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Friday, March 02, 2007


Stay original: don't read!

This is from an interesting discussion chez Miss Snark, in response to a request that she host a post explaining why it's a bad idea to cold-call editors. I put in my penn'orth, and later, an anonymous editor remarks (partly in reply to me, but largely in an address to the world, I would expect):

I often ask the writers who 'phone in their submissions what they're reading. Many of them have told me that they don't read. And a good chunk of those tell me that they don't read because they want to make sure that their work is completely original. Ack.

'Tis an interesting misconception. My reply, you can see posted there, but it was to the effect that writing without reading is like raising a child in an isolation chamber: the results will probably be original, but they may not be altogether sound. But it's actually quite a complicated question, and I'd like to hear from such intelligent people as your good selves on the subject.

The main reason editors blanch when they hear that remark is, I think, a simple one: it implies an unwriterly attitude. While it's bad manners to pinch ideas from each other, all writers are part of a continuum; they learn from each other, influence each other, inspire each other - and this in no way precludes them from being original. It may actually help them be original, in that it stops them from reinventing the wheel or using cliched ideas: you learn what's already been done to death. There's such a thing as negative influences, for instance: you can learn what not to do from reading faster than you can work it out through writing, and that's to your benefit. Other good writers give you a sense of what's possible, and other bad writers give you a sense of what's inadvisable. Neither will make you unoriginal unless you let them.

Reading is an extraordinary thing: it makes you privy to the innermost recesses inside someone else's head, and not just one person, but hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands. That's the one of the great glories of art: contact with exceptional minds, intimate in its directness even when removed by thousands of miles or hundreds of years. As listening to Mozart is supposed to improve your IQ, so exposure to other writers improves your understanding, not even through study but just through osmosis. A story has a beginning, middle and end, right? And we know that, bone-deep, not because Aristotle said it but because it's buried there in every story we read. By reading, we learn.

And someone who doesn't want to read because they think that process will contaminate their originality, to most professionals, sounds like the literary equivalent of anorexia, maintaining control over your body of flesh or your body of work by starving yourself to death.

There may be other reasons why it's a bad idea: it suggests possible laziness, or the assumption that what counts is the originality of an idea rather than its rendering, or just a statistical likelihood: people who write well, generally speaking, love to read. They have a deep enjoyment of and relationship with language. Take away their books, and you make them unhappy. A writer who can blithely turn away from their shelves probably doesn't have as much of a feel for language.

On the other hand, I can conceive of situations where you might regulate your reading. Once, I was reading a couple of books by an author-who-shall-remain-nameless that had been recommended to me; I didn't like the author's work, but I was determined to finish the books just for the sake of completeness. My boyfriend, who was nice enough to be giving me feedback on my writing on a chapter-by-chapter basis, had a look at my latest scene and said, gently, that he thought I ought to stop reading this author, because my style had taken a sharp quality drop, in a way that suggested said author's style was getting tangled up with mine.

Of course, I didn't respond by ceasing to read at all. I don't like to be without my books. Instead, I rewrote the bad scene and embarked on a literary detox, rereading several authors whose style I admired - Antonia White, Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters, if I recall correctly. (Does anyone else have detox authors?) The idea was to read stuff that was really, really well written, whose books I loved, in the hopes of, as it were, re-infecting myself with the good stuff. Hopefully it did the trick - he hasn't repeated the criticism, anyway.

I can also see a case where you might admire an author too much, and decide to forego reading their work while you finish their own, because otherwise you'll be unable to stop pastiching. I know when I was starting to write myself, sometimes I'd put down the work of a strong stylist and produce little freaks of prose that couldn't be sustained because I was writing through the haze of another writer's sensibility. (Conceivably, books that are the best for you are books whose haze you can write through and still feel that you're writing like yourself? At least when you're learning? I don't know, but it's a thought.)

