Reads blowing in the wind

Pretty much the whole world’s on holiday this weekend, doing fun things that mean the last thing on their mind is a deep debate, or probably even checking out the interweb. Many of us, you, them, including those of us who are writers, will be taking the time out to spend some quality moments with a good book.

And that’s great, isn’t it? We’re always told the one thing writers have to do is read. I know I’ll be settling in with the end of Patti Smith’s Just Kids, and a copy of Bukowski’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Town I picked up from The Albion Beatnik,and maybe I’ll get to start a enw Ryu Murakami I’ve been itching to get to.

But is reading REALLY good for us as writers? Or rather, what should we be reading, given the ludicrously finite stretch of time we have. well, first up I’d suggest Tony Buzan’s Speed Reading, but even so, we have so little time. Where do we start? And where should we stop?

I want to ask – and yes, ask, not go all didactic – these four, very related, questions?

1. When you read do you find yourself mimicking the style of what you’re reading?

2. Do you tend to read lots of books of the same kind in chunks, or always have a variety?

3. Do you read things that you’d like your WIP to be like? Does it work, and if so is that because it inspires you, or you find yourself borrowing?

4. How do the books you read relate to your voice as a writer? Do you find yourself emulating one, then another, and ending up with a mess, or is it by reading and synthesising a vast repository that your own voice is able to emerge, fully-equipped with the tools and insights its raw self lacked?

Those are the questions. the following are simply observations from my reading history.

1. I’m an obsessive personality type. I always have been. Be it a hobby or something I’m a fan of, I’ll find out everything there is to know about it, and then, sudden;y, I’ll move on to something else. As a reader I’m the same. Be it Piers Anthony as a young boy, Kundera and Sartre as a student, Irigaray, Kristeva during my Masters, or more lately Murakami and Houellebecq. And my writing follows similar patterns. I experience my writing self as a mimic. Yet when I move on, I find it almost impossible to detect what went before. As though I’m not moving on, as though I’m not synthesising but copying one thing after another. And whether “I” will emerge at the end I just don’t know.

Then again do we all feel like fakes, like copyists, even those whose work is desperately original?

2. When I’m working on a project, I get fascinated by it,and I seek out books to read that are about similar subejct matter, or in a  similar style (the two are different – for example, my current WIP has a similar subject to Colette’s Cheri, a similar style to Ondaatje’s The English Patient – I am drawn to both books but for different reasons). And I can feel my inner copyist emerging, rehashing, collaging. But – and here’s the crux we have to address as simultaneously artists and lovers of art – as a writer I find myself wanting to read something uterly different from my current project so that I can find my own voice; but I am also a reader, a passionate reader, and I draw energy and pleasure and escape in equal measure from reading books to which I find myself drawn – although I can feel them damaging my writing.

And a final couple of questions – have you always loved the same sort of books, and found you had to force yourself to read other styles and genres, or have you always flitted between types. Either simultaneously or serially, and if so, over what kind of cycle?

Last of all, and in summary, when you read, do you read as a writer, or do you read as a reader? And do you write as a writer or as a reader? Do you find these two halves of your self in constant conflict, or have they come to a peaceful coexistence?

~ by yearzerowriters on April 3, 2010.

26 Responses to “Reads blowing in the wind”

  1. 1. No. Unless I consciously set out to try out a technique as an experiment.

    2. I read whatever I can get my hands on as I’m a broke waster and the local libraries aren’t that great.

    3. I can’t because I have to just accept whichever books are available at the time.

    4. I don’t really find myself emulating accidentally. I have an idea of what my “voice” should sound like as a writer, so I take note of things that will help it (get rid of the imperfect tense is the latest one) and disregard the things other writers are doing if I don’t like their effect.

    When I have a book in my hands, I read as a reader and I enjoy it. I’m quite passive and lazy and do it for the entertainment value. I only read as a writer if I’m reviewing for someone or if I’m forcing myself to read as a writer. If the book is good, I find it’s just too easy to let go and enjoy it.

    • Yeah, I read for entertainment, but I guess I lack your discipline, or ability to shut off. I’m too much of a sponge and just find idioms creeping into my writing without beckoning.

  2. 1. When I write I make sure I am in my own world & all I can hear is me. I can’t even have music, let alone some other bugger’s voice in my head. If my head is fuzzy with other people’s voices & words I won’t write, I’ll draw.

    2. I book binge & author, genre binge too, yeah. & I read anything & everything. Sometimes, reading my faves, its just too much. So I read trash for a week or two, like YA Luxe novels! Nabakov, Iris Murdoch, Martin bleedin Amis, Ellroy, Borges, you name it, I’ve binged it.

