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Monday, November 24, 2008

The Un-Obligatory Reader

Mike Duran

Botanists estimate that there are more than 240,000 species of
flowering plants. Herbs, grasses, cacti, crab apples. Egads! Why limit your enjoyment to buttercups, when lupines and lilies are equally elegiac? In a world of wildly diverse blooms, confining oneself to locoweed seems crazy.

The same is true for reading. Noir and romance, horror and historicals, cyberpunk and espionage, sociology and satire. Where do you begin? Well, if you're a writer, you begin with your genre.

The first writer’s conference I ever attended, I was given a name tag that included, in big block letters, the genre of my choice. So I was:

Mike Duran

Trouble is, I’m much more than that. I’m courtroom drama and urban myth and political essay and poetry. But, alas, writing in a specific genre requires reading in that genre. In other words, despite the other 239,999 other flowering plants, you should confine yourself to locoweed.

Sure, reading nothing but chick lit, sci-fi, or cozy mysteries, will keep you up on
that particular genre. But it also can lead to a creative echo chamber, a literary myopia that insulates you from a broader spectrum of books. Even though I love supernatural suspense, reading only supernatural suspense gets boring.

The Modern Writer's Workshop, author Stephen Koch addresses this "boredom" that authors sometimes get mired in:
...please, don't sink into this woeful nonsense about not having time to read. Find it. Make it. How much time each day do you give to TV? To the daily paper? The crossword? The real culprit here is almost never your schedule. It is boredom -- your boredom with the books you think you are supposed to read. Find a book that you want, a book that gives you real trembling excitement, a book that is hot in your hands, and you'll have time galore. (emphasis mine)
This notion that aspiring authors are "supposed to read" certain books is prevalent in writers' circles. It can lead to guilt (What? You haven't read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers?), contempt (You call yourself a Fantasy fan and haven't read Lord of the Rings?), exclusion (Finishing the Harry Potter series is a requirement for inclusion in our coven... er, group), and eventually makes for one long must-read list.

But shouldn't there be books that you, as an author, are "supposed to read"? Shouldn't some books be "obligatory" for writers?

Hmm. Applying the elements of style is probably more important than reading
The Elements of Style. A publisher could care less if I've studied Strunk's classic. What they're looking for is the application of its principles. Still, familiarity with the work can't help but get you pointed in the right direction. Likewise, one might aspire to create the next Lord of the Rings. But getting there without having actually read Tolkien would be a fantasy. Classics, they say, are books that everybody knows about, but no one has read. Could this be why there's less and less "contemporary classics"?

So if writing good stories is the result of reading good stories, then immersing oneself in the best of any given genre is a necessity. The problem is when these "must read" lists become obligatory.

Koch again:
All serious education necessarily involves a certain amount of obligatory reading. That is how it has to be and exactly as it ought to be. Yet this essential aspect of growth does have a dangerous downside: It can darken all reading under the dull shadow of obligation. At a certain moment in your life as a writer, you should resolve to read only what matters to you. Not what people say should matter. What does. You should seek that out relentlessly, find it, and then you should read and read and read. (emphasis mine)
I'll admit, this advice that "you should resolve to read only what matters to you" sounds subversive. I mean, what about Phillip Marlowe, Huck Finn and Atticus Finch? Don't these classic characters warrant a hearing? It feels like I'm violating some sacred oath by not reading Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. If I'm writing Supernatural Suspense, don't I have an obligation to read Stephen King? And if I'm writing YA, isn't the Twilight series required reading? Conversely, if I'm writing Romance, what am I doing reading Enders Game or Odd Thomas?

The real "obligation" of the writer is to tell a good story. And how she gets to that point is entirely up to her. It's why I'm currently reading about
Matrioshka brains, Unhistory, and the Nature of Mass Movements. No, it's not what I'm "supposed" to read. But it sure fends off the boredom. Besides, in a world of Plumerias and Passionflowers, why confine yourself to locoweed?


  1. Good point, to much to choose from to limit yourself, and it gets redundant if you do.

    Logan Lamech

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Mike.

    And the implied permission to embrace something we enjoy, just because it makes us feel alive.

    That locoweed haze really gets overwhelming at times. : )

  3. I rarely read the specific genre I'm "supposed" to read anymore because it's become too predictable and I write a hybrid of it anyway.
    I think it's more for those writers who are searching for who they are in the fray. Are they a nasturtium or a petunia? Once you know who you are as a writer, I think you can read anything . . . and probably should.

  4. The key is good writing. No matter the genre, if the author makes something good out of his phrases, the reader grows.

    It can create a hilarious reading log, though. For example, August saw me reading both Breaking Dawn and Moby Dick. Also Heidi, Rapunzel's Revenge (a graphic novel), and The Deadliest Monster, by Jeff Baldwin.

    Or Ursula Le Guin alongside John Milton and F. Scott Fitzgerald. And Nehemiah.

  5. Be careful though when you suddenly start reading out of your genre you might want to start writing outside your genre too. One day I suddenly grew bored reading suspense, picked up several general fiction ABA novels and I lost my desire to write suspense ever again. Ha. Lucky for me I hadn't published yet!

    I agree with what you're saying Mike. I learn tricks and techniques in every genre, including non-fiction that help me.

  6. Thanks for that, Mike!

    I always get frustrated by my genre! Mainly because I'm not sure what it is.

    Most of my stories have some element of romance, but they're all totally different- Historical Romance to Romantic Suspense to... who knows?

    I think this comes, in part, because my reading tastes are so eclectic. My favorite authors range from C.S. Lewis to Robert Jordan to Dee Henderson to Francine Rivers to Frank Peretti to... well, you get the idea.

    No more locoweed, and no more feeling guilty about no more locoweed!

  7. Thanks for permission to read for love. Maybe the principle also applies to the other "shoulds" of life--being a good spouse, a good parent, a good Christian. I once added up all the hours in the day I'd need to do all the things I should and came up with an outrageous (i.e., impossible) number. Another model is called for. I like Mike's.

  8. I love it. I forthwith give myself permission to put down any book that doesn't grab me in the first twenty pages.


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