Read Out

Writers should probably not read while they’re writing–at least they shouldn’t read the kind of work they’re in the process of making.  It’s too easy to let a phrase–or an idea or a wee plot line–slide from one work to another, not to mention the time squandered reading another author’s fiction.  Most writers are compulsive readers, however, and it would be agony to live through the time needed to write a 75,000 word novel without reading something other than the back of the cereal box (or the daily blog).  I am an even more compulsive reader than most writers, so the question of writer-safe reading material raises its head often.

I’m not talking about the reading associated with researching a novel, though plowing through all that can be a happy distraction from the pain of writing.  The advent of the Internet has cost Powell’s Books a healthy sum.  When I start research on a mystery these days, I no longer feel obliged to buy volumes dealing with plant poisons or exotic daggers or primogeniture.  Mind you, it’s not that I object to buying books, no, indeed, it’s just that the plant poison tome and its auxiliaries are not the sort of books I want to keep for future generations.  Hoorah for Wikipedia.

Writer-safe recreational reading:  cookbooks? poetry? guides to plants or geology or waterfalls?  Those are close to safe reading.  All of us have on-going interests.  In my case, pre-history pulls me in, especially anything to do with stone and bronze age art.  I also have a vague, unfocused interest in wild edible plants.  And music through the ages–the singing Neanderthals.  Subjects like that can be almost absorbing enough to still the urge to read three-volume historical sagas or the latest roman a clef.  Almost.

The hunger for  narrative can be satisfied with history and biography.  The unkind may assert that both are forms of fiction.  Autobiography, which offers the author the choice of lying about events and lying about self, is most satisfying, with some self-portraits of actors and politicians reaching the heights of fantasy.  Travel-writing is a special autobiographical treat.  Look at Dickens’s account of his travels in American and Mark Twain’s version of Europe.  Consider what they say about America and Europe–and what they say about Twain and Dickens.

Ultimately, though, I thirst for unabashed fiction.  Anybody’s.  Well, maybe not Dan Brown.  One advantage of advancing age is loss of memory.  I can now reread my old favorites without falling asleep, and, increasingly, those are the books I read while I’m writing fiction.  Are they safe?  I don’t know.  They remind me that fiction is a mental experiment, a way of finding out how people behave, and they remind me to tell the truth about my imaginary constructs.  For some people, fiction is a way of living.

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4 Responses

  1. This is sage advice! As writers I think we have to learn what interferes with our process. But for me, it;s very specific. If I’m working on my mystery series, for example, I won’t read any first person narrative fiction at all, and sometimes I won’t even read a memoir or travelogue. I won’t want to hear anyone else’s intimate voice in my head while I’m trying to listen to my own narrator’s. That leaves biography, history, psychology, politics, cultural affairs, art, religion, you name it.

    BTW, if you want a hilarious 19th century account by someone English traveling in America, go back before Dickens and Reading Fanny Trollope’s The Domestic Manners of the Americans. She was not a happy camper, and the results are very entertaining.

    • Thanks.  I should have mentioned confusion of voice as one of the problems with unsafe reading.

      Frederick Law Olmsted and Herman Melville both did walking tours of England and wrote wonderful accounts of the rural countryside before it was covered with motorways and houses.  And both of them come across as likeable human beings.

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