I often come across authors, writers, and others in the literary world asking—sometimes of themselves, sometimes of others—how much should a writer read? The general consensus seems to be ‘as much as possible,’ but I have a variation on that question that I sometimes ask myself:
Should writers read at all?
Now bear with me—I’m not suggesting that there’s anything inherently wrong with reading. Fairly obviously, I wouldn’t write if I thought that was the case. But as a writer, there are a few things that call into question the value of reading others’ works.
To start with, admission time: I haven’t read a book cover to cover (that wasn’t mine) in a very, very long time. This isn’t because I don’t like reading, but rather because I often find myself with too little time, and too many other things to do. I used to read voraciously, devouring books in days, but I just don’t find myself doing this anymore.
But what I’ve discovered is that, in failing to read other people’s books, I find myself less inclined to want to copy said books. After all, even 22 Scars was inspired by another story (After Forever’s 2004 album Invisible Circles—a musical story, but a story nonetheless), although it eventually evolved into something that I believe stands firmly on its own.
My new story, The Broken, is vaguely inspired by the life of Korn vocalist Jonathan Davies; but when I say inspired, I mean perhaps more that the music of my fictional band is intended to sound something like Korn. Everything else that occurs is the work of my own imagination, based on my own experiences and thoughts.
This includes an intended romance between a music teacher and his student. The original story I had intended was going to focus almost exclusively on the development and disintegration of this relationship, and be a much more linear tale. I was ready to start structuring and planning when my wife told me about this movie she’d just watched called Call Me By Your Name.
For those of you who are unfamiliar, the film is based off the 2007 novel by André Aciman, and involves a romance between a precocious student and a guest at his family’s summer house. Although there are differences between the Aciman’s story and mine, I was concerned about the similarities of relationships in the gray area of consent between an adult and a minor.
Had I read this book, of course, I probably would have deliberately veered away from writing anything even remotely similar, for fear of subconscious plagiarism. The one thing I can say with confidence is that my ideas are my own.
And original ideas are hard to come by. I can’t claim that my own are terribly inventive, but they are mine. And sometimes I worry that an overactive reading habit could reduce the flow of imagination, or drown me in a quandary of self-doubt, wondering if anything I’ve ever written truly came from me.
I believe it’s important to be aware of the literary landscape, and to keep an eye on stories that run in the same genre as your own. And while there’s certainly a value in being able to read someone else’s book simply for the enjoyment of it, I believe it’s equally important as a writer to know when you’re retreading old ground. I don’t need my stories to be the most original novels on the planet, but I do need to know that they’re mine, both in style and content.
Ultimately, there are probably a lot of people who will disagree with me; Stephen King himself once said that a writer must read. But for me, reading influences my tastes and style, and I don’t want my stories to come out as clones of someone else’s book.
What do you think? Should writers read voraciously, or is there a merit in keeping a slight distance—at least during the active process of writing a new novel?