The Literary Lion must read. This is a truism, its implications seldom drawn.
If you aspire to Literary Lionhood at all, you are already a person for whom reading is an unalloyed pleasure. Maybe even a chief cornerstone of your life.
But when you are a serious writer, reading is a job requirement.
As anyone who has ever had a job can tell you, there is some distance between an unalloyed pleasure and a job requirement.
Kinds of Reading
Let us consider the kinds of things you might read.
First of all, there is Unalloyed Pleasure Reading—any book or books you are so eager to read that you pick them up whenever you have a spare moment. You take such a book with you to the doctor’s office to make good use of your waiting time. You read it on the bus. Those are the books I’m talking about. For me, anything by John Grisham, John Steinbeck, or Jack Finney.
Second, there are Exemplar Books. These are either so well-written or so ill-written that reading them will help you become a better writer. You can emulate their prose, or avoid it, as you evolve your own unique and compelling voice. Such a book may or may not give unalloyed pleasure. Even if it’ s a chore to read, you grit your teeth and get through it. For me, the phrase “good writing to emulate” brings to mind William Saroyan’s The Human Comedy, John Hersey’s A Bell for Adano, and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti mysteries, among others. I won’t mention a specific example of writing to avoid. Suffice it to say, they are legion. You will discover them on your own.
Third are the books about how to write books. At least a million are in print, with hundreds more published every day. They are all above average. More than two-thirds of all writers who have written any book at all have also written a book about how to write a book.* (*Proceedings, Institute for Fabricated Statistics, Vol. X, pp. y-z.) In fact, many writers who have never written a book have nevertheless written a book about how to write a book. This could get out of hand. Take my advice: choose one or two of those listed below, and let it go at that.
- Poetics, by Aristotle (No last name. You know: That Aristotle.)
- Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass
- Story, by Robert McKee
Fourth are books about how to sell books. There are works about how to find an agent, how to get your book published, and how to sell lots of copies once it is published. It seems every writer who has written a book about how to write a book has also written one or more books about how to sell your book once you have written it; and every writer who has written a book about how to sell anything at all has also written one or more books about how to sell, specifically, books. As to recommendations: Even I, Dear Reader—your reliable Guru of Literary Lionhood, famous for rushing in where angels fear to tread—even I tremble to recommend any one of these volumes. If you are thinking of consulting any part of this 21st-century cornucopia of unsolicited-yet-pricey advice, consider this free bit of wisdom from the late Sir William of Goldman:
“Nobody knows anything.”
He was talking about the movie business, but it applies equally to all forms of publishing. This may strike you as dismal news, but consider it in this light: You know as much as anybody, so plunge in. Just do something. Or don’t do something; just stand there. It might work as well as anything.
Fifth are the Obligated Reads. These are books by friends or acquaintances which you have agreed—perhaps unwisely—to read and review. Some are beta reads, works in progress whose authors want useful feedback from you, so they can make their work better. Others are published books whose authors want your endorsement, in the form of a published review or a blurb for the book cover. When the author is a particular friend and the book is something you just can’t hack, then you are stuck with what our cousins across the Pond call a sticky wicket. If the book happens to be the second or subsequent installment of a series, you have an easy out. “Author Johnny Johnson has done it again!” Otherwise, you’re sunk.
Sixth are books you need to read, or at least skim, as research for something you are writing. For us historical novelists, this kind of reading is broad and wide-ranging. But almost any writer* will need to do some research.
*Well, not writers who are actually Artificial Intelligence programs. AI bots can just make something up that reads as if it is based on research, but it’s actually just pieced together with likely-sounding phrases stolen from thousands of real, and mostly starving, writers. But then, you’re not an AI bot. Are you? I feel like I should insert a Captcha box here.
Coping With the Deluge
All these reading demands can actually get in the way of one’s writing.
Upon becoming a Literary Lion, I increased my already liberal use of the South Central Wisconsin Library System. There’s something called LINKCAT, which is a wonderful thing. I can go online, find any book that exists anywhere within 51 included libraries, place it “on hold,” and it will be delivered to me at my local library, usually within a few days.
Because of the numerous reading interests noted above, books—those being read, those to be read, or those already read—reside in stacks all over my house.
I repeat, it’s getting out of hand. Last week, I realized these demands were forcing me to avoid reading what I most wanted to read, because I had to read something less pleasurable and, in the grand scheme of things, less important.
So I’ve drawn a line in the sand. From now on, I will only acquire books I actually look forward to reading, in the sense that I have a credible expectation of joy; or, those needed for specific bits of research. That’s it—only Unalloyed Pleasure or Necessary Research. Away with all other pesky categories! I hope that holds up.
A Final Word
I tell you as a bona fide Literary Lion: Get yourself a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
As Dorothy Parker once said: “If you have friends who aspire to be writers, give them The Elements of Style. Then shoot them while they’re still happy.”
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer