Writers need to read, in the same way that painters need to visit galleries, plumbers need to visit home improvement shows, computer programmers need to keep up to date with online developments and pianists need to listen to music. We gain our knowledge of what works best by soaking ourselves in the best that’s out there. But, if we don’t read the work of others, how can we know what is best, how can we understand whether our efforts are poor, mediocre, good or bloody wonderful by comparison? It’s very easy, and very lazy, to believe that we, as creative artists, can exist outside the work of others. That our work exists in isolation, untainted by contact with other creative minds. Not only is this lazy, however; it’s crap. All art is derivative. If you don’t think that’s true, you haven’t read enough.
There is a saying that there are only three, five, seven or nine plots, depending on which ‘scholar’ you consult on the issue. I think that’s an oversimplification, but the general idea is right. There are a limited number of ways in which a story can be told.
What each of us as individual writers brings to our own stories is our voice; a combination of experience, education, style, point of view, personality, location, and tone. Boy meets girl is, of course, the most frequently told story. But that basic premise is changed by each writer who approaches it. The tale told by a pessimistic, misogynist, right wing, catholic priest living on the edge of a swamp in Louisiana will be entirely different from the tale told by an optimistic, philanthropic, liberal brain surgeon living in a penthouse overlooking the River Thames. And that is so even if both writers are restricted to the same characters, settings and even incidents.
But, and this is where reading comes into it, the same story told by very similar people with similar experiences, even siblings and identical twins, will be different due to subconscious influences imparted by exposure to different authors. A writer who has dwelt in the world of the classics will write an entirely different story from the one who reads nothing but contemporary romance. Reading informs us in so many different ways. The best writing educates as it informs and entertains. Writing in the absence of reading, far from enabling originality and novelty, actually stunts the writer’s mind and leaves him wallowing in the false world of his own limited imagination. It might be a safe and exciting place to be; living inside your own mind, with your own ideas. But is it a place others will want to share? Is it a place that others will find enticing, exciting, enriching? You can’t know if you don’t read the work of others. Your judgement is inevitably skewed by your prejudice against anything that isn’t what you believe to be your own invention.
Many writers cite the fear of unconscious plagiarism as a reason not to read. This is understandable but mistaken. Unless a writer actually copies the words of another writer (and such does happen, though what these people hope to gain is uncertain) he is unlikely to plagiarise. He may take an interesting idea from another work. But his own voice will alter the tale and make it his own. He may discover a wonderful character, but his own experience will subtly alter that protagonist and, by placing the character within a different frame, the person on the page will be different from that first admired.
One other reason for a modern writer to read is, of course, the need to know what is currently being read in the field of interest or the genre in which the writer operates. It’s impossible to keep up with the multitude of books published daily, whatever type of fiction you produce. But it’s perfectly possible to gain a feeling for what is now being read, by reading what is now being written. I don’t mean the ‘latest’ or ‘best-selling’ books. I mean reading those works that are ‘of the age’, and that can include timeless works that have become classics as well as more modern works that have caught the imagination of the reading public. The timeframe for what is happening ‘now’ in any field will be wider than merely this year, this decade and, in some cases, even this century. Clearly, science fiction is subject to events that occur almost daily. But that doesn’t mean that a scifi story has to include the latest developments. It may mean, however, that a story on a given theme is no longer something that attracts readers. By reading, writers become attuned to what is uppermost in the minds of readers.
Theme is the aspect most affected by the passing of years. So, a modern writer would find it difficult to sell a piece that treated western women as goods and chattels, although the same story set in many contemporary Arabic cultures could be perfectly acceptable, since the customs and traditions in those lands remain locked in a past the west abandoned long ago.
But the single most important reason for a writer to read is that of judging the quality of his writing. Without the work of others with which to compare his output, the writer exists in isolation with only his own standards and limited knowledge and experience to filter his judgement. He must reach a distorted verdict on his own work; it’s inevitable.
So, if you want to write with a sense of certainty that your work is brilliant, with a confidence that will never be questioned by your own ego, don’t read the work of other writers. You’ll likely never sell much and only your family and friends will praise your work. But you’ll live in a falsely elevated state of self-delusion and will be forgotten by posterity, if you were ever noticed, that is.
If, on the other hand, you’d like real readers, real reviewers, real critics to enjoy your work and tell the reading world about them, you’d best read the work of others and learn from the excellent and the dire. Without such benchmarks, your inner critic has no reliable sources with which to make comparisons and you are destined to fail. Unless, of course, you really are a genius.
A great source of information about which books are worth reading, is the excellent online readers’ community, Goodreads. I recommend it to you all.