Reading for writing

I'm involved in a number of discussions, in a number of forums, about the value of reading for writers - and my views on this are vehement.

Let me put it this way: if a writer tells me they 'don't read' I'm immediately suspicious of their writing commitment.

This is not to say that reading isn't more difficult when you write. It is. It's like picture framing (bear with me, that does make sense) when you're an artist. I have two friends who both paint and make the frames for their paintings. When we go to a gallery, their attention is divided between art: the painting/sculpture/installation - and craft: the frame/plinth/stand. This means that they struggle to focus entirely on the value of the artwork because they are aware of the underpinning practicalities, "that mount's badly cut" one will say, and the other will add, "yes, but the moulding quality is first rate."

So it is with writing - as a reader alone you look on the novel, play or verse as an artform. When you write as well as read you become aware of all the craft aspects: the layout on the page, the paper quality, the words the writer uses too much or not enough, the tropes and themes and stylistic tics, the work of the editor and whether it's heavy-handed or too light ... and all that interferes with the way you enjoy the writing as a whole.

But that's no excuse. There are plenty of good works in good formats with which nobody could find fault, and if the idea of excellence exceeding your own capacity depresses you, you're in the wrong business: you should read for an understanding of the best that is possible in the world of writing.

You should also read for fun (I read crime novels for pleasure), for an understanding of your chosen field of work (which means science fiction, erotica and literary fiction for this writer) and for craft (books on writing) as well as reading for research (my current research pile includes Dutch royal gardens, Victorian automata and the history of Sri Lanka, for example) - if you don't do this; if you only write, you're not a player. Instead, you're sitting in the corner, sucking your thumb.

I do mean this. Why should anybody read your work if you don't read anybody else's? How can you be sure you know where to submit your work if you don't read the places you send your work to? Which editor should devote time to your masterpiece if you've never even glanced at the quality of their craftsmanship? Above all - how do you locate yourself in the big, competitive and exciting world of fiction if you don't know where the other players are and what they are doing?

You don't have to read fast, or master all the classics (although it's good to read the classics), you don't have to make notes or have impressive opinions - but you do have to swim in the sea of literature, if you want to be a player.

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