To Read or Not to Read? Surely…Read? (June 10th Facebook Discussion)

I posted the following status message on my Facebook profile page…

Jeff VanderMeer: Writers who don’t read a lot are like musicians who never listen to music. Don’t care how busy you are, you’re stunting your professional development.

…and then this interesting conversation broke out, offered up to all you blog readers not on Facebook. I was going to edit the entries but decided with fact-checking and all…I didn’t have the time. Beside, they read just fine. So here they are in the raw, with just a couple of “I agrees” from Angela Slatter (who has a new post on networking here) and administrative bits flensed. I should note that Steve Hlavac is an awesome photographer, and adds a different perspective to what’s mostly a writer-dominated conversation.

Christopher Burdett: Amen. It’s like trying to be a professional linguist/translator but ignoring the people talking around you at all times.

Jeff VanderMeer: I think this is actually a problem for full-time professional writers sometimes. The fact is, the advice to read a lot when you’re a beginner extends throughout your career. Also, reading new writers, and reading the websites that are publishing the next generation.

Christopher Burdett: That’s actually how I found City of Saints` originally. I was in a slump, trying to get my mind churning to put something down, and I tripped across the spine blindly in a Borders. It helped (specifically The Mysterious Case`). I find reading to be the best oil for the machine, but one has to be careful using it that way… sometimes you get the wrong brand of oil and the machine gets very confused about what you want it to do for you.

Steven Paul Hlavac: I see both sides to this. In art, sometimes you need to decide to either persure your own work and passion, or be immersed in the work of others. It is almost impossible to do both…I know of course, I need to be aware of what is being done by others, and the general trends of the bigger picture, but to really focus on my own work, for the most part I need to tune out all the other stuff…

Jeff VanderMeer: Oh–yeah, I mean, if I’m writing a certain kind of novel, I’ll probably read nonfiction and short stories to avoid white noise. True dat. Christopher–most of my friends thought I was crazy after reading Strange Case.

Steven Paul Hlavac: For me this goes in cycles. I keep a general awareness, I look to the work of others for inspiration when I’m blocked, and when I’m totally focused on a project, I have blinders on…

Jeff VanderMeer: That makes sense. I just usually switch over, like I said. I cannot read noir novels when writing one, but I can read comedic stuff or space opera or mainstream lit. etc. Visually I suspect it might be different–you want *all* photography by others blocked out, right?

Matthew Pridham: Amen to more reading needed! & reading outside approved genre boundaries! I had a published author (one half of a semi-famous mystery duo) tell me once that she didn’t read fiction related to topics on which she was going to write “Cuz I don’t want my work to be tainted.” Talk about the anxiety of influence! Instead, I felt like telling her “So yer gonna let all the other crap that seeps in determine the flow of your inspiration? Advertisements, government propaganda, soap opera patterns and all the other trash floating about memespace?” Oy! While it’s true one can be distracted from one’s own work by the tasty sea of text out there, it is still worth the risk. How can you do anything new if you’ve no idea what’s been done already?

Steven Paul Hlavac: Well, it’s a question of focus. You see so much good work done in so many strong styles, and if you’re not careful, you get pulled in a hundred directions, and start spinning in circles. There is also the factor of time. It can be very time consuming to absorb and (try to) fully understand what other artists are doing. Like you, many of my friends do what I do, so hopefully they get some of my time as a matter of courtesy and respect. I want to know what they’re up to and all about…. After that, the time “pie” gets smaller and smaller, and it’s really tough to spend more than a casual glance at the work of others…

Adam-Troy Castro: I knew one writer who never read a book for fun until he decided to become a writer. Then he read a bunch of thrillers, and wrote his first mystery novel. Which sold. The prose was raw, but had passion. (And his career failed after three novels.)

Matthew Pridham: I’m a big fan of experimental reading/writing gambits. For instance, gorge yourself on Sufi thought, quantum mechanics & time, and, say, the writings of the fin-de-siecle Decadents… Add time plus be open to real-life triggers and sometimes VOILA! Ya got something damn interesting. Failing that, you at least have some subjects to bring up to divert people when they ask you “So what are you writing now?”

