The things writers read

*Crossposted from  *

Apropos nothing I’ve been wondering if I’m typical of how writers’ read. I don’t mean in fiction.
In fiction – with the strange exception of people I’ve been hearing about lately, who do not read at all because they’re afraid it will taint their writing (most of these people aren’t published, I should add) – the short answer to a writer’s reading tastes is like the one about the eight hundred pound gorilla. The short answer is "Anything he/she wants to." The even shorter answer is "Everything."

For years I held fast to one certainty. I didn’t read Romance. And then it started trickling in. It started with Dave Freer – curse you my friend ! – telling me I had to read Heyer. He was right, I did. Venetia quickly became one of my favorite books, an obsession I promptly passed onto the boys. And then friends recommended other writers. And then at RWA I found my reaction to Romance is about the same as to other genres. It leaves no mark. Meaning that I can read most of it painlessly. About ten percent will strike me one way or another. Ten percent will make me run out and buy everything the writer ever wrote. Ten percent makes me throw it against the wall and at least metaphorically stomp on it. Which makes Romance just the same as Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery and Thrillers.

Two things I don’t read, and they’re highly personal distastes – one of them is gross out horror. It’s not that I’m a sensitive plant. My friend Charles is forever protecting me from gross/shocking sights because the fact that I don’t like paint-the-room-red scenes fits in with his idea of being a lady. I’m a lady and therefore I should flinch from this sort of thing. Actually the truth is that it bores me. In the dank mess that is my mind I can come up with much worse than anything I’ve ever read. Without trying. Depending on how stable I’m feeling, sometimes the difficult part is not to write this stuff.

The other thing I don’t read, for a different reason, is porn. No, look, I’m not going to claim to be much purer or high minded than other people. I assume some of you have read my stuff – coff. It’s just that what goes where and how many times has never held any kind of fascination unless it is at that precise moment happening to me (and then I don’t particularly want to share it). I’m not excluding erotica. In fact I’m learning to include erotic passages in my writing. (Which is funny, considering I sold my first erotica piece ten years ago, but it was very much a one-off.) But in erotica what’s important is the emotions that dictate the acts and are shaped by them. That’s different from in and out and "oh," and "ah." Fictional characters need to have emotions to be real.

But everything else that falls to hand, from fairy tales to my kids’ Disney comics, gets read. Depending on the time of day and what I feel like, I can find myself reading very odd things.

On the other hand, my non fiction forms a much more interesting pattern and one that I’m not sure other writers follow at all. I know that many of my friends – Dave Freer, for instance – read a lot of non fiction as well. But I also know that a lot of them read almost exclusively fiction. I read at least as much non-fiction as fiction. Possibly more, depending on what is going on in my life. (Non-fiction demands less emotional involvement than fiction, so when I’m tired or depressed, I read mostly non-fiction.)

One of the first books I read was a scholarly history of Portugal and since then I have continued to read a lot history, but also other things – things I love include old biology books. Old science books, of any kind, including nineteenth century educational texts. Travel logs. Books on economics, physics… well, just about anything.

I buy non fiction the way other people buy food when they go to the grocery store hungry. "Oooh, that looks good." Hitting Amazon with time on my hands, means a jumble of books gets bought. Ditto hitting a bookstore. Or for that matter the dumpster outside a bookstore.
Generally speaking there is a pattern to it, though, and it can be exemplified by the stuff that dropped into the house today via the mail. First, there was Black Swan, a book on well… our perception of quantum reality and rare history-altering events that were thought to be impossible before. So far I have no reason why I’m reading this. Just… it’s interesting and it’s there. I keep it downstairs in the kitchen and read it while having meals, or tea, or cooking (or huddling by the oven because it’s been so cold). That sort of thing.

The other one is Gentleman Boss, a biography of President Chester Arthur. This one is being read with the vague idea of a series of historical murder mysteries. I’ve discussed the first of this with my agent, with the idea that it was a one-off, and possibly main stream. For all it know it’s still main stream, but I have a vague suspicion it’s not one-off. I’m reading this book with the idea of pinning that feeling down and seeing if there is a "there" there. To put it in perspective, the idea for the first of these mysteries came to me almost a year ago, and the suspicion there might be more did not hit until last month. That one is by my bedside table, and I read a few pages before sleeping.

Then there is – still un-started, (because if I start it, it will make me go back to that project and away form the one in which I’m working just now) and I don’t remember the title, is about the status of women in baroque France. That one is for a very specific half-way through project.
And then there’s just general "ooh" reading. When I had the idea for my Heart of Light Series, I didn’t even know where my memory of African History came from.

It wasn’t until we were moving that I found, stuffed in a closet, all the books I’d already decided I needed to buy to carry the project through. Finding them, I remembered I’d read them ten years before and that was why I just needed to refresh my knowledge. I’d read them in a fit of "Ooh, that looks tasty." In the same vein, lately I’ve been doing a lot of cryptozoology reading. No idea where it fits in, yet.

Do other writers read like me? I don’t know. I know that the older I get the more I want to read – and listen. And watch. The Great Courses series is ruining me – and the more conscious I am of how little I know. Even with all my reading, the idea that I can create a plausible world – scientific or magic – is a staggering piece of hubris. I look at my book-stuffed house and I think "I want to know more."

3 thoughts on “The things writers read

  1. I am not a writer per se. Well technically I’m a professional writer, but that is just part of my job as an engineer. However I do read everything, I have a long standing love affair with the written word. I tend to stick primarily in the SF&F generes, but when desperate I have been know stoop as far as reading the list of ingredients on my cereal box.
    I don’t know how someone can think about writing without first doing a lot of reading. If nothing else call it research on what not to write.

  2. While not yet published (simply awaiting rejection letters), I do consider myself a writer, if an inexperienced one. Because I am also a student, I have very little discretionary reading time, as so much of my reading time is already taken up with assigned readings for classes. I find that most of the readings I do purely of my own choice are things which I know I will like: fantasy, historical fiction, YA of many stripes, and a little sci-fi. Which, because I enjoy reading it, is also what I write. There have been a number of writing projects for which I needed to know information I did not have at my instant recall, and so I read up on them somewhat, but outside of theology/spirituality (my one non-fiction love) I read very little non-fiction for pleasure.

  3. I should probably investigate some zoology. I’ve been thinking (again) lately that gryphons make a lot more “sense” if they’re housecat sized.
    Isn’t “I want to know more” a necessity for being a writer? I know it’s a universal trait among my friends, and I’m happy that that’s so.
    I can claim to be a published writer only by a technicality IMO: poetry isn’t in the same ballpark, and I never expect to make a living at it as I’m not that good even if it were a more lucrative market.

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