Reading and Writing

By Nancy Jane Moore

booksAfter spending the afternoon reading so I could avoid writing (nothing like reading for making you feel like you’re being constructive when you’re goofing off), I got on the computer with the goal of getting to work on my novel. Of course, I checked email and Facebook first, just to see if there was something else I could do to avoid work.

On Facebook I stumbled across a link to an article in Salon on writers who don’t read, which was inspired by this one from The New Yorker. I was shocked. Could writers who don’t read be a trend? Just how big is the problem? I wanted to know more, so I went back and read the articles carefully, looking for the facts.

It turns out that The New Yorker article was based on statements by writer William Giraldi, who also teaches writing. He said that he has students who have a passionate urge to write but no urge to read. The Salon article is also about Giraldi’s comments and doesn’t quote from any other writing teachers. But both pieces assume that writing without reading is a real phenomenon.

In The New Yorker piece, Macy Halford observes:

What is wanting to write without wanting to read like? It’s imperative that we figure it out, because Giraldi’s right: it’s both crazy and prevalent among budding writers.

The Salon article, by Buzz Poole, ties the issue to social media and, though nicely written, has a distinctly curmudgeonly sound:
The pervasiveness of social networking corrodes the ability of words to bestow the enchantment of solitude. Being alone is not so much considered a freedom or luxury anymore, especially among teenagers. It’s a punishment.

Neither article includes any evidence at all beyond Giraldi’s statements. They don’t even cite any other writing teachers with similar opinions, much less any statistical studies of aspiring writers showing how many read. Despite the fact that they only cite one teacher’s experience, both Halford and Poole obviously believe this is settled fact.

Judging by the response on Facebook, they’re not alone in their belief. But near as I can tell, the only evidence of this growing body of writers who don’t read is purely anecdotal and comes from writing teachers.

Back in my school days, the students all bitched about their teachers. Guess what? Teachers bitch about their students, too. I’m sure some of those complaints are real; I’m sure many students do not live up to their teachers’ expectations. But I’m not convinced that the fact that some writing teachers have been cursed with poor students means that reading is dying out among those who seriously aspire to a writing career.

I know a lot of writers, young and old, but I don’t know any who don’t read. Of course, that’s anecdotal evidence, too. It’s not proof of anything except the fact that my experience differs from Giraldi’s.

Still, before anyone declares non-reading writers to be a trend, I’d like to see a little evidence that there’s a real problem. I  suspect this is just another iteration of “these kids today.” Maybe it’s just me, but I can remember when the older generation said that about us.

Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.


About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Reading and Writing — 22 Comments

  1. I wonder if this is not just an extension of the ‘magical writer’ thinking. You know: that you can become a writer without knowing about plot, considering character, doing any research, or actually putting words down anywhere. At that point, if you’re not going to do any of those things, why should you read? The magic will cover it. Of course you don’t see many books written by these folks.

  2. I second the magical writer idea and add that writing books and teachers have been recommending for decade upon decade that aspiring writers must first read. I certainly remember coming across this recommendation when I was first taking up the pen 40 years ago. I wonder if the recommendation would have been so urgent if the young writers of that day had all been reading, or reading as much as we needed to read.

  3. My sister once told me that one reason she writes poetry instead of fiction is that reading fiction as a writer would take a lot of the fun out of it. I admit this can sometimes be true. I find I’m incapable of reading any fiction without spending at least some time looking at how the writer did things, though if it’s a good book, I usually have to do that on a second read because I’m in the grip of the story on the first one.

    I’ve learned to read like a writer, to look at sentence structure, to figure out how a writer sprinkles clues throughout a book (and not just in mysteries) so that plot twists shouldn’t be a complete surprise to the careful reader.

    But I didn’t start out like that. I just started out reading everything I could get my hands on. That’s what made me want to write. First, there were stories that weren’t being told. Second, I wanted to be like those writers. I didn’t just want to have a book out; I wanted to have a book that someone else would read and cherish the way I read and cherished some of what I read along the way. Certain books have changed my life, and I still have the desire to write books and stories that change someone’s life. Without reading, I wouldn’t know how important books can be.

    As for the magical thinking: It’s the same with sports or dance or acting or any art form: We’re taught artists and athletes are born, not made. It’s absurd and it keeps people who are told they don’t have the talent from reaching for the stars. Especially since a lot of the time the information that they lack any ability is wrong. I recall that my first grade music teacher told me I couldn’t sing, when what I couldn’t do is stay on pitch based on one note from a pitch pipe. Once I ran into a competent music teacher (in second grade and on), I learned to sing well and ended up doing solos in church.

  4. This is only more anecdotal evidence piled on the first, but I do know one young writer who not only does not read, but refuses to do so in spite of the fact that she says she loves to read, and that it was her love of reading that caused her to decide to become a writer.

    Her chosen path to that goal (and good luck with this): BA with a lot of creative writing courses, MFA in writing, then become a teacher to support herself, while she works on her novel. Not sure how you do all that without reading, but whatever.

    She says that she deliberately gave up reading when she decided to become a writer, on the grounds that to read would pollute her voice. The sad thing is that she is a very good writer, with a strong voice that could only be made better, not worse — more individual, not more mundane — by extensive reading.

