April 15, 2011

Writers who don’t read

Today’s quotation on @Quotes4Writers on Twitter is from John Birmingham, author of the wonderfully-titled He Died With a Felafel in his Hand:

“If you can’t be bothered reading, do not bother trying to write. You’ll fail.” John Birmingham (@JohnBirmingham) http://bit.ly/JoBirm

The quotation is from an interview Birmingham did with Australian book blog ‘Booktopia’ in 2010. The interviewer commented “we live in a world where this advice has to be given!?” Like the interviewer, I find it hard to understand. I was a ‘reading child’ and reading may be the greatest constant in my life. I read every day at an average rate of about 50,000 words a day. In CVs and interviews the expression “I like reading” seems woefully inadequate. I *have* to read. After the air I breathe and the felafels I eat it’s the next essential.

My friends are also readers. Many are writers but even those who don’t write, read. Book recommendations, diatribes and discussions form a major tranche of our conversation. Local friends belong to a book group. (More distant friends do too: but a different group.) And it’s reading that has made the writers want to write. In the last couple of weeks I’ve read about so many professional authors who were inspired by the late Diana Wynne Jones.

Still there are writers who don’t read. I’ve met only a few of them over the years so they obviously move in different (less book-lined) circles, but they do exist. “Oh I don’t have time to read, I’m too busy writing” is one explanation I’ve heard. Also “I don’t want to be influenced”. Weirdly, I’ve heard it from fanfiction authors, people definitely inspired to write by someone else’s work, whose multiple chapter epics “don’t leave time to read”. What’s with that?

What advantages are there really for the writer who doesn’t read? Yes, you do have more time. That’s got to be true. But will you use that time as well as the writer with a head stuffed full of stories? Not wanting to be influenced I can understand and I won’t read a book too close to the subject of one I am currently writing. But that’s about unintentional plagiarism for me. Influence in the wider sense of being inspired by someone else’s work is a good thing. Being a non-reading writer seems to me like doing your work in the bottom of a well.


  1. And to me it’s an oxymoron and the people who say it, well, just morons!

    Comment by Mary Hoffman — April 15, 2011 @ 10:45 am

  2. I have to say I am scratching my head with bewilderment too. Reading is necessary – though I do agree with you about ‘unintentional plagiarism’.
    Thanks for the post.

    Comment by K M Lockwood — April 15, 2011 @ 11:00 am

  3. Totally agree, I do write fanfiction and will not read in the subject matter that I am writing at the time, but CANNOT fathom not reading. SMH, how do you write without reading? Reading is fundamental to the craft of storytelling.

    Comment by Ms. Dawn — April 15, 2011 @ 11:02 am

  4. Glad he said it right on the mark. It’s like saying ‘I love food’ but all you do is look at it. Surely one has to gorge and feast on words before they can fuel to write their own.

    Comment by Komal Verma — April 15, 2011 @ 11:07 am

  5. This doesn’t make any sense to me. I don’t understand where the passion to write would come from if you weren’t first passionate about reading and story telling in general. I just recently wrote a blog post about a girl at my work who told me she doesn’t have one book in her house. She write professionally, but not in a creative context, so I think that’s kind of different. But getting back to fiction, I don’t think I’d be able to write very well if I didn’t read on a regular basis…

    Comment by Cally Jackson — April 15, 2011 @ 11:10 am

  6. It’s the same in any activity: find out what other people did, if only to find out what they did wrong. Otherwise you’re coming up with ideas in a vacuum, and will almost certainly repeat mistakes other people made. Yeah, occasionally you’ll approach something in an entirely new (and wonderful) way. But most of the time, you’ll be retreading ground that other people gave up on decades ago.

    Comment by Tommy Wareing — April 15, 2011 @ 11:11 am

  7. When I first started writing an epic fantasy novel, I stopped reading fantasy because I didn’t want to be influenced. Then several months into it I realized I was missing out on books I wanted to read, and I started up again. So far I don’t feel like that’s been a problem as far as undue influence– though I can see why some people might stick to that.

    But in general, a writer who doesn’t read is like a musician who doesn’t listen to music. The very concept is absurd.