So there may well be reasons to be selective about what you read. Reading nothing at all, though? It's hard to conceive of a situation where that would be useful. Just possibly, you might have enough talent to get away with it (never a wise contingency to gamble on), but I can't think of a writer who stands as an example. Someone once told me, for instance, that Charles Bukowski was an outsider artist who didn't read, but if wikipedia is to be believed (not implicitly, I know, but this doesn't seem a very controversial piece of information), then the man had a positive Heldenschau of influences, from Chekov and Hemingway to Kafka and DH Lawrence. Outsider though he was, his tastes were downright canonical. If anyone can think of a better example, I'd be fascinated to hear about it.

So what are the problems with the 'stay original by not reading' principle, from your point of view? Are there postive aspects? What are the exceptions?

(Oh - a Heldenschau, for those of you who didn't get that class in school, is a parade of heroes. Virgil's Aeneid has a very long one where Aeneas goes into the Underworld to visit his dad; it goes on for page after page, with Papa Anchises points out all the famous Romans queuing up to be born. I had to memorise a lot of it for Latin GCSE, despite the fact that we were only studying the language and knew next to nothing of the history, which meant it made very little sense to most of us. The Heldenschau itself has completely gone from my memory, but the experience of having to memorise the darn thing left a permanent mark. It remains a useful concept, though.)

I had at the back of my mind that Alan Garner was a writer who eschewed reading other books because of the risk of contamination, but now I've rediscovered this interview with him, I see the situation is more complicated than I remember it. Definitely worth a read, anyway :).

I know I can be influenced by other writers (Rosemary Sutcliff, ahem). Sometimes it's just a matter of filing off the barcodes ;).
Yeah I think you're pretty much right on this one. I mean who would advise any writer not to read. Certainly my work has massively improved through reading. You should read widely because a) you pick up subconscious influences of writers (and this is also why you should, as you suggest, read selectively) b) because you develop conscious understanding of how writing works (and this is why you should try and read widely across all types and qualities) and c) because it helps you understand how a reader will feel and respond to your work. Knowing what you like and don't like to read helps you give those things to other people.

Bukowski was often far too drunk to read, or depressed, or whatever, but obviously his not reading at all thing is a mix of his own deliberate bravado and the need to mythologise him by his fans. He didn't read for long periods of his life though.

That is the only proviso I'd make to your comments. Whilst they work for you and for me they won't work for every writer. Some writers may benefit from not reading for long periods of time (though I hope they don't also have to go on about doing it to allow their originality, because that s both pretentious and way to over egoed.)

Perhaps there is a writer somewhere who will be great and will have never read anyone else (apart from when they were learning to read). Perhaps it is not reading that will allow them to be a great and new sort of writer. It seems unlikely but it is possible.

We have to be careful about making rules for writing because they very rarely suit everyone. All we can do is find out what works for us and discuss it with other people.

Not reading books is a pretty arrogant stance for a writer and it denies the person who does so a lot of pleasure and wonder and ideas and life. And claiming to be original is also pretty arrogant. It's hard to see true originality as ever having existed, let alone existing now, with so much that has gone before. Every book is just a new combination of old things. But in that it is new it is unique regardless.

But arrogance may be a good thing for some writers/artists/whatevers it help them to make brilliant work. They probably wouldn't be fun to know but their work may be amazing.

Arrogance without talent though is just terrible and ugly and this is the danger for us unpublished or newly published (or even long time established published) authors. If we allow ourselves to be arrogant and pretentious, to set ourselves apart from other authors and other books and ideas, then we may very well become the worst writers ever.

So I guess the safest option is to read avidly, just in case. But then maybe that makes me too cowardly to ever be great.

Mind you, the whole concept of great seems a bit ostentatious anyway, so maybe being great isn't a great thing to go for.
I'd say trying to write without ever reading is akin to trying to cook without ever eating or tasting other foods. You've got to at least be constantly sampling spices and other dishes, knowing what other styles are like even if you don't dabble in them yourself. That way you can learn from them, at the least. I pretty much read a book or two, or three a week (depending on thickness and my work commute on the subway). I guess it's a balance of being inspired by what you're reading, and being overwhelmed by it to the point that your own style is lost in the muddle. I'd also say that (exceptions made, obviously) writing without reading for the sake of being original is also going to leave your writing stale. Anything that is done in a bubble will, I believe, suffer for it to some degree. Sure, writers are solitary creatures in practice, but it must be a constant learning and growing process, always striving to make the next book better. And if all you know and interact with is your own writing, then you've only got your status quo to work against. It might make you willing to settle for less, whereas you might read an amazing book and be inspired by some technique or another level of mastery that you can struggle to achieve.

