1. WashingtonIrving
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    WashingtonIrving Member

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    Writers and reading

    Discussion in 'Book Discussion' started by WashingtonIrving, May 25, 2009.

    This was something that came up in an article I read recently, can't at all recall where. Anyway, it was claimed that there was no great author who was not also a great reader (i.e. well read). Now, recognising that accounting for ancient writers such as Homer is easy when we consider that he was obviously well-versed in an oral tradition, I was wondering what people made of this. Anyone aware of any counter examples? I suppose it makes intuitive sense, but it isn't something I'd ever thought about before.

    By 'great' I don't mean you need to think of literary giants, JK Rowling would be a perfect example of somebody who is obviously very well read.
     
  2. hiddennovelist
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    hiddennovelist Contributing Member Contributor

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    I know I have heard authors (JK Rowling was one of them) say in interviews that to improve your writing, one thing that you can do is read, read, read. I agree that it can help you, but I don't think it's always essential to becoming a great writer.
     
  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Can't think of any counterexamples. All of the authors I've read about are well read in their genre, and in some cases, outside their genre. I guess reading and writing go hand in hand.
     
  4. garmar69
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    garmar69 Contributing Member Contributor

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    That is a bit of a broad generalization, but I do feel that careful reading is very beneficial to a writer's development. As is reviewing and other activities. I would say that there are freaks out there that can write beautiful prose (damn them, damn them to hell!) right out of the starting gate without much study--anything is possible. Not very probable imo.

    For me personally, reading what I consider to be very well written prose and searching for "why" the story worked so well has helped me tremendously. Also, studying why truly atrocious writing failed so dismally has helped me out. And this comes back around to reviewing and its benefits, which is the purpose of this website.
     
  5. WashingtonIrving
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    WashingtonIrving Member

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    Well I had the exact same immediate reaction. Then I thought - well, who exactly. Hence the post.

    The best I could come up with was that while maybe somebody could be able to write beautiful prose with little or no knowledge of the conventions of a genre, or of the numerous devices that authors use without a second thought, but that they wouldn't be able to sustain that for a whole novel, or even a story.
     
  6. garmar69
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    garmar69 Contributing Member Contributor

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    Good point. There is a lot more to writing an entire story than just turning a beautiful line of prose.
     
  7. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    This has been discussed to death. I don't know of any skilled writers who aren't interested in reading just for their enjoyment. How can you get good at anything if you don't observe how others do it?
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Given enough time and patience, a hypothetical writer could recreate the path literature has followed through the years. He or she would make all the mistakes as well, and learn from them, and thus learn to write through trial and error.

    Perhaps what he or she came upo with would be radically different than the writing we are accustomed to reading.

    However, a far smoother path is to learn from all those writers who have preceded us. They've already made the mistakes, and learned to avoid those approaches that simply don't work. By reading, we reinforce the approaches that have a histoiry of leading to good writing.

    Is it impossible to write well without being a reader? Probably not. In the strictest sense, it is also possible for all the air molecules in a room to all gather at one end of the room, leaving unbreathable vacuum at the other end. But it will probably never occur in the lifetime of this universe.
     
  9. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    I agree with the view that to write exceptional fiction you need to learn how to read exceptional fiction (and I can't think of a way to learn to read well without actually doing it). I can't figure out why a writer who's passionate about using language WOULDN'T read in order to experience the very connection with an author that he himself hopes to make with a reader. A writer simply must understand that connection if he is to write compelling fiction.

    Besides that, for those of us who read every piece of great fiction we can get our hands on, the worst that can possibly happen is that, if we fail to succeed as writers (and most of us will), we’ll have gained the capacity to find and enjoy those stunning writers who did, in fact, manage to make it all work.
     
  10. ManhattanMss
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    ManhattanMss Contributing Member

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    So, I'm thinking maybe if we want to be "hypothetical writers" rather than real ones, we can avoid reading anything at all. I'm kidding, of course; I'm agreeing completely with your view. Just wanted to add that "good" writing (which can certainly be learned without reading any fiction at all) does not hold a candle to compelling or even publishable fiction in the traditional sense of the word--let alone anything "great."

    I've known many non-reading wannabe fiction writers (and I don't mean young novices--I mean doctors, lawyers, even English professors) whose writing is sometimes "good," as in grammatically intact, and maybe it even says something. But it'll never be considered compelling fiction, because there isn't a glimmer of understanding about that fictional dream (to borrow John Gardner's apt term) that engages the reader's attention and elevates the experience of reading a series of words and phrases to losing oneself in an imaginative, well-written story.
     
