To read or not to read? READ!

The other day, my writer/rock star friend Ryan Werner sent me a link to an article titled “The 10 Most Harmful Novels for Aspiring Writers.” The gist of the article is that people should stop reading certain books, by certain authors, because those books suck us into pale imitations and lock us out of our own writing. (Or so the premise is. The actual content of the article is more about complaining about certain books and authors — Hemingway, Rand, Kerouac — or trumpeting how successfully the article’s author managed to “break free” of their insidious influence.)

For quick reference, the list is as follows:

  • Atlas Shrugged, by Ayn Rand
  • The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
  • For Whom the Bell Tolls, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Big Sleep, by Raymond Chandler
  • Love Story, by Erich Segal
  • USA, by John Dos Passos
  • On the Road, by Jack Kerouac
  • Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
  • (The “tenth book” isn’t a book but a category, “Good but dangerous,” which includes works by the Brontë sisters, Fitzgerald, García Márquez, Joyce….)

When Ryan posted the article’s link on my Facebook, he added a list of his own:

I’d add The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy, anything by Bukowski, American Psycho, High Fidelity, anything by Carver, the Rabbit books, Me Talk Pretty One Day, and anything by David Foster Wallace. Some of these I’ve experienced personally (Carver, High Fidelity, the Rabbit books) and others I’ve either guessed at or dealt with in workshops, but it’s all dangerous. You were in grad school when people were really into David Foster Wallce. That must have been hell.

When I checked out the article online, I noticed a fantastic comment below the article, from a reader named “AmandaJuneHagarty.”  Here’s what she wrote:

I understand your point, but I completely disagree with your conclusion that we should just not read certain books. The key is to read a vast array of books. Every writer practices mimicry at least a little. The wider variety of books the better. Even poorly written books, full of drivel, teach you what not to do when writing a book. The lesson that a young and aspiring writer should be learning is to expand their horizons not limit them. You don’t do them any favors with this article. But I know what you are doing. It’s the oldest trick in the book — a bit cliche I must say. Maximize controversy, maximize exposure. I certainly would never have heard of you if a Facebook friend had not posted a link to your article in disgust. The trouble with this method is you aren’t really maximizing your contribution.

I pasted that comment into my reply to Ryan’s post, and added the following:

I second that motion.

I think the mark of a bad writer isn’t that they imitate or who they imitate, but their inability to transcend that imitation. But all writing is an imitation of something — even life — so reading these books and trying to work through them toward your own voice is a good thing, not a bad thing. The danger isn’t in the book, but in how we’re taught to read them, and how we’re taught to write. And in that respect, I would agree with this guy — too many lit programs and too many writing programs hold up these examples and simply say, “Here — write like this.” [. . .] If only this guy had actually said that.

Later last night, I was reading an article on creative writing pedagogy in AWP‘s Pedagogy Exclusives database, “More than Just Mentorship and Modeling: Creative Writers and Pedagogy,” by Gerry LaFemina. In the article, LaFemina is trying a dual argument for why creative writing and literary critics are not so separate or at odds as they sometimes make each other out to be, and how creative writing teachers might best serve their students while also satisfying the critical expectations of their lit-studies colleagues. But within all that, he makes a few comments that felt applicable to this other discussion I’d been having, about what to read (or not to read) and why.

LaFemina points out that to become fully rounded writers, creative of otherwise,

[s]tudent writers must learn the formal, stylistic, semantic, aesthetic, and aural options for delivery of this information, and as they do, they must make fundamental changes either to the facts of a given event or to the language. They are learning to give up pure self expression for the finding of that voice Kinnell mentions when he suggests how poetry transcends the autobiographical.

He explains how writing teachers can model this skill in our classrooms and in our own lives by sharing with our students our own writing habits, our reading preferences, and the things we learn at writing conferences (an approach I have long used myself — I view modeling and collaborative learning as fundamental to my job as a teacher as well as a writer).

