There have been a couple of Twitter threads that have grabbed my attention in recent weeks. Both were from writers questioning the oft-cited need for them to read. I’m very much of the opinion that they should but what interested me most was that the question was even being asked. Not that it shouldn’t be asked, of course, and writers, of all people, should be the ones asking questions on any and all topics.
Perhaps it is best to begin with a disclaimer, as seems to be the terminal fashion these days. I agree with the original tweets in that you don’t need to read to be a writer. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say continue to read as that is primarily how anyone learns the trade in the first place. Depending on the level and quality of education we manage to accrue, we might have found ourselves getting schooled in the intricacies of grammar, spelling and the various building blocks of linguistic construction. We may even have received some lessons on narrative design, story, plot etc. But really, we all learned to write by reading, by consuming our favourite authors at an age when obsession with our favourite books can become wonderfully all-consuming. Whatever writer I am has been formed by those first influences, in my case, probably Arthur Conan Doyle, Franklin W Dickson, Harry Harrison and Terrance Dicks. And no matter what I do, what I write, they will remain in the core DNA of my style.
But once you learn the core principles — principles, it’s worth adding that, a few fundamentals aside, are appreciably different for every individual and therefore lending more weight to the idea that we learn to write by osmosis rather than instruction — there’s nothing to stop you going off and creating on your own, without reading a single word by anyone else. If you write, you’re a writer, that surely is beyond debate. No one can — or should — guilt you into feeling that you’re somehow deficient because you’re not also getting through a novel a week.
The tyranny of the watchlist
And it is understandable that people might feel tyrannised by the pressure to read more books. One of the key challenges facing a struggling publishing industry is that there is far greater competition for people’s attention. Once you might get through a number of novels because their great portability meant they were ideal for the commute, for killing time in waiting rooms, or even while you were waiting to meet someone. In many of these situations the only real rival for your attention was the newspaper, another medium that’s faced a dramatic digital decline. Now, far more people in these situations will turn to their streaming watchlists rather than a paperback. And the tyranny of the ever-expanding watchlist is in many ways just as bad as that of the unread novel, so it’s unsurprising if there’s a feeling that something, somewhere, has got to give.
And yet, and yet, I can’t help but feel uneasy. Because it’s not as if that process of osmosis ever ends. Hemingway described writing as a trade in which all are apprentices and none are ever masters. Yes, you might have mastered sentence construction, have a decent-ish vocabulary under your belt but that isn’t the end of the matter. It’s an ongoing process. We improve and we learn from others. If nothing else, reading others is the best way, perhaps only way, to develop problem-solving skills in our own technique. If you don’t read, you run the risk of becoming stuck at a premature stage in your development as a writer. To throw another quote in (this time William Faulkener), the writer ‘must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.’ There’s a question of respect to your readers here. If you want to be read then it’s beholden to you to be the best writer you can possibly be, not the best writer you were when you decided not to bother reading anymore. And speaking personally again, the writers I mentioned above might form the core building blocks of my writing style but if I hadn’t moved beyond them to absorb the works of the Brontës, of Iain Banks, of Jonathan Franzen, of Meg Wolitzer, of Jean Rhys, of Tolstoy, of Hemingway, of Fitzgerald etc. etc. then that style would have suffered, would have seemed oddly undeveloped (although again emphasising the point that no ideal state of ‘final development’ ever can exist).
A never-ending process
That some writers seem to be railing against this process offers an at least partial answer to something that I’ve been noticing for some time — that there’s quite a few, often highly regarded, books out there where the prose is so bland. The common euphemism is ‘wipe clean’ prose which I just take to mean ‘workmanlike and forgettable’. Now, there is an argument here that prose should be forgettable, that it is the invisible architecture that’s merely there as the transmission vector for story itself but I’m not sure it’s as easy as that. For one thing, if your prose is too basic and clumsy then that will ultimately call attention to itself. Another defence might be that you consider yourself a genre writer of some kind that genre writing because it was traditionally written for speed rather than expression tends to be less polished. But I’d argue that this doesn’t really stand up either in a world where there’s far more bleed between genre and literary fiction. And beside which, if you look at the great proponents in any given genre, Douglas Adams, say, or Conan Doyle or Raymond Chandler or Charlotte Bronte or Daphne Du Maurier, you will see that they have taken great care with their prose style and rendered it on the page with deceptive precision. But there are many novels I’ve read of late that have excellent ideas and brilliant characterisation but which I have found all but forgotten moments after finishing the last page. In the same way that a certain stays with us because of its particular marriage of subject and expression, the novels that stay with us do so not just because we happened to like the story but because the very way the story was told, in the precision of its language, the uniqueness of its insight, happened to resonate with us also.
But if you want a more prosaic (arf) reason for making regular reading a part of your writing schedule, how about market? Your book is never going to exist in isolation, regardless of subject matter or genre, and it surely pays to understand what else is out there and how your creative peers are approaching the same themes, where they are succeeding, where they are failing and where you might fit into that literary eco-structure.
But finally, let me offer one last appeal to your better nature. You should read others because you want to be read yourself. If you’re too busy to read books, why do you think anyone else is going to be different? There’s a question to be asked here — and this is not an accusation and not something you have to justify to others in any way — but if you don’t want to read books then why exactly do you want to be a writer in the first place? What is drawing you to literature. And perhaps it’s worth remembering Wilde’s aphorism ‘in the old days books were written by men of letters and read by the public. Nowadays books are written by the public and read by nobody’. It should go without saying that when the flippancy of aphorism becomes commonplace then we’re all screwed, writers and readers alike.