The Consequences of Writing Without Reading

"Question - Reponse" by Daniel Mar

"Question - Reponse" by Daniel Mar

At The New Yorker Book Bench Macy Halford recently posed an important question: “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.” She was echoing a question asked by debut novelist William Giraldi who in the course of teaching writing at Boston University has noticed a growing number of aspiring writers disinclined to read. This unfortunate trend inspired an open-ended analogy:

Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to ____ without wanting to ____.

The New Yorker commenterati – unsurprisingly, a clever bunch – came up with some great analogies but none of them touched on the bigger question: How can anyone claim to be interested in writing without being serious about reading? If Giraldi’s observation rings true across teenagers and twenty-somethings then what does this say about culture at large?

I have always loved to read. A day that permits me an hour of reading before having to get out of bed perks me up better than coffee. I also consider myself a writer. I’ve been kept awake at night thinking about and working on a story and found myself with finished pieces that I can’t recall how they actually took shape; I’ve also struggled and felt like giving up. While the moments of magic happen, writing, for me, is hard work and at times incredibly frustrating.

Reading, on the other hand, is not a struggle. It is an utter pleasure. And it is in this pleasure where I first took up the challenge of writing, in trying to emulate the wordsmiths whose stories possessed me so completely that the rest of the world would fade away so long as I kept turning the pages and allowed their words to fuel my imagination. Whether I was tagging along on the adventures of the Three Investigators, tangled in a Mark Twain yarn, laughing at jokes that I didn’t understand fully in old Doonesbury books or frightened by Stephen King (and mesmerized by his sex scenes), these experiences got me wanting to read more and more, from the high school literary canon to Grisham and Clancy thrillers.

As a kid I also wrote. Every week, my eighth grade English teacher Mr. Powell issued a word, like “twist,” and the following week we would hand in a story built on the assigned word. I wrote about a kid at a party who twisted off one too many beer bottle caps and ended up wrecking a car. I certainly hadn’t started drinking yet, but I’d read about it and clearly something had stuck enough to inform this story.

With age the trajectory of my reading habits drifted literary and I began copying Hunter S. Thompson’s stylized disgust and Jack Kerouac’s verve. I would write out their sentences and try to hit their strides with my own words. Obviously, plenty of young writers still do this, whether they fancy themselves the next F. Scott Fitzgerald or J.K. Rowling. But what do we make of those want-to-be writers that don’t think it’s important to read?

Books about writers trying to write have been around for a long time. Books about writers trying to write while also juggling their teachings gigs have also been around for a while. Nabokov did it quite well and was ahead of the curve. Michael Chabon gave us something entertaining with Wonder Boys. But there has been an uptick in books with titles like After the Workshop and All the Sad Young Literary Men. Scores of similarly themed books indicate a trend in contemporary publishing to reward writing about writing, or trying to write. Why? Because a great number of people who buy and read such books relate to the struggle and find solace or perhaps even redemption in these tales. It is what they know; the territory is familiar, to the point that some of these readers might say to themselves, “If this guy can do it, so can I!”

Adrian Tomine, via The2Moons

Adrian Tomine, via The2Moons

On a much larger scale, this is the same mentality that drives the Japanese “mobile phone novel” phenomenon, keitai shoushetsu. All the rage in Japan and China, stories and books written via cell phones are huge business, according to Wired UK: “The largest mobile phone novel site, Maho i-Land, features more than a million titles and is visited 3.5 billion times each month. In 2007, five out of the 10 best selling novels in Japan were originally mobile phone novels.” This popularity has spurred Movellas, a Dutch company, to set up a similar model in Europe with its eyes on English-speaking markets. CEO Joram Felbert equates the books to diary entries.

Apparently, the journaling quality of these works lends itself to Justin Bieber fan fiction laced with text-message acronyms. Notions of “craft” are not a real issue for these authors. But let there be no doubt, if these are the sorts of books publishers can sell, then these are the books the publishers will champion. It follows, that in the same way certain fiction writers recognize aspects of themselves in books about writing fiction and propagate more of it, fans of social networking fiction will see themselves in it and continue this new tradition. Driven by sales, it will become popular and the thought of reading the canon, or even Danielle Steel, will be considered tedious and unnecessary.

There is also something to this growing disconnect between writing and reading that Steve Himmer touched on in his excellent piece that appeared at The Millions: “Yet I can’t help but remember that reading — both the careful selection of books and being given enough privacy to quietly read them myself — was among the first freedoms I had.”  Humanity is losing its ability to be alone with nothing but our thoughts. Both writing and reading are solitary acts. They are also liberating acts that can free practitioners of either from reality for as long as someone chooses to read or write. You fall into the moment of the act, commit yourself to it, indulge imagination to the point that it usurps the daily grind – the tedium of work, relationship troubles, baleful news reports – and you the reader, you the writer, are all that exist as a sounding board for the words, no matter what their story.