Steven Paul Hlavac: This is good thread. Really interesting to see the parallels between literary and visual arts creative processes. For me, it is much much easier to process photographic and illustrative information than to read. Which I suppose, is why I do what I do… ;)

Christopher Burdett: Jeff–I didn’t think you crazy, but I had one of those almost adolescent “Hah! This person understands!” kind of moments that involves exchanging hoodies and heartfelt emails, before I smacked myself around with the “You’re an adult now, stop being moon-eyed.” reminders. In general–I find that whatever I am reading tends to seed what I am working on, so I have to filter my research/ reading/ entertainments down to the subject I’m writing on. This only causes a problem when I have two projects at the same time like I do now. I’m up to my eyeballs in tattoos, urban drug subculture and demons, while still trying to finish the climax of a gritty noiresque Victorian steampunk piece. But if these two things mixed… it’d be a zeitgeist bomb. Hmm… come to think of it… *rushes off*

Mark McLaughlin: I only read nonfiction when I’m writing my fiction because I don’t want the styles or word choices of others to color how I phrase things. And so, because I usually have some sort of fiction in the words, I read a lot more nonfiction than fiction! But nonfiction is very inspiring. I love reading about sustainable technology, mechanical engineering, black holes, theories on time travel and stuff like that, Nikola Tesla (amazing guy) — and I love doing puzzles and crosswords. I do at least six crosswords a day. I often get frustrated when I read fiction by other people because I can often tell where the story is doing to go. Same with movies. M. Night Shyamalan has yet to surprise me! I suppose my favorite directors would be Alfred Hitchock and Dario Argento. Hitchock because he hides his foreshadowing with some finesse (even when he’s obvious, he’s entertaining), and Argento because there is no telling where he is going to take the plot!

Anne Barringer: This is a great topic and I’m digging the different responses. It’s good food for thought for character development as well. =) I’m a new writer (i.e. just getting my first handful of published writing credits under my belt) but I’ve been an avid reader all my life – I read about a book a day on various subjects/genres etc. I can take note of what I like and why, and what I don’t like and why. I think it only enriches me. I think it’s important to read many different kinds of things – I’m like a kid in a candy store on a mission to “taste” all the flavors before I run out of pocket change.

Jeff VanderMeer: Matthew–I agree with you re those gambits. Also, I’d say the problem with shutting yourself off from other fiction is that it’s more because of fear than anything else. Yes, we can get overly influenced, but what I love is to become immersed in a style of writing or an author to the point of losing myself in it–internalizing it–and then at a certain point, I assimilate it, it doesn’t assimilate me. This is a difference between a beginning and more experienced writer. The beginning writer, because still finding their voice, doesn’t have as much of an ability to absorb influence without creating pastiche in what they create as a result of influence. But that’s part of the process. Steve–I switch it up. Like, I read tons of noir/mystery fiction before I started in on my novel Finch. While writing it, I couldn’t read any fiction of that type, BUT I do remember now that I *could* watch noir/mystery movies, and in fact I gobbled them up. I also listened to a lot of noirish music, and the music and movies enhanced my ability to write, whereas reading noir novels would’ve messed me up. As for reading–two things throw me out of a story in a good way: when I’m genuinely surprised and when I’m genuinely surprised by some new use of technique or words or story. In the latter case, I generally make a note of it and I don’t find it intrusive to plug that technique into whatever I’m working on it break it down and figure out how it functions. Most of the time, I take it right back out again, but by then I understand it enough to make it my own.

Mark McLaughlin: I would have to disagree with the matter re: beginning and experienced writers, while one is in the fiction-writing process. I think of it as more a matter or maintaining personal integrity — much like the reason professional wine-tasters don’t smoke. It dulls their sense of taste.

Jeff VanderMeer: Every writer is different, of course, but beginners have fewer strategies for everything, including processing influence. Once you’re settled in and have developed a style or voice, I think it’s a lot easier to assimilate without harm. Although beginners have no choice but to eat their predecessors if they want to live and grow, so the pastiche phase is largely unavoidable. The wine-tasting analogy in colorful, but inaccurate perhaps? Other writers aren’t cigars. They’re other types of wine.

Mark McLaughlin: Nah, they’re cigars. ;-)

Dustin Long: This has actually been a problem for me in the past few weeks. I’ve been unusually productive writing-wise, and the only book I can think about is the one I’m working on, so even though I carry a book to read everywhere I go, I’m never in the frame of mind to pull it out of my bag.

Mark McLaughlin: I don’t have any great desire to assimilate the styles of others — unless of course, I’m writing an intentional satire or pastiche. At any rate, I’m the first to admit that writing fiction is not my greatest goal in life. It is *a* goal, and something I enjoy, but I have far more important issues to address. I have written hundreds of articles and led numerous PR campaigns about green building and labor issues because those things really matter to me. I want to make a real difference in the world and not *just* be a creator of shadows and diversions. It would be self-indulgent for me to just sit and spin out fantasies while the world is going to Hell around me. I couldn’t do that and feel good about myself. I am a human being first. A catalyst for change second. And a writer of fiction, third.

