Reading for writers

What must you do to be a writer? There are two things, according to Stephen King in his excellent book On Writing. The first is to ‘read a lot’.

Plenty of writers agree with him. Twenty-two writers provided Dos and Don’ts for the Guardian book Write, and seven of them mention reading. PD James, for example, says,

Read widely and with discrimination.

Hilary Mantel recommends a specific book that has influenced many writers, and I referred to and quoted from it in a recent post about writing routines. She says,

Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible.

Colm Tobin is also specific.

If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane.

And Will Self is typically contrary.

Stop reading fiction – it’s all lies anyway, and it doesn’t have anything to tell you that you don’t know already (assuming, that is, you’ve read a great deal of fiction in the past; if you haven’t you have no business whatsoever being a writer).

These brief points were collected from short pieces in the Guardian Review.

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But what is the purpose of reading for a writer – apart from enjoyment? You might be looking for models, as Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life, tells us

Hemingway studied as models, the novels of Knut Hamsun and Ivan Turgenev. Isaac Bashevis Singer, as it happened, also chose Hamsun and Turgenev as models. Ralph Ellison studied Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. Faulkner described his debt to Sherwood Anderson and Joyce; EM Forster, his debt to Jane Austen and Proust.

I’ve read some of these, know the names of others, and had to look up Sherwood Anderson (I am ashamed to admit). I’ve got some reading to do!

Geoff Dyer, in his contribution to the Guardian supplement How to Write Fiction, suggests that reading will ‘inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life’. (Note: not just your writing, but your writing life).

Reading is not just part of your apprenticeship; it continues to inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life – and it is never passive. … One’s reading does not have to be confined to the commanding – and thereby discouraging – heights of the truly great. Take a look at what’s happening on the lower slopes, even in the crowded troughs.

I especially like Dyer’s advice to look at the lower slopes and even in the troughs, as well as the heights. What works, what doesn’t, what feels authentic, what is hackneyed, clumsy, elegant, elegiac, poignant, daring – we read to find these things. That’s why it is never passive.

Passive reading, then, is not enough. Read with a consciousness of technique, says Ursula K le Guin. Read  the classics in order to learn what a writer can do with the English language. For her book, Steering the Craft, she turned a workshop into a self-guided set of discussion topics and exercises for writers. ‘Reading with a consciousness of technique in mind, would be useful as well as enjoyable,’ she suggests. She goes on to show how in chapters on sound, sentences, point of view, with examples from such classic texts as Jane Eyre, and by Virginia Woolf and Mark Twain.

I particularly like two how-to-write books that feature reading.

First: Jurgen Wolff’s Your Creative Writing Masterclass, which draws on the expertise of writers of novels, screenplays and short stories to provide material for his masterclass.

Charles Dickens drops in to demonstrate how to create exciting characters, Ernest Hemingway helps you figure out how to write concisely and powerfully, and Jane Austen shows you how to warm to an unsympathetic character…

The chapter on conflict, for example, refers to John le Carre, Ayn Rand, Elizabeth Bowen and Raymond Chandler. A wide choice, and some names recur.

Second: Reading Like a Writer: a guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them was written by the felicitously named Francine Prose. She argues for close, slow and careful reading in this way.

With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word. Because one important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses note, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted,

And she demonstrates the value of close reading by exploring the opening paragraph of Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard To Find. And so on, through chapters about sentences, paragraphs, narration, character, dialogue and gesture, each liberally illustrated with examples. Each one a reason to read more. And she includes three pages on books to be read immediately, including Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway and others already mentioned. Nothing by Sherwood Anderson however.

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Have you heard the advice to aspiring writers that they should not read while writing? The argument is that they will be influenced by what they read. I wonder why it is considered a bad thing. My writing would definitely benefit from the influences of Jane Austen, Elizabeth Taylor and, maybe, from Sherwood Anderson. And we are not writing in isolation. The very words we use have been wrought by use, their meanings shifting with use by speakers, readers and writers. We write, so to speak, into the tradition of previous writers: in forms, structures, conventions, techniques, vocabulary all of it. Think of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. She is sending up the gothic novel, but she is also writing about reading and its influence. Or we are writing to challenge the traditions, or boundaries. Think of the writers who consciously forged new forms like Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, for example; or who experiment with time lines (Patrick Gale’s A Perfectly Good Man); or with our established ideas of what fiction is (WG Sebald) and so on.

I am just finishing the revisions of a co-authored non-fiction book. (More on this in later posts). Our editor asked us to give our draft manuscript ‘more edge’ and I found a great example in Charlie Brooker’s I can make you hate. Reading his columns helped us understand how to engage the reader more directly, to find a hook for the chapter, how juxtaposing apparently unconnected things (eg: Nick Clegg, Maxine Carr and the go compare tenor; Nick Clegg and Pudsey Bear; patriotism and chocolate) can pique interest and make serious points with wit. We didn’t want to imitate his style, but we learned from his approach, and I got to fume about a number of topics (but not to hate).

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Let’s return to Stephen King.

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

So the second rule for writers is ‘Write’. There are only two rules.

What books are inform, stimulate and invigorate your writing life?

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