September 13, 2011

On Writers Reading

There is a plague upon the land, my friends. You probably didn’t notice it, what with all the natural disasters, political shenanigans, and football going on. But it’s important enough to be discussed in the vague sort of terms usually reserved for nebulous terrorist threats. Brace yourself. Are you sitting down?

Some people say that there are would be writers out there who “don’t read.” See, even Salon is writing about it!

Take a moment. Breathe. It will be all right, I promise.

Not because writers who don’t read wouldn’t be a problem. I’m just not convinced that such people exist. Or even could. Now, I’ll concede that there are some non-reader people out there who wake up one day and say to themselves, “Self, I’m going to write a novel.” He or she will set upon the task and . . . fail miserably. We will never be subjected to the result, even in the ever widening world of electronic on demand publishing.

But I think it’s impossible for anyone who seriously wants to write a novel, short story, play or whatever to have never read one. How would you even know what you wanted to do if you didn’t have some idea of what it was? For most things, you could just go read a book. You can do that with writing, too (as an overstuffed shelf in my library can attest), but then you’re reading. So, I don’t think it’s actually possible to write without reading.

What I really think people are saying when they fret about writers not reading is that either aspiring writers don’t read enough or they don’t read the right things. The first may be true, but I’ve yet to see any evidence, at least that matters. If someone who doesn’t read all that much writes a book or play and it’s awful, who cares? Only professional critics, I suppose, who have to read those things for work. I don’t think it says anything meaningful about writers whose work is actually read by something resembling a wide audience. When someone without any real reading background poots forth the next Harry Potter or whatever, get back to me.

In addition, given the explosion of media platforms in the 21st century, stories are being told in more numerous and interesting ways. Writing is, for most of us, about telling stories, rather than the pure mechanics of writing itself. With that in mind, writers can learn a lot from movies or TV or other places and improve the finished product of their writing. To suggest that writers only learn from reading is near sighted in a 19th-century kind of way.

My suspicion – completely without evidence, I’ll admit – is that when critics complain that writers these days don’t read what they’re really saying is they don’t read what they, the critics, think they should. That doesn’t strike me as a very valid complaint. I don’t read esoteric modern literary fiction, but I don’t write it, either. I write science fiction and fantasy stuff which, it also happens, is primarily what I read, at least for fun. Why should it be any different? John Scalzi’s advice is sound: write a story you would want to read. If you really don’t want to read anything, you won’t write anything.

I will say this, however, on the side of those who freak out about this supposed problem. Writing, like any art, is more craft than mystic creative experience. Few people are able to simply sit down, summon a muse, and whip out anything worth reading. They people do exist and the rest of us hate them, trust me. But for the vast majority of us, who have to learn how to do it like we learned to do anything else, seeing how other people do it is invaluable. And I’m pretty sure anybody who takes the whole enterprise seriously knows that.

So, really, everything’s all right. Continue your lives untroubled, my friends.

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