Jeff VanderMeer: Mark–I think there’s a confusion about terminology here. Assimilating *technique* is not the same as assimilating *style*. You can only effectively assimilate technique, though, when you have established a sufficiently unique (to you) voice or style. Otherwise, there is the risk of somebody else’s style infecting your use of the technique. I’m glad you get such satisfaction out of the nonfiction. It’s not really a matter of choice for many people. I couldn’t go off and devote my life to writing green nonfiction if I wanted to–I have to write fiction. No one’s claiming fiction is more important, but I know it is important to me as a reader and human being. And many a political novel or novel with social subtext has helped form my political or social views, and thus influenced my actions…I don’t think we’re actually arguing here. Dustin–yes, in posting the comment initially I didn’t mean to imply this doesn’t occur in cycles.

Julie Andrews: I was reading Le Guin who referenced Virginia Woolf, saying that each story has its own rhythm. So I think if you’re not careful, if you read too many books that clash with that rhythm while you’re still writing the story, you can lose the rhythm of what you’re working on. Which may or may not have anything to do with the theme or genre of the books you’re reading/writing.

Jeff VanderMeer: True dat. Mike Moorcock also says genre writers should rrread widely outside of genre, and I think that’s key.

Mark McLaughlin: Actually, I think Julie Andrews hit the nail on the head. Reading other people’s fiction while I’m trying to write my own fiction throws me out of my rhythm … mindframe … whatever one wants to call it. Yeah, I also didn’t think we were arguing, Jeff, so it’s all good.

Gary Gibson: Personally, I’m surprised so many people have problems reading fiction while they’re writing fiction, or reading the same kind of fiction as they’re writing … it’s not been a problem for me, at least not usually. I like reading the same kind of stuff I write, sometimes even at the same time (though certainly not all the time!). But when I do read the same kind of stuff (as opposed to the different kinds of stuff that pull your brain in new directions) I find it beneficial in that it reminds me of all the different approaches there are out there. It can also help me, in that respect, get out of a rut by identifying how other writers deal with particular problems, and that more often than not leads me to coming up with my own, entirely unrelated solution.

Christopher Burdett: Pertaining to the Moorcock reference; it has been my observation that for a genre to develop, it *has* to go outside of itself. Assimilation of outside influences causes the collisions of thought that lead to creative insights and changes of worldview. When a genre, or a group of writers in a specific generation, get too fixated on their own content/subject-matter it ends up producing thousands of novels saying exactly the same thing, at exactly the same time. For evidence of this, wander around in a second hand bookstore for a little while. There are sections that act like growth rings on the writing tree–rings made up of hundreds of differently titled but basically identical stories. A cluster of vampire fiction.. a section of numbing biographies.. a whole room of throwaway romance novels… shelf upon shelf of pulp sci-fi…People keep the things that are different, they tend to throw back the things that are the same.

Matthew Pridham: I totally agree on the influence absorbtion notion. Granted, every writer’s process is their own & unique, but the experience of influence/assimilation you describe rings true to me. I’m very influenced here by Harold Bloom, so (amusingly) this is a case wherein my “original” notions may appear to have been swamped and overwhelmed by an influence, but I can live with it ;) I aim to be deeply influenced by a broad, but not random, set of authors, books, schools of writing, etc. The half-cocked theory I’ve been running on is that several, strongly divergent streams of influence make for a less dangerous reading experience than primarily having one grand source, from whom we feed. Contagion is lessened, in that sense, not increased, by roving reading habits. When writers primarily stick to reading work within their genre (often even a sub-genre) or perhaps a source text or two (in horror, for instance, so many read “Dracula” & “Frankenstein” while ignoring great stuff like “Vathek” or “The Monk”) they essentially reinforce already strong elements to the point (eventually) of cliche. A set of affairs very akin to a closed off and incestous gene pool. This applies, needless to say, to every genre, including those so cutely self-described as “realistic”. That experience of meeting influence and being able to assimilate it rather than be absorbed by it Bloblike, could be looked at as a sortof rite of passage for writers. The trick, of course, is that it doesn’t happen all at once, and I imagine I could find an author who could knock me over when I’m in my seventies. Hell, that’s part of the fun of the whole thing, right? Casting about for someone, something, that will twist you in a new way, or suggest techniques and visions some deep, old part of you will almost instantly recognize as being what you’ve been looking for your whole life. Borges was one like that for me :)

Jeff VanderMeer: Matthew–absolutely, re that last point. The moments of revelation become fewer and farther between, but in a sense because of that their intensity becomes greater. Now when something floors me, it really frickin floors me. Like, the beginning of Derek Raymond’s I Was Dolores Suarez. Just blew me away. Jaw dropping.

7 comments on “To Read or Not to Read? Surely…Read? (June 10th Facebook Discussion)

  1. I’m not on Facebook so I’ll drop this here: Orson Welles discussing being a director and watching films with Peter Bogdanovich (from This is Orson Welles, 1992).

