this, and I understand the spiritual reasons I should be supporting other writers by reading them. But what are the practical benefits of reading fiction? In other words, how exactly will reading 10 more novels a year help me write a better novel?
Judy, to me, a writer who doesn’t like to read is like a chef who doesn’t enjoy food or an interior designer who doesn't like being inside or an actor who doesn't enjoy narcissism. But, since you asked, I will lay out the reasons—as I see them—why one should read—actively—in their field of choice.
(Note: Allie’s going to tackle the idea of reading like a writer in a future Five-O, so I’m going to be more of a blunt instrument here, and really just explain why one has to read at all.)
The Spiritual Reasons
First of all, you’re right. There’s a karmic thing happening, but to me, that applies to purchasing books. I try, whenever possible, to buy a book at a reading or buy the books by people who I’ve met at conferences, or folks from Grub, etc. I feel very strongly about this, and it’s led me, of course, to having an empty wallet and a mountain of books. I don’t ever think I can have too many books. Until I move.
You may mean, in addition, that there’s something spiritual happening in the act of reading, and I think this is true, too. There’s something about hearing the small creak of the binding when you open a new book, and leafing through until you hit that first sentence. I started a new book this morning, actually, and it gave me a little shiver.
Finishing a book also lets us know the spirits have been in the room. The emptiness, the sadness, that accompanies turning that last page and letting the spine resume its natural state is the same feeling of the last day of school, a confusing What now? Your world is gone.
If you don’t get that rush from reading and you still want to be a writer, I find that a little confusing. Is this a practical concern? No. But books aren’t practical at all. You can’t eat them, they provide very little shelter, and they contain close to no water.
The Commercial Reasons
It’s useful, Judy, to know what’s selling, and what editors are acquiring and agents are repping. This may seem crass, and it is, but if you want writing to be your vocation, this knowledge will be of use to you.
Does this mean you should change your writing to suit the market? No. By the time you finish something and it goes to an agent and an editor, the landscape has already shifted, so it’s a fruitless pursuit. Knowing what’s out there, though, and the personalities of the people who hold publishing in their grasp and their likes and dislikes is crucial.
My agent, for example, sold a book that was not similar to mine, but was written by a young writer who had similar influences and interests; our roots are the same, but what has grown out of them is very different. Still, it seemed an indicator of this agent’s taste, and he liked my book enough to bring me on board, and he’s been wonderful. Had I not been reading actively, I would never have known he would be a fit. Instead, I would have flipped through one of those Find an Agent Fast! kind of guides basically blind, plopped my finger down, and hoped that they happened to like depressing fiction set at the turn of the century filled with murder and ice.
The Artistic Reasons
Can you imagine an architect saying, “You know what? I’ve seen enough buildings. Walls, roofs, floors, gotcha. I’m going to stay inside and just design my own.” Or a doctor saying, “I’m sure there’s lots of new medicine and research happening, but I’m good. I’ve got my leeches and my poster of the humours and I’m all set.” To me, this is the same as wanting to write and not reading.
Among my students who are writing short fiction, I could tell you with 99% accuracy which ones actually read short fiction. It’s not a lot. But the rhythms and structure of a short story are much, much different from that of a novel. Most of these novel-reading stories begin at a leisurely pace, a novel pace, and then get all in a rush to wrap themselves up in the last few pages. A short story begins and ends as a short story. It knows itself and its mission from word one. My point is, if this difference between reading different types of fiction can have such a great impact on a writer, imagine the impact of not spending enough time between the pages at all.
Until you see how others construct sentences and paragraphs and pages and chapters, how can you construct your own? This work is never done. Every book is a learning experience, whether it’s what to do or what not to do. Not every page has to change your life, but it should change your perspective.
Constant shifting of tastes and expectations and measuring against the rest of the field is what keeps writers fresh. Otherwise, what are you doing? Reading nothing but your own work? I don’t see how one improves that way. My greatest leaps as a writer have always come when I’ve been reading critically, everything from published literature to the slush piles from the various magazines I’ve worked for. As I said, not everything needs to be great. Or good. Or decent. Some of it can be completely horrible. There are lessons everywhere.
The honest truth, Judy, is that every great writer I know, every writer I’ve ever admired or been jealous of, is a great reader. There’s a reason you hear this refrain over and over. It’s because it’s true.
My Nagging Thought
When I hear from students that they’re not big readers of fiction, or of novels, I ask what they do read. And I encourage them to try those disciplines. There’s nothing wrong with poetry or journalism or radio scripts or limericks. For most of these students, when I check back to see how things are going, it’s as if they’ve been wearing the wrong size shoes, and once they settle into a field that interests them more, everything fits. If it feels like harsh medicine to you to read a novel, then try something different. I don’t mean to sound callous or mean or squash anyone’s dreams, but I guess I don’t see what the point is when the end product of the dream is something you don’t enjoy anyway. I love films, adore them, and I tried screenwriting for a while, but it wasn’t for me. How did I know? It felt like work. So find something you do enjoy, something that makes you miss your stop on the train or forget you were supposed to pick up your dry cleaning and the pursuit of it should feel less like work and more like living. Rarely will it be practical. That’s what makes it so much fun.
Best of luck,
James Scott's debut novel, The Kept, will be published by Harper in 2014. He earned his MFA from Emerson College and his BA from Middlebury College. His fiction has been published in Ploughshares, Post Road, One Story, American Short Fiction, and Memorious among others, anthologized by flatmancrooked, and nominated for the Best New American Voices Anthology and the Pushcart Prize. He has received awards from Yaddo, the Sewanee Writers' Conference, the St. Botolph's Club, the Tin House Writers' Conference, the New York State Summer Writers' Institute, VCCA, and the Millay Colony for the Arts. James has worked for various production companies and publications, Bob Vila productions, and the Boston Red Sox. A former fiction editor of Redivider and issue editor for One Story, he currently writes for the magazine Under the Radar. Learn more at www.jamesscottwriter.com.See other articles by James Scott