    Comment by Andrew — April 15, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  8. I’d been so busy on the writing/promotion wheel I’d let my reading time slip. Bad. Very bad. Reading is food for the soul. Happy to say, I’ve now carved out my reading time and hung a reader at leisure sign on my door. Disturb at your peril. Also been on an Amazon shopping trip. Like a child in a sweetshop. Lovely!

    Comment by Leanne Meredith — April 15, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  9. I have a hard enough time understanding why anyone would not want to read, but for a writer to say it -it doesn’t compute. It’s like saying you want to learn how to play a musical instrument but won’t listen to music in case it taints your personal style. And, quite frankly, there is no such thing as not enough time to read – on the train, stirring dinner, in the bath, anywhere!

    Comment by JA Murphy — April 15, 2011 @ 11:17 am

  10. I can’t imagine not ever reading. Actually, I find it hard to believe when anyone admits that they don’t read. That said, I am a writer, and I am quite a slow-reader (I think this might be because some of the time when I could be reading, I am writing). But I still have to read something, every day.

    Can’t live without it.

    Comment by Thomas — April 15, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  11. I am always astonished when I come across ANYONE who doesn’t read (other than out of necessity). It is like telling me they have no sense of smell.

    ‘Not wanting to be influenced’ doesn’t work in my mind. Surely all creativity is just a combination of existing ideas anyway (‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ and all that). The only thing new is the combinations, nothing comes from nothing.

    Comment by Toddy — April 15, 2011 @ 11:25 am

  12. Very funny book that Falafel one, I have a copy somewhere.

    Just wanted to raise in this context Harold Bloom’s notion of ‘the anxiety of influence’, in which writers are seen as struggling with the creative legacy of their predecessors. He reckons that only ‘strong’ writers are able to come out from under such influence, using the techniques of “clinamen, tessera, kenosis, daemonization, askesis, and apophrades”. So heaven knows what that’s really all about… but it seems very clever.


    Comment by Mo — April 15, 2011 @ 11:28 am

  13. Thanks, Mo. Now I have some fascinating links to follow. Good stuff. I shall have to borrow that book by Bloom. I suspect my father will have a copy.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — April 15, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  14. I read … a lot. I’ll go to a library and borrow seven to ten books, and return them all a week later. (Which reminds me, I’ve still got one to read before I go this afternoon). And I think that since I started reading more in the last couple of months, my writing has improved enormously too. I can’t say, of course, but I’ve definitely had more (and some seriously wacky) ideas.

    Comment by Delorfinde — April 15, 2011 @ 11:44 am

  15. The only time I buy the “but I don’t want to be influenced” line is if it’s specific. I remember Brian Jacques once saying that he never read other MG/YA fantasy because he was afraid of unconsciously influencing his own writings. Then he went on to list an enormous amount of writers that he did read. That made perfect sense to me, and I admired him for his restraint, because I could not keep myself from reading MG/YA fantasy no matter how much it might influence my works!

    Comment by Louise — April 15, 2011 @ 11:45 am

  16. Oh dear. I’m one of these unspeakable creatures – a writer who doesn’t read very much. I’m always astonished at the amazing appetite my writing friends have for reading. I mean, I love chocolate cake, but I don’t want to gorge myself on it 24:7. For me, the writing is bread-and-butter and the reading is a delicious extra to be indulged from time to time. Please don’t shoot me!

    Comment by Jenny Alexander — April 15, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  17. Hi Jenny, thanks for coming out from under cover. I promise not to lob books at you. How much do you read though? You may be underestimating the amount you do read.

    The chocolate cake analogy doesn’t work so well for me because the world of books provides such a varied feast: non-fiction is sustaining, YA fiction tasty, SF spicy, fantasy delicious but occasionally too sugary… and so on.

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — April 15, 2011 @ 12:09 pm

  18. Great article!

    Comment by THom — April 15, 2011 @ 12:21 pm

  19. I agree. Well said.
    Although, I am curious as to what sort of material you read? Are you talking about books? Fiction? History? Bios?
    Or newspapers? Blogs? Magazines?