    OW: There is no “film culture,” Peter–just an awful lot of films. We must “keep up with things,” of course, but with the whole, wide world–not just the movies. We must find out what we can about this place we’re living in–this place in time–but we’ve got to be awfully careful, it seems to me, never to make ourselves too perfectly, a part of it. Modishness is the sure sign of the second-rate. We’re finally to be judged not by the degree of our involvement in the mainstream, but by our individual response to it.

    I try to believe somehow that everything is for the first time. That’s what I mean by innocence–like Adam in the first garden of the world making up names for all the beasts and flowers. Like my story about the opening of ‘Journey into Fear’–I really thought it was new.

    PB: That’s why you see so few films?

    OW: Good ones, in particular. I stay away, from most of them out of sheer self-protection, to cherish what’s left of my own innocence . . . . You smile. I’m being serious. Innocence is really quite a serious concern. The better another man’s film may be, the more I stand to lose by seeing it. No, when I look through the camera I need to look with my own innocent eye–to stand alone with every new scene, not in the company of other directors, however august. They keep crowding in, you know, unless you’re very careful. Please–let Mr. Mizoguchi keep his distance.

    PB: You think that should be true for all of us?

    OW: Of course not. Nothing’s true for everybody. It’s just that at my age virginity is rather fragile.

    My own special case is that, to function happily, I like to feel a little like Columbus: in every new scene I want to discover America. And I don’t want to hear about those goddamn Vikings. Each time I set foot on a movie set, I like to plant a flag. The more I know about the intrepid discoverers who’ve come before me, the more my little flag begins to look like the one on the golf course which you take out of a hole so you can sink a putt. I don’t pretend at all that my own delicate feelings in this matter should be taken as dogma, but I will say this: let filmmakers beware of films. They really are bad, you know, for the eyes. Filmmakers spend too much of their lives in projection rooms. They should come out more often into the sunshine. Other men’s films are a poor source of vitamins . . . . You follow me?

    PB: I think I agree.

    OW: Other men’s films are full of good things which really ought to be invented all over again. Again and again. Invented–not repeated. The good things should be found–*found*–in that precious spirit of the first time out, and images discovered–not *referred* to.

    PB: Well, it’s a big problem for anybody starting now–

    OW: Everything’s been done, you mean? No, that’s not the problem. The trouble is that everything’s been *seen*. Directors see too many movies. Sure, everything’s been done, but it’s much healthier not to know about it. Hell, everything had all been done when *I* started ….

  2. Hellbound Heart says:

    …enjoyed reading this entry……..getting in behind writing and being a writer……..

    i got enough troubles reading my e mails and my fave blogs without adding facebook to things to look at….arrggghhh, not enough time!

    are you seeing steve kilbey and the boys in concert somewhere along the line while they’re touring america?

    peace and love……

  3. I dunno. Don’t think they’re coming to these parts, alas.

  4. Jim Henry says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever tried to avoid reading fiction while working on my own fiction, or to avoid fiction of the same genre or subgenre. If unconsciously being too much influenced by what you read is a potential problem, well, so is naively reinventing the wheel and doing something you think is original but isn’t. But I find sometimes that when I’m obsessively thinking about plot or worldbuilding problems with a story I’m writing or planning to start writing soon, I can be too distracted to concentrate on reading anything that requires much thought. It doesn’t just happen when I’m writing fiction; it can happen when I’m obsessed with some other creative project, a constructed language for instance.

  5. Mike (Foreverlad) says:

    The attitude one takes when visiting another author’s work might play a part for some. Regardless of genre, some folk take to a novel with an editor’s eye, a child’s sense of wonder or a loner’s hope for escapism. The varying degrees of immersion needn’t ‘taint’ your own work, but they could make your own authorial endeavors more difficult to manage. Taking on the role of a student as you read a biography might interfere (if only temporarily) with reassuming your role as ‘god’ of the project you’re working on. That urban fantasy first person POV you just flew through might upset the narrative pace you were trying to maintain.

    No doubt a lot of it is simple professionalism. Do a job long enough and reacclimation to one’s own work and voice is second nature. For those still honing those skills, it might be a bit more time-consuming, so I could understand new and budding authors cutting down on their reading for a time.

    To be fair though, these very dilemmas (real or not) are valuable tools in mastering your own trade and shouldn’t necessarily be avoided, so long as the writer has his or her priorities straight when it’s time to get back to the keyboard.

  6. Michael says:

    This was indeed a great thread to read. I definitely agree that by continual reading and reading other genres you open up new ways of approaching a story. For a few years it seemed like the Fantasy genre had become stagnant and nobody was bringing any new ideas to the table. ( with a few exception, Charles DeLint, etc. ) It kind of got locked into that D & D/Tolkien “standard fantasy” pattern. ….. but once you get a few people thinking outside the box anything is possible. :)

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