Monday, November 15, 2010

What Writers Read

I recently wrote about the importance of reading for writers. That, naturally, leads to the question of what to read.

Reading preference is a subjective matter. Still I thought it might be interesting to consider the choices of some of my favorite authors and see what they have to say on the matter.

One might think a writer of mysteries would have an affinity for that genre. Yet in an article (archive article, originally published in 1987) in the December issue of The Writer Ruth Rendell remarks that she no longer reads crime fiction. Instead she said she “reads and rereads” the great Victorian classics. Her recommendation for all who aspire to write is Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”. And Rendell says she reads this one book annually.

Though he admits to having grown up with the Hardy Boys, James Lee Burke lists among his favorite writers Faulkner, Joyce and Hemingway (see favorites of many writers in “The Top Ten, Writers Pick Their Favorite Books”, edited by J. Peder Zane).

Elizabeth George in “Write Away” identifies Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as her favorite novel but says her greatest influence as a writer was John Fowles. Fowles himself was a great admirer of Thomas Love Peacock, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus and Thomas Hardy.

Robert Louis Stevenson also spoke highly of Defoe, in addition to Alexandre Dumas and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Jim Harrison puts Dostoevsky, Proust, Emily Bronte and Herman Melville high on his list. John Irving also has praise for Dickens, Hardy and Melville. Another personal favorite, Peter Matthiessen, admits an admiration for Conrad, Dostoevsky and the other great Russians.

Referring again to “The Top Ten,” I was pleased to see some of my favorite books on so many of the lists. These included (in no particular order), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne, “Candide” by Voltaire, “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, “Dubliners” by James Joyce, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky and “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I was shocked none of the writers mentioned Fowles, Matthiessen or John Gardner (author of “The Sunlight Dialogues,” not the other one).

So what books should you be reading? I’d say anything and everything. But most importantly those which inspire you to re-reading and better writing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Reading for Profit

One of the key ingredients of advice to aspirant writers is to read.

The neophyte might then ask, what am I to read? Does it mean how-to books? Books written by the advisor? What?

My personal feeling is a writer should read the types of books he or she wishes to write. Most would-be writers are already readers. Inspired by the books they read for pleasure or edification, they strive to emulate, feeding both an innate need and a desire to share their thoughts and imaginings with others.

What moves a person to become a writer or engage in other creative activities is a matter for the psychologist and not our interest here. What is obvious is not every person who loves to read becomes or wants to become a writer. What is also obvious is the person who wants to write will eventually do so, regardless of advice or lack thereof.

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t a reader. I think most of us would agree it was a love of reading that first stimulated our desire to write. But I’m constantly surprised by the number of writers who fail to profit by their reading. Some read only for entertainment. Others read for instruction. The good writer/reader can and should do both. And there are more than a few ways to profit. Reading properly can improve your writing ability, stimulate your creativity and put more dollars in your pocket.

How, then, should a writer read? The answer, of course, is alertly. No writer worth his/her salt should ever read without a notebook at hand.

As Dumas put it a long time ago: Writing can not be taught; it can only be learned. One learns, initially, by reading. Anything you read will influence your writing style, either consciously or subconsciously. That’s why many novelists refrain from reading while working on a book. However, it has been found that reading good writing can provide the impetus for recharging the creative juices when you’re stalled or suffering a block. Even junk can be beneficial, but if you want to do creative writing, then you should read the best writing available. You can improve your style, your language and rhythm by the subconscious influence of good literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson advised, “When you read a book or a passage you admire, immediately set yourself to aping it so that you may capture the flavor of it.”

Some might frown on this as plagiarism. But that wasn’t what RLS meant. What he suggested was a concept no different than the training methods of the great masters of art and music. Art imitates nature and, it follows, art imitates art as well. Stevenson felt by copying an admired passage one gained insight into what made it work.

Charles Nodier, a lesser known writer, suggested, “A writer should read until he is filled to the brim and like a pitcher which is over-filled overflows, and then he should write.”