    She is cheating herself out of the natural development that reading would bring her.

    As to why this is happening (assuming, of course, that it is even happening at all), I can only guess. But I have to report that when I see a four-year-old at the food court being literally applauded by his parents for throwing his napkin away (yes — truly applauded), I believe I am seeing the rearing of a person who will believe that his words are special and unique and worthy of applause simply because they are his, and that the words of others are not worthy of his time because, after all, who applauded those others when they ate out?

  5. I was actually reading a little on this earlier this week and thought it a little strange. And you’d think coming from the “New Yorker” and “” that it would be well researched and quality work . . . thanks for digesting and making sense of it.

    Though I’m sure this is true to some degree that new writers may not be reading as much — especially if certain teachers are spending more time showing off their own work in creative writing classes than having their students read examples of good writing (I might’ve had this in college).

    And then there’s the Stephen King quote I have permanently memorized: “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time (or tools) to write. Simple as that.”

  6. I suppose it is possible in this day and age of constant communication that creative people lack the time to read that we had in the past. I know I certainly read far less. It’s also possible that the self-centeredness we’ve taught our children these past decades has created monsters who think they can do anything (throw out the trash!) without learning.

    But I still think the urge to write comes from reading. There there will always be readers who dream and desire to put these dreams down in print. Their books, I’ll read.

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  8. There are some writers who don’t read. You can see it from the first page of their work. That’s why they never quite manage to become published.

  9. When I was an undergraduate there were loads of people I knew who wrote poetry all the time and considered themselves poets. But they never read poetry, or much of anything else either. It puzzled me, but what the heck, I figured — except I hated their poems and thought they were boring at best, and worse than dreadful at worst. They were insistant also that I read their immortal work and praise it, and that didn’t make me think what the heck. That made me think, “Go Away! Now!”

    But I’ve never known fiction writers or any other kind of writers, to not read vastly in the fields in which they aspired to write or do write by now professionally. Except, maybe some people who consider themselves song writers and they never listen to songs, you know? Poets again?

    Love, C.

  10. I don’t know why some writers feel they don’t have to read. Musicians listen to music; football players spend every Monday watching videotape of their own play and the play of other football games; stage actors spend all their spare time in the audience of other shows. It is unreasonable.

  11. Seems to me all the songwriters I know and hear interviewed on the radio, etc., must listen to other people’s songs, because they’re always raving about someone else’s work or doing a cover version of someone else’s song.

    But come to think of it, I hear writers raving about other people’s work all the time, too. Or at least, the writers I hang out with do that.

  12. I wrote something about this earlier in the week, occasioned by a dinner with Nancy Kress when she told me that she had students in her writing class who told her they didn’t read. Anything.

    **blink** I don’t get it.

  13. Foxessa, writing good poetry means doing something new and exciting with the same old words. Wannabe poets who don’t read end up writing stuff that’s already been done better.

  14. It’s hard not to call shenanigans on stories like this: they are just filler copy meant to either begin or end a discussion and, I find, most often based on a mistrust of ‘social media’ and its influence on younger generations.

    What you have ably pointed out is that the very thing these writers from Salon and the New Yorker are deploring is influencing their own work. It is pure laziness to compose such articles without doing any real home work. Hardly inspiring, that.

  15. In other words successful professionals spend enormous amounts of time reading, listening to and studying the works of those in their field(s) of endeavor, past and present.

    In my experience too, these people spend a lot of time studying – watching – reading – listening to a lot of EVERYTHING, including our current deplorable so-called political system.

    Love, C.

  16. A writer I once knew, a writer with all the right credentials (awards, MFA), told me she didn’t like to read. But she loved to write.

  17. Nancy,

    Thanks for this! I’ll point my students here. We’ve been reading Francine Prose’s book Reading Like A Writer, so it’s quite relevant to our in-class discussion.

    Although I remember years ago hearing someone (not my students!) cite the overly-precious and false notion that reading other works of fiction would “pollute” the writer’s voice. True that many writers start by mimicking other writers, but isn’t that a natural part of the learning process, just as children learn by imitating their parents and peers? And how would anyone learn without reading?

    As you said, I am hoping that it’s not an actual phenomenon.

  18. Rebecca, I hope your students will weigh in, too, especially if they’re currently thinking about Francine Prose’s ideas. I really liked Reading Like a Writer myself. One thing I like about reading many different kinds of writing is finding out how many different ways there are to construct a sentence.

    It does occur to me that there have been periods in my life where I read more nonfiction than fiction. I wonder if, when I’m deeply involved in work on a complex fiction project, I find other fictional worlds distracting. That’s worth considering. I know that when I read some books — Gwyneth Jones’s series of books beginning with Bold as Love is a great example — I become obsessed with the world the author has created and want to live in it. So I read, and go back and re-read, and talk about it, and generally don’t want to read any other fiction while I’m doing this.

    It could be that I develop the same level of obsession when writing — that I’m only interested in the world I’m creating — especially doing the first draft of something long and complex. I’m not sure about this; it’s just a hypothesis. In any case, it would be a short term thing.

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