Guest Blog by Claire Moss - (Not so) Guilty Pleasures

The first bit of advice new writers get is usually 'read a lot'. Like we weren't already.

But when I first started writing, I often read or heard advice that urged me to only read 'quality' fiction. By which the adviser usually meant 'literary' or 'classic' fiction.

I'm sure I can't be the only writer whose heart sinks when a question on Great Literature comes up in the office Christmas quiz. 'Oh, Claire'll know this one,' everyone on my team says excitedly. 'She's a writer,'. Only I usually don't.

I didn't do English at university – didn't even do English 'A'-level. I've never read Thomas Hardy. I've never read Iris Murdoch or Martin Amis. I've never even read Lord of the Flies.

I am neither proud nor ashamed of this. I don't think it makes me a better or a worse writer. But I do think it makes me the writer I am – a writer who reads the same sort of books as her readers do, i.e. popular, commercial fiction. And when I'm reading a book – whether it be a thriller, romance or Harry Potter – that I can't put down, I'm always struck by the immense skill involved in creating something so grippingly easy to read. Because 'easy to read' does not necessarily (or, probably, ever) equal 'easy to write'.

I don't enjoy 'difficult' books any more than I would enjoy a meal that was difficult to eat. I have never believed that the only purpose of reading is to challenge, or even to educate, oneself. It is mainly a pleasure, one of life's greatest.

Because of this, when I started to write a novel, it never occurred to me to try and create the next Booker winner. (I've never read a Booker winner either). I wanted to write the sort of stuff that I like reading – and suddenly all the pleasurable reading that I'd been doing all these years became 'research', and therefore something I could neglect the housework for without feeling guilty.

If your writing is literary, and so are your tastes, then I think the advice to only read literary stuff is sound. But everybody would tell an aspiring Mills & Boon writer to read lots of Mills & Boon, and the same goes for other genres like sci-fi. So if what you want to write is commercial, contemporary fiction which is never going to become an 'A'-level set text, then it makes sense that you ignore the classics and the prize winners and immerse yourself in the WHSmiths travel Top Twenty.

Claire Moss was born in Darlington, North East England, and now lives in North Yorkshire with her husband and young family.
Northern Soul Revival, her first novel is out now with Snowbooks ( )

About Northern Soul Revival
Carl has always carried a vague torch for his old friend Joss, one that has burned brighter as the rest of his life continues to disappoint him. The night before he skips the country to find himself a future he decides to live out his fantasy. Being with Joss is everything he imagined. Joss can't forget that night for a very different reason. A funny coming-of-age story for fans of Katie Fforde and Jill Mansell.

'Superb: 4 stars' The Sun
'Alive with people and places so real you could touch.' Rosy Thornton


Administrator said...

Claire, i couldn't agree more. When i first started writing, i felt obliged to read books out of my genre that i wasn't really interested in but had received rave critical reviews. I gave up on one literary novel after one sentence was over half a page long.

I think just read what you enjoy - and certainly if that's the genre you write in (which it probably is) then that will only help you - subconsciously or otherwise - make your book more marketable.

Great post!

Jasmine @ Eat Move Write said...

This is really good advice. I go through points where I feel guilty I'm not reading the stuff I "should" be reading. You're completely right, of course.

Read what you enjoy and get on with it.

Old Kitty said...


I get "Oh she did history at uni, she'd know the history questions" at our pub quizes (quizzes?)! They never learn... but we do have a great collection of wooden spoons.

Anyway, I never thought there were such things as "difficult or easy books" just books that are fiction or non-fiction. Books you like, books you don't like but you don't know you either like them or not unless you try!

And I always find it suits me to read as eclectically as possible. But that's just me btw.

Good luck with your new book!!

Take care

Emma Darwin said...

Very best of luck with the book, Claire.

I think the fundamental rule is the classic one: not to try to write a book until you've read 200 of that kind of book. Which chances are, you have... Having said that, reading beyond your natural boundaries will enrich your writing hugely, even if you choose never to write beyond them.

