Does the act of reading help make you a better writer?
There’s no question that familiarity with a genre is vital if you want to write within it. For me, it’s a no-brainer that to write books, you must read books. But I’m talking about reading a novel by a top author and seeing it a sort of one-to-one tutorial. Analysing how the nuts and bolts fit together in a way that helps you to build your own story. (Enough engineering metaphors, Ed).
The reason I’m blethering on about this is that I’ve been thinking about my complete inability to read a novel as a writer, rather than as a reader. I’ve heard lots of other writers say that their reading pleasure has been tarnished by learning about some of the techniques involved and a feeling of ‘knowing how it’s done’. Although I’m very glad that I never feel this way, I’m slightly envious that they’re able to stand back from the page and analyse a novel as they read it. As soon as I start to be interested in a story, I’m largely blind to how it’s done. I just get sucked in.
If a book is exceptionally bad, I might find myself spotting lots of ‘don’ts’ – point-of-view inconsistency is a particular bugbear, for instance – but if it’s a good read, I immediately forget what I’m meant to be doing and just enjoy the ride. For me, it’s like looking at some haute couture dress and trying to see the stitches. And I say that as someone who can barely sew on a button and once ‘took in’ a pair of jeans as a teenager, which then fell apart at the school disco.
I just hope that somehow, by some sort of literary osmosis, some good habits might start to be absorbed, unconsciously.
The American writer Francine Prose has addressed this in her book Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. It’s extremely well written, but for some reason I found my attention drifting quite quickly off her point. I started thinking, ‘Hey, I wonder what her novels are like?’ I’ve now read three and loved them all. I still haven’t finished Reading Like A Writer. Which says it all, really.
It may seem obvious that you should want to read, if you want to write, but not everyone thinks so. I once went on a residential writing course and a handful of the people there said they ‘liked to read, but didn’t always find the time’.
The very thought of not reading makes me feel panicky. Like the smoker who has a new pack ready when they stub the last one out, I have to know what I’m reading next or I get the jitters. My desire to read is almost compulsive and always has been. As a child, I once walked into a lamppost because I was trying to finish a book on the way home from school. If I’m not enjoying a book but not quite ready yet to give up on it, I actually feel quite sulky.
I just wish other writers’ skills would rub off in the process. There is a danger, of course, that you subconsciously copy a particular style in your own writing, but I’m wondering whether you do absorb helpful stuff about technique and style and flow just by reading. I live in hope. Maybe I can say ‘I’m off to hone my craft’ next time I’m spotted trying to slink off quietly from the family with a novel under my arm.