That's my two, round, shiny metal bits.
The above comments are very mature, so, at the risk of sounding like a complete sad loser, when I read a new or recently published book I get hit by one of two feelings, either:

1. "This is good! Oh no, my book has nowhere near this level of quality/originality... There's no way my worthless scribbling can stand shoulder to shoulder with THIS! I'm NEVER going to get published..." (Followed by pathetic sobbing)


2. "This is crap! How did THIS ever get into print? Mummy or daddy is probably commissioning editor at Random House I'll bet! How can my book ever get published with all this tosh clogging bookshelves up?! I'm NEVER going to get published..." (Followed by pathetic sobbing)

To avoid this highly embarrassing and awkward situation, I've taken to only reading fiction published before, say, 1970, and preferably where the author is dead, because that way he/she can't intimidate me.

Can anyone point me in the direction of a good shrink? Thanks! :-)
Goosefat, I read your link, and I'd appreciate it if you didn't call my views 'crap' and 'absolute bollocks' on your website, and then link to it from mine. I don't expect people to agree with everything I say, but I do expect a degree of courtesy - which I believe I've always shown to you. You are not showing that courtesy to me.

I'm not trying to attack your free speech rights - you can say what you want elsewhere - but I maintain the right to set the standards of civility on my own website. This blog has always been a friendly place: I make an effort to be civil to anyone who posts, and the people who've posted up to now have always been candid, funny and agreeable, and I look forward to hearing from them. This creates a pleasant atmosphere, which I'm resolved to maintain. Your posts have been antagonistic, and are growing more so with this last one. If this blog antagonises you, you don't have to read it.

But if you wish to keep posting here, I must ask you to observe the same standards of courtesy as everyone else. Please don't write back arguing that you weren't rude; I think you were, and I'm entitled to reject behaviour I consider rude from a site that I pay for.

Any and all views are welcome, as long as they're expressed politely. But I'm prepared to be extremely hard-line when it comes to civility. I want an undertaking from you that you'll be polite henceforth; if you won't be, you won't be welcome.
Sorry for the interruption, everyone else. Now, to return to the subject.

Chris, I do not think you sound like a sad loser. Or at least, I hope you don't, because I've harboured similar thoughts. (The feeling doesn't go away when you're published, either. You just start comparing sales figures and positions in the bookshop. Sigh.) Have a picture of a cute fox cub to cheer you up:


Thank you for interesting article, sqrl. Want to say something intelligent about it, but feel I should spend some more time reading it first, it's so full of intelligent observations...

Subways are useful for getting reading done, no? Mind you, my last job, I had an hour-and-three-quarters commute each way, and I got to the point where I'd reread every book I owned twice in the past six months. That was a weird state to be in.

It's funny, the 'I don't read' position is something I hear about more from other people than anyone I've met myself. I'm sure those people are telling the truth, but have any of you ever met a writer with that attitude?
Thank you for the pic Kit. :-)

I'm having these difficult thoughts because my own book is with six publishers right now (has been for the last 2 weeks). I've spent so much time writing and editing it over the last three years (and especially since the agency picked it up six months ago) that every single line feels like a cliche now. Your "eye grease" label is spot on, and I simply have no idea what it must seem like to someone who's never read it.

We all know how difficult it is to get anywhere in this industry, and I can appreciate how fortunate I've been to get representation from one of the best literary agencies, but it's a bit difficult to stay cool sometimes (the publication contract feels so close I can almost touch it!).

I'm way to terrified to pick up and read something new in the genre I've written in, just in case it happens to be a million times better than my own stuff (which I'm likely to judge it to be because my own stuff reads like 100,000 words of cliche!!!)