But I would take issue with this often-made contrast:

"I have never believed that the only purpose of reading is to challenge, or even to educate, oneself. It is mainly a pleasure, one of life's greatest."

because being made to think is every bit as great a pleasure as being made to feel. The mind is one of a human being's largest erogenous zone, after all...

Caroline Green said...

I like to read lots of different genres but do feel there is a certain deep satisfaction in reading high quality lit fic...[The Road by Cormac McCarthy, for example, or Toni Morrison] But I wholeheartedly applaud the right to read whatever you want and anyone who looks down on another's book taste is an arse, in my view!
Great post Claire - best of luck with the novel!

Paul said...

I think you're pretty much on the mark in your observations, and this is from someone who has read a great deal of Thomas Hardy and nearly all of Iris Murdoch. Each genre has its own form of "greatness" and a writer will benefit in all sorts of unexpected ways from reading broadly and deeply. Sure, one should read in the genre one wants to write in, but I think there is much to be gained from reading diverse works as well -- not necessarily "difficult" works but things that are fresh and different. "Quality" reading has different meanings and purposes. Not everyone is going to write Moby Dick or Middlemarch (I haven't read the latter), but writers are going to write, and so they must read.

Helen Black said...

I like to read a lot of different stuff, including swathes of non-fiction.
I do read literary fiction, though I write very commercial books, but not out of any sense that they may improve my writing. Quite often I found the opposite true. I will enjoy a novel but come away knowing exactly why it has hardly sold any copies, or why many readers wuld find it dull, even if I don't.

Lizzie said...

An interesting post, Claire. I write women's fiction, but I love to read crime, thrillers, history, biography and the odd more literary novel.

I don't think anyone should feel guilty about what they read or don't read. Just enjoy reading!

Good luck with book, Claire.

Rosalind Adam said...

I entirely agree with you, Claire. Why should we feel guilty if we prefer to read contemporary fiction? I've been through school set books and University reading lists and now I read what I want to read... and I enjoy it.

Rosy Thornton said...

I'm a bit weird in that I write commercial women's fiction but have read very little of that genre (though I am slowly righting the deficit, since my editor told me I should. And I LOVED your book, Claire, as you know!) I read mainly lit fic, period fic and classics, non-fiction and biography, or else crime. Those are the kinds of books I like and would love to write but lack the ability. There's some kind of Groucho Marx reference called for here here, I think - about not wanting to read any book I'd be able to write...

Seriously, though, I don't think it matters too much. We learn and grow as writers by our reading, and I'm not sure it has to be an absolute rule that you MUST read on your own genre. Any reading - diverse reading - restocks our writerly batteries. And I do think that reading books which are far better than I could ever write is both educational and aspirational. Something to reach for, I suppose.

Rosy Thornton said...

What I'm trying to say is, I don't think you should feel guilty for having read Marian Keyes but not Iris Mudoch. But equally, I shouldn't feel bad for having read Murdoch but not Keyes. Reading is, as Emma said, supposed to be fun and there shouldn't be rules about it.

Kat said...

Great post Claire. On a certain writers site, when asked what our favourite books were, I felt rather ordinary - and rather thick - when I saw that most people had put these intelligent titled literary books, and there was me with things like Maeve Binchy, Erica James and Sophie Kinsella, lol. But I'm so glad to see that you feel the same way. And I definitely agree - I want to write the sort of thing love reading. What's the point trying to write a historical novel when I don't read books like that. Thank heavens for ordinary - but there's nothing wrong with literary either, everything has its place.

Fionnuala said...

I've found that the more I'm writing the more comfortable I feel by reading 'out of genre' Its strange - its almost like one love has fed another?
I write womens fiction/chick lit and was fairly stuck in reading only that type of book, but have to confess since forming a book club and being force fed other genres - I've loved reading all of them (okay maybe not the too HIGH brow literary ones:))
I do believe that reading, whatever it is, has enriched my writing.
Thanks for the really interesting post Claire.

Emma Darwin said...

I think all Strictly writers and readers would be suprised to discover just how many people DO try to get a book published without having read one.

It's not quite as bad as the number of people who try to get poetry published when they don't read any, but it's still fairly staggering.