Reading matters

by Paul Burman

One of the best pieces of advice offered to aspiring and emerging writers, I’ve found, is to read. To read as much as possible. To read widely and wildly! To gorge on books! Particularly, to read anything that’s close to the type of writing one aspires to write.

And I’m always gob-smacked when I hear someone announce that, although they want to write, they don’t bother to read because they don’t enjoy it. To me, it sounds like an apprentice Cordon Bleu chef declaring they only eat McDonalds. Why write if you have no taste for literature?

It can of course be a bitter-sweet experience to read something so superbly written that it leaves you wondering whether you’ll ever be able to produce anything half as good. Or frustrating, when you discover a recent release has a very similar plot to something you’ve been concocting for three years (although screenplays have a habit of doing this to me).

Those novels which are outstandingly delicious are always worth revisiting a second or third time, however, to see how they work and why they work. Sometimes they have to be savoured more slowly so as to identify what ingredients have gone into them, and there’s a wonderful learning curve involved in discovering what these are and in trying to use them oneself.

And, at the other end of the scale, there’s so much to be learnt from picking up those books that, after 40 or 80 pages, you’re more than ready to push to one side because they just don’t satisfy you. Especially if a title has been recommended by a friend, or Oprah, or if it won the Man Booker prize or the Orange prize. These are the books that really should oblige us to ask ourselves a number of questions, all of which should improve our own writing:

  • At what point did this book fail to hook my interest and why?

  • How else might the story have been handled?

  • Why did the characters fail to communicate with me?

  • What qualities in the book might have interested its publisher or my friend, or Oprah, or the judges on the Man Book prize panel, and what’s preventing me from seeing the same qualities?

There are rich pickings for the aspiring and emerging writer whichever way you look at it. Go have yourself a feast!


Stella said...

Sound advice, Paul. Delicious post :)

Anonymous said...

Bon appetit, Stella.

Mike French said...

It is always strange when writers say, "I don't have time to read" or they just read non-fiction when they themselves aspire to be a published fiction writer.

I liked James Meek's advice:

"read up, not down, by which I mean it is preferable to read a writer you think is better than you, and try to close the gap."

Anonymous said...

You've provoked me, Paul, because I'll repeat what you already know: I write novels but I don't enjoy reading other people's novels. That, of course, is a generalisation because there have been a few I have enjoyed. Perhaps my aversion has irreparably damaged my writing prospects but, again as you know, I have one novel published and my short stories have won Bridport and The Royal Society of Literature's VS Pritchett, amongst other prizes.

I write primarily from experience, but moulded by a source of real pleasure to me: good NON-FICTION books such as biography, history and science. Perhaps I'm like a chef who goes out into his farmyard and looks at his animals, vegetables and fruit and, instead of rushing off to find out what Gordon Ramsay would have done with them, cooks with his own, unique flair. So, probably like him, I write what I, personally, enjoy reading and, because it isn't based on what other people have written, I believe it has its own, unique flavour.

Certainly, one of the advantages I have is that no fiction awes me. On the contrary, many of the so-called 'great' modern books fit into your 40-80 page category.

So, why do I write? I write because I'm driven to write. I can't help it. It's an addiction, the idea that other people might read my work and see the world through my eyes. Perhaps I am arrogant in my attitude, but please don't dismiss my type so out-of-hand.

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to have provoked your response, Jon. Thanks for joining in and offering your comments---it's good to have as lively a discussion as possible.

It wasn't my intention to dismiss any "type so out-of-hand" and, reading through the piece again, I don't think I have.

Further, by sharing the view that your writing is "moulded by a source of real pleasure to me: good NON-FICTION books such as biography, history and science", you appear to endorse some of what I'm saying.

There are certainly no rules as to how anyone should approach writing, but, for me, I still regard this as sound advice and would certainly never advise an aspiring writer not to read. Similarly, I might wish to be cautioned as an aspiring chef looking at my own garden that it's useful to learn from others what fungi can be eaten and what can't, what's been tried and what hasn't ... and then be left to make my own decisions.

Bon appetit to you too, Jon.

Mike French said...

Hi Jon

Interesting. I love a debate, thanks for throwing your hat in!

I still think, like my comment above, that it is "strange" in that it is not the perceived wisdom. So many authors I interview mention again and again their advice to new writers is to read a lot.

However, I took your approach when I wrote my novel as I didn't want to be influenced by other writers. I wanted to find my own style and be free from influence. I think on reflection I was partly right as I've found that my writing does change (often in subtle ways)depending on what I'm reading at that moment. But then I think I shouldn't worry to much about that; new artists often appear similar to past masters until they finally find their style.

But as my own "voice" becomes stronger I am becoming more confident that I can hold my style and learn and reinforce what I've learnt from reading others at the same time. And James Meek does have a point, no writer is static, we all grow in the craft, so it is useful to be provoked by writing that blows you away!

What is it about the few fiction books that you did enjoy that ticked the box for you?

Jon said...

I take the points you have made, Paul, but I think that, above all, people who aspire to write should be urged to be true to themselves. How they learn to write can happen in a variety of ways

In answer to your question, Mike, I like a fiction book which is close to reality - if that makes any sense - and which contains a sense of adventure. Perhaps it is the loss of the latter that makes our society, and the fiction it produces, so dreadfully mundane. So, recently, I re-read HE Bates' "The Purple Plain".

Currently I'm reading a biography of Robert and Mary Moffat, missionaries who opened up southern Africa and in whose footsteps Livingstone trod. To read the loneliness, hardship and fear they endured leaves me breathless with admiration.