Later, LaFemina suggests that writing teachers can encourage students “to listen to language and take joy in a diversity of styles, modes, and voices. Moreover, the best student writers are the ones who read — and read voraciously.” And it is this last point that seems most relevant. In her comment on the “Harmful Books” article, “AmandaJuneHagarty” (and others) argue that aspiring writers should learn from a variety of sources and should practice a variety of styles. “Every writer practices mimicry at least a little,” she writes. In fact, many successful writers encourage mimicry, especially when offering advice to young or beginning writers. Robin McKinley, for instance, in the FAQ page on her website, tells beginning writers:

You can also learn a lot by sheer plagiarism, so long as you recognise that that is what it is and that it’s only a writing exercise. I wrote an awful lot of very bad Tolkien pastiche when I was younger — I didn’t realise what I was doing at first, but even when I began to, later on, I could see that I was learning a lot about characterisation and plot development, how you get people from one place to another, how much background you need, how to slip in information your story is going to need later, how to lay a good ambush for the innocent reader.

McKinley would probably balk at the “Harmful Books” article (notice that Tolkien is on that list), and she strongly supports broad reading, including the “bad” books: “Read as much as you can and write as much as you can,” she advises new writers. “Reading feeds your own story-telling. [. . .] This includes, by the way, a category I will call Good Trash. (My husband once wrote an essay called In Praise of Rubbish,* on the subject of reading bad books as well as good ones, and he says it’s the most popular and reprinted article he’s ever done.”

Ryan Werner followed up my criticism of that “Harmful Books” article with some criticism of his own: “I’m not saying those books or any of the ones I mentioned shouldn’t be read, and in that respect I also totally disagree that people should avoid these books or even writing in the styles these books are written in. [. . .]  Where the danger comes in is exactly where you place it: using the cribbing as the style instead of an influence on the style.”

Which brought to mind an old favorite textbook of mine, which LaFemina also references in his Pedagogy Exclusives article:

Nicholas Delbanco’s textbook, The Sincerest Form, focuses on belletristic methods to teach craft, using samples by “twelve master stylists, from Ernest Hemingway to Jamaica Kincaid,” explaining how these samples work, and asking students to imitate these measures in order to learn technique. Once certain skills are learned, they can be transcended.

This is why the first two principles on my Fourteen Principles for Creative Writers are to explore the possibilities in writing and to write what you want to write. My list of principles later includes edicts about listening to criticism and accepting advice, because writing is about growing — and transcending mere imitation — but it should begin with what we love. And what we love to write should also be what we love to read, in which case, there should be no “rules” or limitations on where our influences come from. All we need is a good writing teacher to help us learn what to do with those influences.

* The essay by McKinley’s husband, Peter Dickinson, is actually titled “In Defense of Rubbish.” You can find a copy of it on his website, which I linked to in the essay’s title.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

7 thoughts on “To read or not to read? READ!

  1. Excellent post and thanks for sharing the multiple perspectives. I’m all for reading everything – or at least everything that takes your interest. I don’t think we should ever try to emulate another writer so people should read widely and find their own voice.
    Thanks for the great post.

    1. Thanks, Cassandra!

      Like your blog–I liked your entry and link to the “rules for writers,” and I’m going to spend some time perusing all your other lists and links, because they all look pretty cool.

  2. I’ll have to check out The Sincerest Form. I know I’ve sat through a lot of stories modeled on “Girl” by Kincaid, and it’s always a neat learning experience.

  3. I’ve read some seriously bad books throughout the years–I mean those types where it must have been ‘bring your kid to work day’ at the publishing houses and they let their eight-year-olds run the editing room. But if you only read the greats, how could you really appreciate them as being great? I’ve learned a lot from those terrible books. They were a helpful tool when I started to write–now I try hard to avoid them.

  4. I think when we take up the pen and try seriously to become writers we enter a lineage – all writers before us become our ancestors. We should read widely to learn from where we come – only then as artists do we begin to sense where we must go. On the subject of imitation I have always felt the opposite – if only my writing could be influenced by reading certain writers! I have not come any closer to genius by reading Woolf, Shakespeare, Yeats and all the other (to me) greats. If only it were that easy.

    1. I have a special love for the concept of lineages. I wrote about various literary lineages in American short fiction for my doctoral comprehensive exams, and I’ve been writing lately about the responsibility to lineage in teaching. I love that you brought this up–I might have to post about it some day soon!

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