Who Should Writers Read?

Earlier this evening, Patrick Ross tweeted this question to his followers:

What are 3 authors every writer must read?

This is my response.

Knowing Patrick, there will be an interesting post about this on his blog, The Artist’s Road, soon. I hope he doesn′t feel I′m raining on his parade. It′s a great question and I am sure there are as many answers as there are writers.

Part of the challenge with the question is that it begs the question ″What needs do all writers have in common that can be satisfied by reading?″

I am going to address the question of fiction writers working in English and I am going to avoid books about the craft of writing. My basic assumption is that writers should be exposed to a wide variety of styles and to good storytelling.

In general, I am against including an author whose work needs to be read in translation. Translation is such an art itself that any such recommendation would require also recommending a particular translation.

My short list of authors is Shakespeare and Hemingway. And then, there is one book I think all Western writers should know.

Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my favourite playwright, but I have a certain reluctance to suggest that all English language writers should read his works. Shakespeare wrote poetry and plays. The plays should be seen to be appreciated most, and the poems, though lovely, do not strike me as more necessary for a writer to read than those by Yeats or Shelley.

But, I see three good reasons for writers to read Shakespeare′s works.

  1. He was a mash-up artist. He stole his plots from every source he had available, mixed and matched them, added his own experiences and understanding of life, and created something entirely new. Any writer who worries about the fact that everything has been done before and all work is derivative can find comfort in Shakespeare.
  2. Shakespeare′s inventiveness with language is a reminder that language need not be used as expected. Writers are wordsmiths of two sorts: we build with words, but we also build new words.
  3. The plays are full of great examples of characterization through dialogue. Shakespeare′s use of language to convey character and emotion is rich. The choices about which characters use prose and which use lyric poetry or doggerel are revealing. In addition, the use of metaphor versus direct language varies as the intensity of the emotions vary.

Hemingway

To be honest, I do not enjoy Hemingway as a reader. My tastes run differently in both subject matter and diction. But, I believe Hemingway′s direct use of language is a example writers need to be aware of. Few writers come close to his power of evoking a reality without extraneous flourishes.

The Book

Or more accurately, books.

If you are going to write fiction in the Western tradition, I do think you should read the Bible: Old Testament, New Testament, and Apocrypha. Not for any theological reasons, but because English literature is so full of references to Biblical stories that not knowing the stories is denying yourself an understanding of much of what you will read, not to mention a sense of the historical context in which you write.

But maybe you don′t need context, in which case, skip the Bible and write.

The Big Question

The real question, I think, is what writers should be exposing themselves to. To which I say, everything – unless it interferes with your ability to find you own voice, in which case, cut back.

Seriously, fiction writers should read. Widely. The grand stories that have lasted the ages and the small stories that make the local papers.  The classics from foreign cultures that open the imagination to other ways of being.  Flowery prose, concise prose, poetry, nonfiction of all flavours, potboilers and pulp fiction, Literature with a capital ″L″, all of it. Just read.

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About Kate Arms-Roberts

www.katearmsroberts.com

Posted on April 16, 2011, in This Writing Life. Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. Thanks for a good post and for the good advice.

    Most of the “how to” books about the craft give me pointers, but nothing SHOWS me “how to” better than a well-written novel.

  2. Kate Arms-Roberts

    Good point. I find the “how-to” pointers often don’t make sense without some examples to go along with them.

  3. Kate, fantastic post, and you most definitely have not rained on my parade! And yes, I do plan to post a blog on this tomorrow morning.

    I love your suggestions.

    For me, Shakespeare is also useful because he creates a dramatic story arc, and is excellent at knowing when to add a little humor to cut the tension.

    As for Hemingway, he really is my kind of writer, and his ability to portray scene and setting in sparse wording is not fully appreciated. (People who skip description sometimes say they’re emulating Hemingway but they’re not.)

    I finally read the Bible cover to cover about ten years ago, and was struck by how it is really stories and poetry, and how much stories told today echo the stories told there. One of my friends answered my tweet with St. Paul, which I thought was quite interesting.

    Fun, fun, fun!

  4. Loved the wordsmith statement…so true.

  1. Pingback: Three Authors Every Writer Should Read « The Artist's Road

  2. Pingback: Raising Literate Children « Kate Arms-Roberts

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