  11. JGraham
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    JGraham Senior Member

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    It is possible, but if you don't read, then why write. I mean, it would not seem right, to expect others to read your work when you wouldn't read others/
     
  12. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    I think the best place to look for exceptions is with young authors who have written great works (by young I mean early 20s). I am assuming they have had relatively little experience in reading when compared to a 40 or 50 year old author. Of course, authors in their early 20s don't usually write great works.

    The only exception I can think of is Knut Hamsun, who published his first novel Hunger when he was 21 or so. He was an apprentice to a ropemaker, so I'm not sure how many books he had access to.
     
  13. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    How are they exceptions? Maybe they have read less because they are younger, but they still read. It just means they learn fast and get lucky in publishing. And who says those authors who only published in their forties weren't that good back then? They just might not have had much luck in publishing or not made the effort when they were young.
     
  14. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    Yes they still read, but I doubt an apprentice to a ropemaker would have had access to many books. And I'm not saying authors in their 40s aren't as good. I'm saying that older authors have had more time to read and thus learn the art of fiction writing.

    Writing fiction may be instinctive to some people. They may have to read less books to pick up the art of fiction writing. It is analogous to musical prodigies who pick up music very quickly. Of course, they have to hear a music piece before playing an instrument, but they only need to hear a few pieces before getting a good feel for whatever instrument they are playing.
     
  15. Anir
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    Anir Senior Member

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    I agree that to write well, you need to read a lot, because when you read a good book, you find that the way the author described something made it real for you, and you want to try to do the same thing in your writing.
     
  16. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I think the apprectice rope-maker tag you keep bringing up is pretty misleading...he spent a lot of time in America in his youth, and his family was by no means disadvantaged...he was well enough read, wrote extensively of his time in America before he wrote Hunger, and was married to a writer as well.

    And to weigh in on this agument, I think its absolutely critical to be well read to be a good writer. Ignoring the entire literary canon then trying to build on it is just absurd.
     
  17. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    The point is, you can't say that people who get published very young are exceptions to the rule about reading simply because they were published quickly. I know you didn't say they weren't as good. But you can't claim that the people who get published younger were exceptions to the rule about reading. Yes, they have had less time to learn, but they do read, and they could be fast learners, and it's unfair to compare them people who don't get published until they are older because you don't know when those people started writing, or what kind of luck they had with publishing.
     
  18. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    arron89 - Oops, may bad. Turns out Hamsun published Hunger when he was in his 30s. That's why I was confused when you said he went to America first. Turns out he did get married and go to America before coming back and writing Hunger. I had the publication date for Hunger mixed up; I thought it was published 10 years earlier than it actually was.

    Rei - I see your point. In my argument I assumed that the older author started reading at a young age. But I guess a person who started reading and writing at age 30 and is published at age 40 is no different from someone who started reading and writing at age 10 and is published at age 20.
     
  19. sophie.
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    sophie. Contributing Member

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    I agree with that - generally, reading well-written prose or poetry can teach you to recognise when something is well-written, and this knowledge will then help you review your own work. Also if you read well-written work this will help you realise when something is badly written, even if it's very popular.

    Most authors (as other posts said JK Rowling) advise reading as much as possible if you wish to improve your writing, but then lots of people who enjoy writing began writing their own work after enjoying a good book. Reading in your own genre will help you with your work, but reading outside the genre is good as well just for general knowledge (can't think of a better way to put it) You may not usually like a genre, but after reading a good example of it could change your attitude and learn something as well.
     
  20. g1ng3rsnap9ed
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    g1ng3rsnap9ed Contributing Member

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    I know a girl who wants to become a published author but hates reading, I have no doubt that her writing sucks. I think that reading is pretty vital to writing and sometimes vice-versa, but that's just how my experience in both subjects has been.
     
  21. garmar69
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    garmar69 Contributing Member Contributor

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    That's incredible to me. You would think the two would be interlinked. And I have no doubt either.

    I wonder if she thinks being a writer would be a cool job? Get to sit at home all day pecking away at a keyboard. If so, she has another thing coming to her. It's work!
     
  22. Rei
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    Rei Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ginger, that sounds like a musician who never listens to music.
     

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