    3. As I only started writing in Dec ’08 I’m still working out how I feel about reading whilst writing. But always, when I read I underline, annotate, copy out chunks I think are exceptionally good or really bad, & I have a whole system of my own private symbols that I draw over, next to, paras. When I’ve finished reading a book its broken: Tattered, smeared with food grease & snot, dog-eared & dismantled. & I often write my own stuff on empty pages,in gaps, if i can’t be bothered to get up & find my WIP pile.

    4 I reckon my ‘voice’ is a result of everything i’ve ever read/thought/seen/heard/felt/lived through – put in my very own brain-blender – set on rough chop.

    I think I weed as a blighter & breed as a frightful bleeder.


    • I have a similar problem with music. If I’m in the middle of writing a book, I cannot listen to music or even play guitar. It just distracts me. I go for months at a time not listening to music, and then when I finish writing a novel, I binge on music.

    • Totally with you on the music – I live in a music-filled house, though, so I’ve had to learn to write with it. I’ve ended up having soundtracks for eacjh book so it’s efefctively just background, and it’s the same every time, so it intrudes less.

      Pen, I reckon some of those annotated books of yours will be worth a mint one day – I hope you’re writing on mine – I don’t get the reverence for books as things – they’re stories, and those stories are precious, and yes the objects are precious, but only because of the stories and what they meanto you – I hope you’ve found plenty of Songs to scribble on

      • I’ve finished Songs. Its smothered in scribble & comment, its spine is broken & there’s tomato pips & brie on page 50 & gravy on page 111. I think it loves me now 🙂

  3. The stuff I read gives me the confidence to write out of the box. It doesn’t even have to be something similar to what I write, but to see that someone else did something a bit different, gives me a boost.

    But now I don’t need any more boosts. I don’t care if what i write works or not as long as i can read it without cringing.

    • I was given a bit of “boost” recently when I saw TC Boyle writing a book with fake footnotes and Barbara Kingsolver writing a book with fake notes and Dan writing a book with a fecking apendix.

      • See Infinite Jest, DFW, for infinite footnotes!
        Music, yeah, I really miss it. Strange but true: I can’t paint WITHOUT music.

  4. I don’t choose my reading around my WIP, apart from occasional non-fiction (German Sociolinguistics for the current WIP).

    I can never remember the reference trail that leads me to a new author’s name in the frame which I then go and track down. Jonathan Lethem was one recent, then Greg Egan’s (Sci-FI) “Qurantine” – I wish I could remember the trail that led me to them, but I’m quite sloppy about that. I never read back tio back by the same author, I let the first work sink in. Really looking forward to getting back to a second Lethem soon.

    I write books I’d like to read, so I’m rarely influenced by other writers, since I don’t perceive them to be writing what I’m writing.

    Having said that, a single word or an idea can set me off riffing. Particularly a word used in a certain way, I will filch that, but go off on a complete tangent with it to suit my purposes.

    I always read as a reader, but with my writer’s radar tracking at a subliminal level at the very least.

    So books don’t overtly influence me as a writer, but they do contribute at the primordial stage rather than at the execution stage if that makes any sense.

    I really only read one type of novel, the novel of ideas, so I guess I just binge on those.

    Great piece Dan. Thanks.

    • “I never read back tio back by the same author” – that sounds like very good advice, although utterly counter-intuitive (after I read Sputnik Sweetheart, I went out and found everythig I could by Murakami, and didn’t stop till I was glutted) – the reason you cite is one I hadn’t really thought of but makes perfect sense – it’s kind of “diminishing returns” I guess. And as a writer, I’ve found doing other stuff has made me go back to my more lyrical projects with a renewed hunger, and the same should work with reading. If I could only get over that collector/hoarder’s desperate appetite!

  5. ha, this is so interesting! as many of you may know, i despise reading just to read because i write and i know i’m supposed to read. there are so many broad categories of fiction that i find unreadable that it’s actually difficult to find stuff i like. and because i get so pissed off when i invest in a book and it turns out not to be awesome that i go on long stretches of non-fiction. i’m reading mcwhorter’s history of the english language now. so it’s easy *not* to crib a style from nonfiction.

    this is a great thoughtful post and i’m so glad you shed some light on it!


    • Hidden in the middle of that is my very topmost justification for always making my work available for free – I don’t want to alienate anyone who buys the book and finds it not to their liking. It happened to me with Ali Smith and The Accidental, and with Graham Swift and Tomorrow. I still haven’t forgiven them as authors, no matetr what people tell me about other stuff of tehirs I should read

      • It happened to me with The Accidental, too! I’d read some of her short stories in those mini penguins & was holding great hopes for her. DJ says its just that particular book that is a no no… but, like you, I am once bitten

        • Come to think of it, it’s been DJ who was trying to get me to give Ali Smith a second chance! 🙂

      • AS readers we can’t expect every single book to ‘deliver’ for us can we? Not everyone who reads any of our books is going to rate it, some may not even finish it. Them is the breaks.