And of course, when you try to explain all this to friends and family, they do listen politely for even as long as several seconds before falling asleep! Preservation of sanity demands that I retreat with a book who's author is long-since dead, so I can get a better perspective on all this (you know, the what's-the-point-we'll-all-be-dead-in-a-100-years-anyway" feeling...
Sorry to have offended you. I won't bother to argue with you about it. You are of course absolutely right you have the right to decide what offends you and what you want on your site. Please delete my comment or any other comments you feel have overstepped the mark.

I do feel that in all the comments I have left on your blog I have been civil and tried to respond appropriately. My last comment was almost completely agreeing with you.

I am very sorry. (Seriously, there is no sarcasm in this statement.)

I am not antagonistic towards you and the blog that I linked to is not really having a go at you or even Tess Gerritsen, but at the general way that publishing is considered. But I agree your reaction is absolutely valid and no doubt I would have reacted similarly (and in fact did get miffed by what I perceived to be a misrepresentation of a comment I made that you blogged about in the past.)

Anyway, as I said, sorry. I am going to continue to read your blog and comment on it, but I will of course stop commenting if you tell me to.

I have freedom of speech on my own blog, I don't expect to have it here. All I can ask is that if you happen to read a blog of mine and disagree with it for any reason please could you comment on it there as well. I like to get criticism and enjoy debate.

Wishing you well.

Two things:

Nora Roberts once said that for a writer, reading is ongoing research.

Attach that comment to one Grand Master Anne McCaffrey said: a writer is an amalgamation of favourite authors plus the writer's imagination, and you have what can loosely be described as an 'original' writer.

That works for me. Any author who says they don't read 'to preserve the purity of the work' is telling untruths to themselves.
Apology accepted, Goosefat, thank you. I appreciate that, and I'm pleased to see you had the grace to offer it. You're welcome to keep posting as long as you can be civil; don't make me regret saying that.
Ugh, the 'waiting to hear from the publishers' stage. Sympathies, Chris. Are you getting the thing I had, where you hear the name of the editors in question and think, no matter what the name is, 'Man, that's a rejecting-sounding name! Nobody with a name like that is going to want my book!' Or was that just me?

If it's any comfort, you're not alone - by the time Bareback made it into print, I'd reread it so many times that every single sentence looked loathsome. A big box of hardbacks arrived on my doorstep, and I picked one up and examined the nice cover art, lovely colours, attractive design - but I had to keep it closed. If I opened it, I realised that what I had in my hands was basically a prettily-packaged parcel of yuk.

It passes. I can just about stand to read bits of it again now. But it sounds like you've got your nose pressed right up against it just at the moment, which is enough to cross anyone's eyes.

Hang in there. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. And if you feel the need to have a moan, well, we're all awake over here...
Hi Jaye... Interesting quote from CS Lewis on the subject of originality that you might enjoy; I very seldom agree with him, but I think he has a point here:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.
In *The Artist's Way,* Week four of the program is a reading fast. Yup. In order to complete the program, you don't read for a week. Every person I know who completed the Artist's Way program dreaded that week, hated it while in it, and learned a lot from it. But the fact that it was so emotionally charged for all of us shows what a deep relationship we had with reading.

What I learned from that week, personally, is to be more discriminating in what I read. (Much as you said, Kit.) I don't have to read junk just because it is there. I can read less, read a higher quality of stuff, and come out a better writer. I find that when I am in the white-hot stage of a first draft of a novel, I can't stand to read other fiction. I tend to read non-fiction at that time. Later, in revision stage, fiction once again becomes welcome.

BTW, Kit, I'm new to this blog. I found you because you always leave such interesting, considered and kind comments at Miss Snark's blog. It made me curious about your own blog and your books.
Thank you Kit, really. I'm not sure about the rejection-sounding names - that might just be you! :-) For me it's the wonders of the internet: when I Google these editors' names, suddenly they become real people. They're in news stories talking about what they look for in a book *gulp*, and name-dropping all the famous writers' careers they've started *double gulp*...

That's when it hits me: these people are the experts at the top of their game - and they're considering my book RIGHT NOW!

It took so long to get agent representation (20 months of editing and waiting, well, mostly waiting) that I hadn't given any thought to what would happen after that. Now I can only sit and sweat and wait for the publishers' responses...

