On reading as a writer, and my reading year

Do you still read novels when you’re in the middle of writing one?

It’s one of the questions that authors get asked surprisingly frequently. Even more surprising, at least to me, is that many novelists answer that they don’t.

I can see the logic. There’s the worry that whatever you’re reading will influence your writing style. The possibility, too, that the world you’re reading about will distract you from the one you’re trying to create yourself. Above all there’s the issue of time. When it’s a struggle to find the hours to dedicate to putting pen to paper, it makes sense that reading should be one of the things to make way.

Except, not to me. I’ve considered not reading when I’m in the middle of writing, for all of the reasons I’ve listed, but not having a novel on the go makes me edgy. I feel like I’m waiting – indeed, as though ‘real life’, ironically, is on hold.

So I have to read. More than that, I find spending an hour or two a day in the company of another writer makes me more productive myself. Story begets story, I find – even if the first isn’t remotely connected to the latter. A good novel can be inspiring, reminding me of what it is I’m trying to achieve. A bad one equally so, because it makes me want to demonstrate how it should be done. (Whether what I eventually produce lives up to my ambitions is of course another matter entirely.)

The only proviso to all of this is that I am more selective about what I read when I’m writing. If a novel is too close in subject matter to the one I’m writing, I’ll generally steer well clear. If a novel is written badly, I’ll ditch it after only a few chapters, because I worry that reading lazy writing will make me lazy as a writer myself. And novels that for whatever reason have been labelled ‘difficult’ in my mind (The Sound and the Fury or Finnegans Wake, for example – only one of which I’ve so far tackled) I’ll generally save for when I’m editing or, even better, that magical few weeks or so when a manuscript has been sent to the publisher and there’s no evidence yet that it isn’t already perfect.

Following on from all of this, my reading list this year proved fairly eclectic, because though I’ve been working on my latest novel throughout, I’ve also had periods when I thought I was finished. It turned out I wasn’t – a story I’ll recount in a future blog – but what that meant for me as a reader was that I had periods when my reading was restricted by what I was writing, and others when I had time (or so I thought) to experiment a little, to nudge myself from my comfort zone. Pleasingly, both yielded some real literary gems.

The novel of the year for me – and the perfect example of writing that inspired me in my own efforts – was To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. I’ve been a huge fan of Ferris since the exquisitely painful Then We Came to the End. To Rise Again… just missed out on the Booker but won the Dylan Thomas Prize, which was hugely gratifying. It’s just brilliant. ‘Funny in the way that only really serious books can be,’ according to the Guardian, which to me sums it up perfectly.

Other highlights among the novels I’ve been reading as I write include David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I’ve already raved about in another blog post, Irène by Pierre Lemaitre (crime novel of the year?) and the completely deranged Francis Plug – How to be a Public Author by Paul Ewan. I always say I don’t particularly like ‘funny’ books, but apparently I do – at least when they’re as good as Ewan or Ferris’s efforts.

Talking of funny, I have become utterly obsessed with Simon Rich’s short stories. Spoiled Brats came out in August and was the first of his collections I read, though I’ve since ploughed my way through his back catalogue. They’re short, sharp and deceptively simple stories that pack at least a laugh a paragraph. If you haven’t already, check out The Last Girlfriend on Earth. It captures us blokes down to a tee.

Short-story collections have in fact this year become my go-to choice of reading material when I’m particularly heavily involved in writing: anything from Chekhov to Stephen King, via George Saunders (Tenth of December was for me the book of 2013). As a rule I don’t find short stories as satisfying as novels: they’re methadone when what I really want is heroin. But they have their own unique pleasures and, more practically, they fit more easily around heavy bouts of writing.

Unlike Shakespeare – at least for a neophyte like me. This summer I signed up to an Oxford University course on the Bard and ended up reading eight of his plays I’d never encountered before. Like Faulkner and Joyce, Shakespeare in my mind was ‘difficult’, but I had some down time from writing and decided to use it to try and plug a rather shameful gap in my literary knowledge. The highlight for me? Macbeth. And King Lear – particularly Lear’s assumption, in his own madness, that it is Edgar’s daughters that have driven the man insane. That struck a chord, I can tell you. And it probably doesn’t surprise those of you who’ve read my novels that I’m drawn more to the darkest of Shakespeare’s tales.

Something I else I got around to tackling while on a break from writing was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. Difficult? It certainly looks it when you flick from cover to cover: there are footnotes and side notes galore, and the type is rendered every which way on the page. But like Shakespeare it’s not nearly as inaccessible as I’d come to think. In fact it’s a fairly straightforward haunted-house story, albeit inventively – and brilliantly – executed. It was published in 2000, so doesn’t qualify for my novel of the year category, but was certainly one of my discoveries of 2014.

I could go on. The idea, though, was to pick a few highlights of my reading year, in the context of what it’s like reading as a writer. I’ve purposefully restricted myself to fiction in this post, partly because I had to draw the boundary somewhere; mainly because, as a novelist, fiction is what I read most. Perhaps that could be my resolution for 2015: to read more non-fiction. Doing so would sit well with writing, I suspect. There’d be no clash of tone or ideas. But I’d get fidgety if I cut down on the fiction I read, I know I would. After all, it’s because I love reading stories that I write them. For me reading is writing.

Posted on Friday, December 19th, 2014 at 2:31 pm

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