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. Behind closed doors, away from nosey parents and annoying siblings, the connection to friends and the details and distractions of life stream through walls and windows, eradicate distance.

In fact, the channeling of experience through Facebook and Twitter as it happens, and seemingly before a moment is even allowed to pass fully, undercuts one of the traditional tenets of reading and writing: metaphor. In our age of immediacy, the associative distances that shape shift with the diversity of snowflakes are endangered. In the same way that Susan Sontag recognized how photography became the standard of visual beauty, trumping the figures and objects in the photographs, the diminishing of distance has irrevocably changed our sense of how we describe the world we inhabit. Immediacy kills metaphor and its demise unquestionably plays a role in perspectives on craft. Or maybe the bolder point is that craft is of little interest to certain want-to-be writers. In our fifteen-megabytes of fame culture that favors quantities – friends, followers, number of comments – over quality this might be what it all comes down to, because if you can be recognized and rewarded as a writer without being much of a reader, guess what, most people will not try to read James Joyce.

Growing up poor in Harlem, James Baldwin found in his local library the answers to questions he otherwise never would have thought to ask. As his biographer W.J. Weatherby describes it: “It was reading that saved him. It was an escape from his stepfather, his home life, the Harlem streets, the other boys, the cops. A book could take him far away.” In Baldwin’s words: “I read books like they were some weird kind of food.” Feasting on stories that on the surface in no way related to the life he lived on a daily basis taught Baldwin how to peel away surface levels and find the less obvious commonalities. Baldwin’s reading habit not only gave him the tools with which he built a tremendous career as a writer; it saved his life because reading also taught him how to be alone with himself, even if at times that solitude was discomforting.

 

"The New Novel" by Winslow Homer via Wikipedia

"The New Novel" by Winslow Homer via Wikipedia

Yes, ambitious, talented writers will continue to exist and their writing will be great because they have read. And yes, there will remain people who have nary an interest in writing but luxuriate in an afternoon of reading. The devaluing of imagination as it departs on flights of fancy brought on by just being with yourself, this is what is changing us in profound, yet to be fully realized ways.

Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to use your imagination without wanting to know how.


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  5. Wanting to write without wanting to read is like wanting to make music without wanting to listen to music.

    I consider myself a writer. Even if I have no books published yet. It’s something that is not dependent on a career. Writting, unlike reading (which often is, to me too, a pleasure), is a drive, an impulse, something I am constantly being pulled into. Many times, it is unconfortable, tiring, stressing. But even, or mostly, in those times it is rewarding. I cannot stop myself from writting, as I cannot stop myself from talking.
    Not reading would be like, using the analogy of talking, not listening to other people but still wanting to be heard. And worse than that: it would be giving up the intimacy of words, of meaning, of semantics, of meaningfull abstraction. And, like you point out, giving up that rich solitude of being alone with my own thoughts. I don’t really think you can write works like the ones we find on the canon without reading. Writing is not the beggining of something: it is often a closure. It’s the fulfilling of many different processes, living, observing, reading, thinking. Yes, sometimes, writting is also about searching and trying out. But when you get to write, you have been a reader for a longtime, a reader of life, of meaning, of narratives, behaviours, culture, and, most certainly, a reader of other people’s books.
    ——
    Oh, I am not an english native, don’t be surprised if my english writting skills aren’t those of a writer. I write in portuguese, my native language.

  6. The scary thing is this article, which endorses both careful reading and writing, has at least one significant grammatical error in it that no one has caught.
     

  7. I’m a millenial, and usually I don’t like to complain about my generation because the New York Times does it enough already, but now seems like a good time.
    We all grew up online, in the age of user-generated media. Maybe the problem is that we’re so used to talking that we’ve forgotten how to listen. Or that creative arts classes taught to young children these days tend to value self-expression over discipline and familiarity with the masters.
    So droves of young people sign up to be creative writing majors in college because they have tons of practice composing status messages on facebook and they feel like they have a “self” inside that they want to “express.” Maybe they aren’t even aware that there are other prerequisites.
    Sometimes I want to take the entire self-help: how to write a novel section of the bookstore and hide it, and replace it with the best novels.

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  9. I’m currently in the process of editing my first ‘real’ novel, having finished the first draft a few months ago. If my reading had fallen off sharply before that point, it was for lack of time, not lack of interest.
    But as I’ve been going through the editing process, I’ve found myself reading again because it really helps me as a fledgling author to see models of how good writing is structured and to distinguish between the various styles of different authors.
    In the end, I find reading only enhances my own writing skills. It doesn’t impede it.
    As for other influences like television, film, graphic novels and narratives in different media, these can be valuable to a writer for inspiration so far as elements like dialog, plot, character development and others are concerned.
    But nothing beats a well-written book to derive the most comprehensive set of skills vital to becoming a great writer. Every artist of well-deserved acclaim has had some influence from one or more predecessors in his or her field that mentored them on to becoming who they are.

