What are You Reading? What SHOULD You be Reading?

In the July 20 issue of Funds for Writers: Small Markets, Hope C. Clark featured an article asking “What do You Read While You Write?” In it, she recommends reading heavily within the genre in which you write. This is sound advice, and it’s made intuitive sense to me since I was fifteen and realized I wanted to write fantasy novels, then hit up the library for all the fantasy novels I could find. I even remember feeling jealous when my best friend checked out a few fantasy titles that I wanted — I felt that I needed those books more than she did. I had to learn how this was done!

Most people naturally read within the genre in which they write — we tend to write the types of books that we’re interested in reading. It also allows you an intuitive grasp of the conventions and rules within your chosen genre. That’s why, when there was no speculative fiction writers group in a city I used to live in, I started one. Because folks who read speculative fiction just handle dragons and telepaths in writing better than those who don’t. If your critique group doesn’t get too hung up on a talking cat or a misbehaving broomstick, they can help you with character development, sentence structure, and all the other pieces that go into refining a story.

But I think that what you read needs to go further than that. I’ve always been a fan of books that cross boundaries — as much as I love sinking into a well-developed fantasy world like Robert Jordan’s, I think I like even more to be in a strange blend of fantasy and current-day reality such as we find in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And my favorite book, The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, doesn’t hold such a hallowed place because of the world-building, but because of the poetic, literary writing, and the deeper questions about what it means to live through your own personal transformation.

The truth is, I begin to feel bored, even a little suffocated, when I only read within one genre. And I think it shows when writers don’t ever read outside of the genre in which they write, too. You don’t get the surprise of ancient gods on a merry-go-round, or the aching sadness of a unicorn who’s learned about regret. There’s a certain sense of predictability that makes all of an author’s books start to sound the same — the same as one another, and the same as all the others in the genre. Perhaps enjoyable, but not necessarily memorable or daring.

I write mainly speculative fiction, but I read memoir, theology, feminism, literary fiction, YA, and more. My hope is that, while my speculative fiction will follow the conventions of its genre, it will also contain the poignancy of memoir, the immediacy of YA, the provocativeness of spirituality and feminism.

In her article, Hope also has little time for people who don’t read while they’re working on a writing project:

And before you say something, let me wave off the excuse that you are afraid you’ll copy something you’ve read.

And my first thought when I read this was … who are these people who look for excuses not to read?

I’m always working on a writing project, which means that, if I didn’t allow myself to read other work while I was in the midst of creation, I’d have to stop reading altogether, or save it only for the one month or so a year when I’m taking a “break” between large projects.  I consider myself to be showing remarkable restraint if I’m only reading three books at a time (usually I’m reading five). I find excuses to put off writing, but I’ve never sought an excuse not to read. Reading is not a duty to improve my writing, but a haven, a reward, a stimulation, a treat, and an addiction. That people who think of themselves as writers shun the books of others while they’re working on their own is totally perplexing to me. If I had to follow such a routine, I think it would be enough to make me give up writing. Let nothing come between a girl and her books!

What do you think? How important is it to read within the genre in which you write? What are the advantages and pitfalls of reading “wide” vs. reading “deep”? (Interestingly, research shows that kids who read “deep” — a lot in one subject area — perform better in school than those who read “wide.” Unfortunately for me, I’m more of a “wide” reader). I’d love to hear any insights you have. Until then, I’m off to catch up on book reviews at my Goodreads account.