        Even books I rate leave me disappointed in some way and not just cos they come to an end either

        • Of course. I just don’t want people to part with their cash unless they know they like my stuff – because I want to find the ones who’ll stay with me through the years. I fully accept I may have a very odd view of the reader-writer relationship.

  6. I should preface this with the fact that I have very poor, if any, perspective on my current work with novels. Or with anything prose, really. All I know is that it’s there, I did it, and it’s bugging me to be finished. It nags and I kick it in the teeth by doing stuff like Beautiful Things. And then it goes on nagging.

    1. YES. I cannot say that yes loud enough, or type it in big enough letters. YES I am an EXTREME mimic. If you could, I’d tell you to check out the stuff I was writing senior year when I was soaked in Shakespeare – not only reading his plays in my literature class, but being part of a production of one in theatre. I read some of the monologues I wrote and it just baffles me — I don’t think I could ever do it again. Not that they’re good. I’m not saying that they’re Shakespeare status (and not that I’m saying I think he’s THAT super. I mean, the guys’ a’ight and all) but they’re definitely really . . . well, Shakespearian. It’s madness.

    If I spend long enough with a particular author’s work (or an artist — this goes for art as well) I can do a fair mimic of their style. This isn’t really crippling or . . . bad or good or anything in particular. I am, you all know, fond of breaking any identity I establish.

    This mimicking comes from my sensitivity — I pick up too much on some things, and sometimes I can’t help but mimic something; it alters the voice I think in, sometimes, too. I do have to say, though, that each piece of mine has a different voice. I do not have a set writing style.

    2. I just read whatever. Usually two things at once. Technically I’m reading . . . yes, two things. And they’re just all over the place, genre and author and time wise. I’m almost always re-reading some DH Lawrence, becuase he speaks to my soul (except for right now, no Lawrence.) I am terribly under-read and am only an ‘expert’ in Lawrence and, uhm . . . Stephen King (hey, hey, I was once a teenager, okay?) Most of the books I enjoy are the classics. But still I don’t know my way around them as well as I should. I know nothing of modern literature, except that I can’t stand most of it.

    3. I have to stay away from the books that inspired some of my novels, like The Scarlet Letter, or I’ll start writing in that voice. No one needs another Scarlet Letter. Seriously, it’s great and all, but no. Bad idea.

    If I’m aiming for my WIP to be like another book that already exists, it’ll end up being crap. So I don’t think that way. I just read whatever and then I just write whatever and . . . sometimes it’s good and most times it’s crap anyway. (I still have hope — these books WILL get finished, I tell you.)

    4. Yes on the second one. I think. I try to stay unconscious of voice, because a voice is a plan and we all know that Sarah doesn’t like anything that resembles a plan.

    On the music note — you guys are all nuts. I MUST listen to music. I can’t function without music on. I have a novel that’s inspired by an album (it’s a long story) so my work is always so so so closely woven with the music I love. Like many writers, I have extensive playlists for my novels.

    • It’s encouraging to know I’m not the only mimic!

    • Ha I’m the exact contra to you. Read virtually no Classics (Thanks English Lit education) and only consume contemporary literature.

      And yes music is v.important to me when I write

  7. I think I’ve absorbed everything I’ve ever read, but I think the strongest literary influences on my work have been from the diametrically opposed Cormac McCarthy and the Comte de Lautreamont. I find these two, especially Lautreamont to be perfect writers, and I find myself returning to them every time I forget why I love to write.

    Having said that, I read purely as a reader, which is why I hate when people ask me for crit on their work. I don’t want to crit, I want to read, you know?

    As to your questions:

    1. When you read do you find yourself mimicking the style of what you’re reading?

    As I said above, there are only two writers who have influenced my style.

    2. Do you tend to read lots of books of the same kind in chunks, or always have a variety?

    Well, I always have a variety because I read a lot of non-fiction and mythology, due to the subject of my education.

    3. Do you read things that you’d like your WIP to be like? Does it work, and if so is that because it inspires you, or you find yourself borrowing?

    I never know what the WIP is going to turn out like. In this respect, visuals and music influence me much more.

    4. How do the books you read relate to your voice as a writer? Do you find yourself emulating one, then another, and ending up with a mess, or is it by reading and synthesising a vast repository that your own voice is able to emerge, fully-equipped with the tools and insights its raw self lacked?

    When I think of the raw voice, I am abashed. It’s taken a lot of brutal honing to be where it is now. And I think my current WIP is very different and the best thing I’ve ever done.

  8. 1. If it’s good. 2. Variety. 3. Yes. Both. 4. Soak everything up like a sponge, squeeze it out and hope the good bits remain. That’s the idea anyway. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • “everything up like a sponge, squeeze it out and hope the good bits remain” very sound theory – I wish it would work for me, but excellent if you can get it to work for you!

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