  10. About ten years ago I was getting my MFA in electronic arts. I will never forget the day we had a visiting artist working with our video class. After viewing my work, her first comment was “what were you reading when you decided to make this piece?” It’s something that has stuck with me all these years.

  11. Perhaps the main issue here is that, if people prefer to write rather to read, who can assure they will ever be read? It’s just like a crowd of people who speak without talking and are listened to no one but themselves.

  12. This doesn’t seem so far fetched to me, and frankly if someone wants to try writing without bothering to read, let them. Have you ever tried having a conversation with someone who only wanted to talk, but not listen? It’s like a salesman trying to sell his product, without trying to find out who is customer is and why they want to buy. It’s the very definition of self-centeredness. It will be entertaining to some, and a train wreck for others. I once played music with a guy who truly believed that if you listened to other guitarists, you would be TOO influenced, and since “nothing new” was coming out (late 80s) it was a waste of time. As we all know, there’s inspiration to be had in the meanest of work, and to actively shut yourself off from others of your craft, is the highest form of ego.

  13. I’m sure there are many factors at play here, but I think one of them is a degree of egocentrism. Our society has become focused on the specialness of MY thoughts, MY ideas, MY words. There is a generation of “writers” (and I’m not speaking of chronological age but of writing experience) who aren’t interested in honing their craft because it never occurs to them that it isn’t already wonderful. I read a review online that  was generally positive, but mentioned that the author needed to brush up on her language skills. He cited specific sentences that really were awful–verbs in the wrong place, words used incorrectly–really egregious problems. It was clear this was an issue throughout the book. Yet, the author railed at him at some length and insisted that those sentences were absolutely perfect.

  14. Right now I’m going through a book-heavy time, when it comes to both writing and reading, but it isn’t always like that. Sometimes I get so busy working on my own novels and plays, I don’t have the time to read other works. Plus, sometimes I’ll steer clear of other stories to prevent plot points or the author’s tone from seeping into whatever I’m writing. I do believe reading others’ work is important though, especially if I’ve just gone a year or so without reading something besides my own. I don’t want my writing style to start sounding stale, so I’ll read a few things to inspire me to write in ways I haven’t before. That’s what I love most about being a writer: pushing the boundaries as far as subject matter but also pushing my personal boundaries. If I can shock myself, I can shock the audience. But since what shocks people changes so quickly, it is necessary to read other modern works to stay on top of your game.This is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart, Buzz. Thank you for speaking about it with such truth and eloquence.
     

  15. Thanks for the comments, folks! It certainly isn’t a black and white issue and I will continue to explore it. The more feeback the better. 
    John — All writers need editors, so thanks for catching the error, which has been fixed. 

  16. > Because a great number of people that buy and read such books…
    A great number of people who buy and read such books, not “that.” Shame on you, “writer.”

  17. I loved this piece. Thank you, Buzz. I was at a children’s writers conference several years ago when I heard a successful author give a presentation and suggest that writers need to read a hundred books from whatever genre they hoped to write in (i.e. picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult). There was an audible gasp in the room. Dare he suggest that writers actually read? I loved his advice, though, and took it to heart. I think all writers–whether they create fiction, nonfiction, poetry, adult books or children’s–need to read, read, read.  

  18. Some great thoughts, but in order to address the question, we need to break it down. The issue is not social media. The trend against reading and book-buying precedes social media and even the internet by many years. Instead, I think it comes down to two things:
    First, despite their obvious relationship, reading and writing are different activities that engage different parts of our mind. Reading is more passive and asks us to indulge in someone else’s world and ideas, while writing is more active and asks that we indulge our muse and longing for self-expression. Second, the decline of reading has not resulted in a decline of interest in fictional worlds. Instead, a writer can be inspired or influenced by movies, the internet, video games, comic books, and thanks to the emergence of more sophisticated shows, TV has become a more respected source of ideas. I’m not saying that these options are better than books. Perhaps we should consider the possibility that for younger generations, writing comes more easily than reading does. I know as a teacher that I find it much harder to get children to focus on reading, while many of those same students enjoy writing.

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  20. Buzz, 
    This is wonderful. I’m so glad to see this kind of thing in Imprint. I believe that the practice of design rests just as heavily upon reading as it does looking at the work others produce. 
    A fellow Imprint writer (but a much better reader),
    Chris