So yes, thank you very much for the offer. I'll try not to go too far off thread, but if you and the other regulars are okay, I'd love to let you know as the rejections come in, and maybe just let off a teensy-weensy bit of steam (no, really, my wife and family are all very supportive and of course wish me all the best, but when I talk to them about it I have the feeling that they don't quite get just how FRUSTRATING it all is! Honestly, writing an original, full-length science fiction novel was a piece of cake compared to actually trying to flog the blasted thing!)

Anyway, it's late and I'm ranting now. Regarding the other things that have been discussed on this thread, I'd just like to add that I've visited the websites of a lot of other new/young writers, and the only one I keep coming back to and reading/posting on is this one, because I think you're the best. Don't change, please, whatever anyone else says.

Oh, but there is one thing: did you ever have dreams before you sold Bareback? Since my agent agreed to represent me, I've been having the most vivid dreams of my life. The hardback is in my hands; I see the artwork, feel the gloss of the paper, turn it over and read the synopsis on the back, open the book and smell that freshness of the inside leaves... The dream is so convincing, and then I wake up and remember - urrggg!
Hello and welcome, bran fan! Thank you for the kind words, I'm most flattered. And that's a very interesting piece of information about the reading fast, so thanks for sharing it. Do you find, when you're working on a novel and reading non-fiction, that the non-fiction has much effect on your fiction, or is it more a kind of methadone effect - stops the withdrawal symptoms without messing with your head so much?

Of course you're welcome to let off steam, Chris. I think it's a good use for the blog if people can get a bit of support going through the whole gruesome business, and I, for one, am really hoping for a good outcome for you.

Did I have dreams before I sold Bareback? Actually, I had premonitions of doom. Bareback went the rounds twice in England and then Sophie took it to the States, figuring it might sell there first ... all of which took quite a while. The day it sold, I got an e-mail from her saying 'Please call me', and I called, pretty much expecting her to say, 'Well, Kit, I've run out of publishers to try, so I think you'd better write another book.' Actually she said, 'I've found you a publisher.' To which my reply was a hoarse 'You're joking!' The lesson there, I guess, is that even if you do get some rejections to begin with, it's not the end of the game.

It's a stressful thing, it really is. So if you feel the need to vent a bit, you're entirely welcome; so is anyone else reading this. I think we can all support each other; everyone needs it sometimes.
Kit, the non-fiction reading is definitely just to quell the withdrawal symptoms. Very often my reading at that time turns to writer inspiration books. Y'know, those syrupy, sweet tomes that say, "You can do this!" Intolerable at other times, but during the scary first draft, I have to have them.

Of course, there is also research to be done, forever and always, and non-fiction is great for that, too.

Thanks for letting me virtually hang out in this virtual place.
Research and encouragement sounds like a good combination to me!

Glad to have you here...
I've been an incurable bookworm since before I could read on my own, and I can't imagine trying to go without reading while I'm writing something. I really don't need something else encouraging me to put off starting my first drafts... Thankfully, I don't have a tendency to appropriate other writers' styles. Occasionally, when I find a writer whose style I love, I find myself writing in the same style, but usually I just need to write a short piece or two to get it out of my system. After that, the parts I admire get put into my toolbox, and my writing no longer sounds like that other writer's.
Sounds like a good balance of influence. When you write a short piece to de-style yourself, does it usually have a structure, or is it more of a style piece?
Yaas, the reading of the thoughts of others can be contaminating, done at the wrong time...because the author has to know who she is, not mediate upon who another writer is, in general...there are exceptions, but knowing certainly and clearly one's own vision is crucial, paramount, and that need ought to be held inviolate...beare newspaper, magasines, and authors of all sorts...beware the letters of old lovers, and take-out menus from pizza joints, even the instructuions for your new cell-phone...
Hold that part of yourself inviolate, for a time read only your own words...dwell there, and you will arrive - home, or close enough to it to rest a while, then to read the works of others who write...
Least, thas how I plays it...in jazz.
Nice blog, Lady, I like where you're at...
Thank you ScaramouchX! Jazz is nice.
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