Saturday, 1 October 2011

To Read or Not to Read?

At the start of each teaching year, I ask my new students about their reading habits and am constantly amazed at some of their answers:

  • I don’t read poetry [said in a poetry writing class]

  • I only read fantasy [or literary fiction or any other genre]

  • I don’t read in [genre] because I don’t want to be influenced

  • I don’t read
Some of these answers have a sort of logic, though it is flawed. Yes, they will be influenced by what they read. That’s the whole point. The great masters learnt their craft and art from copying the masters before them and then moved beyond what they had learnt. The great musicians learnt the music of those before them. Even great athletes started off trying to be like their heroes before finding their own style, their unique way of playing. (I can say this from training in and teaching martial arts many years ago.) Why is it that in literature people think they can write well without knowing anything about the art form they practise?

Notice I said ‘write well’. What I am pointing out in this post does not apply to those who wish only to write for themselves and maybe for their family. However, those who come to tertiary classes wanting to learn to write poetry or fiction do so because their aims are generally higher than family praise. They wish to write well enough to be published. So, I am puzzled how students who don’t read in their chosen genre/mode still expect they will be published. How do they know what has gone on before? How do they know the conventions of their genre? How do they know the craft elements of their genre? Only by reading. And by practising. They will learn some of the ‘tricks of the trade’ during their classes, but if they don’t see how those tricks have been used before, they won’t know how they work or why. In other words, they won’t learn how to apply the rules of their trade nor learn when to break those rules. Often they break the rules without realising it. And often they are using the clichés of their genre without realising it, and wonder why they keep getting rejected. Essentially, if what they are saying, and how they are saying it, has all been done before, then their work, no matter how sincere, is likely to be rejected.

As for those who read only in their genre, a different problem arises. Such writers may know the conventions of their genre, but that’s all they know. While I admit some writers have so absorbed their particular genre that they can make a living out of regurgitating the plots, settings and characters (for example, the three Ms of many fat fantasy trilogies: medieval, monsters, magic), I would guess that many of these writers have had experience of other genres and have made a conscious decision to concentrate on one. For those who have not had experience of other genres, I ask, how do they expect to enrich or enliven their genre if they can’t bring something new to it? The New Wave movement in science fiction came about through writers bringing to the old pulp movement their knowledge of literary fiction, and science fiction was the better for it.

The students that puzzle me the most are those who claim not to read at all, or who barely read. Why do they want to be writers? Most writers and poets I know, and know of, were captured by the texts they read as a child, wanted to emulate their favourite writers, were passionate about reading and later about writing. Those who don’t read, I suspect, want to be writers because of a mistaken belief that there lies fame, fortune and sex, or some variation of these. As with those who become famous for being famous, but without doing anything of significance, without working hard at something, such writers expect success without doing much more than write a few words a day. Of course I can write, they say; I’ve been doing it all my life. Well, I’ve been running all my life, too, but I don’t expect to be a champion runner without extensive training and the right set of talents. If I were in a race with champion athletes, or in the ring with a top martial artist, without my having done the requisite training, I would be well beaten. And so it is with those writers who don’t read. Their prose is awkward, vague, even nonsensical at times, or their verse is simplistic, cliché-ridden, and filled with clunky rhythms and rhymes, the forms and shapes used being rough versions of those learnt in school years before.

So, what do I say in class to my students, both those who do read and those who don’t?

  1. Read in the genre you wish to write in and read widely in that genre.

  2. Read not for enjoyment, but for knowledge: read with attention to what is being done in the text, so you can understand how things are done and why, and then replicate the effects you have found enjoyable. That way you can learn the genre’s conventions, its tradition, and how others have used the rules, or broken them, to produce the effects they wanted.

  3. Read outside your genre, so you can find other effects you might enjoy and can bring to your genre.
Happy reading and writing.


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