Writers aren’t like normal people.
When writers read–be it a book, an article, or sometimes even a headline–we study, parse, and edit. We re-word what we read (“It would be better like this”), we laugh out loud at ugly phrases (“He threw up his hands”), and we will kick a book across the room before we’ll read another page filled with moronic characters and Swiss cheese plots.
This can take a lot of the enjoyment out of reading, but on the flip side, there are joys in reading only writers can experience. We have WIWI moments (“Wish I’d Written It!”) and can find ecstasy in a well-wrought sentence or a surprising image.
We also learn from reading. We learn a lot.
Like most readers, I have my favorite titles and my favorite authors, but my reasons for selecting this author vs. that one are quite different from non-writers. I read (to a great extent) to learn. I can learn something about writing from any book, even a bad one (sometimes especially from a bad one).
When I started writing, I read almost entirely within one genre, i.e., the genre in which I wrote. It’s a generally accepted rule that a writer should read what s/he wants to write. The reasoning is simple: you don’t want to make the same mistakes everyone else has already made. Additionally, you don’t want to write the same story one of the Old Masters wrote a generation before you were born. But reading solely within one’s own genre can be limiting and eventually, I found it rather tiresome. It all seemed the same and–sad to say–it rarely seemed very good.
So I got serious about reading. I set myself a rule that for every book I read within genre, I had to read one outside of genre. Pretty soon, I realized that there was a hell of a lot I could learn about writing that my own genre wasn’t teaching me. My out-of-genre exploration took me to various places. I read other genres. I read mixed genre works. I read classical works. I even read Oprah books (a couple).
As my experience broadened, I began to learn what I liked and what I didn’t. Over time, I found myself returning to certain authors while tossing others aside. Then I set to figure out why.
Here’s the short list of who I read, and why.
Alice Hoffman; for lyrical and atmospheric style, the importance of backstory for all things, subtle use of emotion; e.g., Blackbird House, The Third Angel.
Louise Erdrich; for variants on standard story structure and how to dole out information without artifice; e.g., The Antelope Wife, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez; for massive use of backstory, spareness of dialogue, and a sense of the “mythic” in the everyday; e.g., Love in the Time of Cholera.
Joyce Carol Oates; for complicated, multilayered characters, and depth of motivation in both plot and character decisions; e.g., Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.
Ford Madox Ford, Graham Greene, E.M. Forster; for raconteur skills and meandering narrative lines that always come back to the point; e.g., In Provence and The Rash Act (FMF), The Third Man (GG), Alexandria and A Room with a View (EMF) — (Yes, two of those are non-fiction, but they are filled with stories and anecdotes.)
Edith Wharton; for a distinctively ironic style and depth of description without wordiness, and for characters whose rich internal life is often at odds with their external existence; e.g., The House of Mirth, The Age of Innocence.
Thackeray, Galsworthy, Collins, Trollope; for twists of fate, unvarnished descriptions, unabashed ambitions, ironic revelations, and conflict between honor, love, duty, and reality; e.g., Vanity Fair, The Forsyte Saga, The Woman in White, Barchester Towers, respectively.
Jane Austen, Marcel Proust, William Shakespeare; for that fresh turn of phrase, that unique image, that wry observation of human truth that transcends centuries, and for sheer beauty of the writing. Austen was a master of the omnipotent POV, moving seamlessly between the thoughts of one character to the next. Proust, despite being nearly impenetrable at times, is a keen observer of the subtleties of human nature and can concoct the most surprising image. And Shakespeare is Shakespeare; he never ceases to amaze, especially in his free verse, where the language can really shine.
As a guilty pleasure:
Richard Castle; because not everything needs to be a learning experience.