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.


  1. Great post as always John.I was always told, "if you want to write, you must read." But when? For heaven sake! When I do have time I like to read across genres. If it looks good, sounds good and the first page captures me, I read it!

  2. I read many of the classics in my early years and I'm sure they influenced my writing. However, in a competitive market such as mystery, I feel it's important to keep on top of current writers. I focus on the break-out writers, like Kelli Stanley, who I met just prior to her many awards.

    Note that the authors you listed have established careers. They are leading the pack and we should be reading their works.

    However, my guilty pleasure is historical fiction, especially the Tudor period. That's what I read when I'm full up with mysteries.

  3. Hi John,
    Great blog. I was always told that if you want to be a good writer you have to read, read and read some more.



  4. Hi, John,

    Lately, I've been reading contemporary southern writers. Karen White is one of them whose work I enjoy. Classically speaking, I've enjoyed Wuthering Heights, Little Women, Anne of Green Gables, and anything by Twain. I have others, but I'll limit this list. I've always been a reader which I think has helped me to write.

  5. Although I like to write mysteries, I don't just like to read them. I have a fondness for classics and romance and everything in between.


  6. I read primarily for enjoyment. What I enjoy reading are hardboiled mysteries and Westerns --- the genres in which I also write.
    Every couple of years I go back and re-read "Huck Finn", which I think stands the test as being one of the greatest novels of all time. That's about it for me as far as reading "classics" (unless you count "pulp classics" such as those penned by Burroughs, Howard, Rohmer, and the like --- which I also re-visit from time to time).
    As far as finding the time to read, I consider it a necessity akin to feeding fuel into a fire --- the fire that burns within any writer. I find that I need to read on a regular basis in order to keep stoking the fire that made me want to be a writer in the first place.