    Comment by Christie — April 15, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  20. Hi Christie, I’ll read the back of cereal packets if there’s nothing else available. I do read blogs and the occasional magazine but I was primarily talking about books. Many of the books I own. although not all the books I’ve read are listed on my LibraryThing account: http://www.librarything.com/catalog/RhiannonLassiter

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — April 15, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  21. Hmm… that’s interesting Rhiannon (and thank you for not lobbing books at me!) I suppose I do read quite a bit, but generally not the same kind of thing that I, or most of my author friends, write. I love adult non fiction, but I mostly write children’s fiction, which I read sporadically, for example on holiday. But having said that, I still don’t think I read as much as most authors, perhaps because I’m not a very indoors type of person – if I’ve got free time I go out. Having spent most of the day with print, I want something different for leisure.I didn’t possess books or know about libraries until I was in my late teens, but I always wrote, so I’ve never felt you actually need to read in order to write. And I think I’m quite a good writer!

    Comment by Jenny Alexander — April 16, 2011 @ 7:53 am

  22. I have to agree with Jenny Alexander. I was never a book worm, but I craved a computer and a keyboard. That doesn’t mean I never read. That doesn’t mean I don’t read. In fact I majored in English and despite my focus being creative writing, there was endless required reading along the way. I’ve read hundreds of great works of fiction but I don’t choose to spend every waking minute still doing so. Even if I choose to write fiction. Since when does “you have to be a reader to be a writer” mean you can only read novels and fiction if you want to write novels and fiction? I work in a unique job that requires a great deal of mental dexterity and broad thinking that constantly challenges me to expand my views and read about new schools of thought around organizational psychology and operation. Does that mean I can’t write fiction in my free time because what I read ever day is scholarly articles and manifestos on an entirely unrelated subject?

    I get really tired of the blanket statements that get made about writers having to be readers. I’m a multi faceted person and no, I don’t believe someone has to be a constant fiction reader to write great fiction. You have to have read a lot. Yes. You have to understand what good writing is. Yes. You have to continually grow and expand yourself and infuse new ideas, yes, but blanketing that in the category of “you have to keep reading a lot, all day, all the time” is crap if you ask me. Stop minimizing those of us who live and read and write differently. Stop patting yourselves on the back and rubbing it in my face because you order more books than your friends off Amazon like you want a cookie and a pat on the back. I beloeve that you also have to live your own life and learn a thing or two that gives you enough insight into humanity to artfully tell a story about it. So you worms go ahead and stick to your books. I’ll go ahead and apply knowledge of what I HAVE read and what I HAVE learned about writing, and continue to live life as the way to gain the subject matter expertise I need to tell a great story. Nobody else’s writing can teach me what I learn by living life myself. And if I want a change of pace? A glimpse into someone else’s world? I’ll pick ip a book and read. But not because someone says I have to keep reading like its doomsday for books in order to be a good writer.

    Comment by Thejandk — April 16, 2011 @ 4:30 pm

  23. Did you really delete a comment with a differing viewpoint?

    Comment by Thejandk — April 16, 2011 @ 7:15 pm

  24. No I don’t delete comments but I have to approve comments by new commenters before they appear and I’m in London watching the marathon so this is the first chance I’ve had to approve your earlier comment.

    ETA: Non-fiction and academic articles certainly count as reading, so I think some of your rant is misplaced. As for the rest of it I personally don’t read to be smug about my amazon bill (my amazon bill fills me with alarm!), I read because I have to read. I think you may have misinterpreted bewilderment as smugness.

    In the future though (now that you are pre-approved to comment) please rein back on calling people “WORMS!” when making your point!

    Comment by Rhiannon Lassiter — April 17, 2011 @ 10:51 am

  25. My brother wants to be a writer now, and all I do is give him books. He keeps telling me “Just because I don’t read doesn’t mean I don’t have a creative mind!” Um, sure? He wants to be a TV writer, so he watches TV all day. I keep explaining to him that you need to read even if you want to write for TV. He doesn’t seem to get this.

    Comment by will — November 5, 2011 @ 2:12 pm

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