Tales from the Word Mine: On Reading

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep Philip K Dick

In the course of my job, I read a lot of books. That’s because, essentially, that’s what my job is. As a writer, it’s essential that you read as widely as possible, but it’s also an essential part of being an editor. And here, I’m not just talking about the books you may be working on; I’m talking about reading for pleasure. That’s something I don’t ever want to lose. If I lost the pleasure of reading, it would be like a part of me was gone. The joy of reading is why I do what I do, both as an editor and a writer.

Before I go into this further, I want to quote part of an interview with one of my favourite writers – Ursula Le Guin. In her interview with Den of Geek, Le Guin said something that really chimed with me:

Things that kids read and the thing that hits the kid as a kid gets into their bones. The things I read now get into my head, sure enough. I think about them. I might read something and it’ll turn into a poem next month or something, but that early stuff, that becomes a part of your whole being in a different way, and you can’t get rid of it.

Here Le Guin absolutely nails the formative effect of those books we fall for in our youth. Those stories that cement your love of stories really do stay with you a lot longer than some of the works you’ll read later on. I can remember my mother reading Alice in Wonderland to me as a child, and it absolutely cracking my imagination wide open. I remember reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, sitting on the flat roof of my parent’s garage on a hot day. I remember reading The Shining in my aunt’s lounge, a wood fire doing little to dispel the chill of the Overlook. I remember spending a glorious summer afternoon reading The Hobbit shortly after I’d finished my A-levels.

That doesn’t mean that the books I read now don’t have as significant an effect on my thinking on literature and what it’s for and where it’s going; it’s just that those stories that opened up the world to me were revelatory.

Literature is a dialogue and as such continual engagement with that conversation is essential if you work in the creative arts, on whatever level. I do try to read some of the latest works of genre in my downtime, but I also seek out books from the past that I may have originally missed. After all, if we forget what has gone before, we are much less able to evolve as writers, or those whose job it is to enable and support storytellers. Recently, this has meant that I’ve gone beyond Shirley Jackson’s classic The Haunting of Hill House to some of her lesser-known books (and thank you, Penguin, for those gorgeous new editions). We Have Always Lived in the Castle reminded me of how powerful horror fiction can be, how relevant some of the best works continue to be. I think publishing is also well aware of the importance of the legacy of genre – look at the recent Faber Aickman re-issues, for example, or the fact that Penguin are going to be putting out Thomas Ligotti under their Modern Classics line.

No writer writes in a vacuum. What makes you want to be a writer is the desire to pay back some of the pleasure that reading has given you, while wanting to add to the canon of ever-evolving literature. I was once dismayed to hear a writer say on a panel at Fantasycon that he didn’t really read books as he didn’t have time. How can you not, I thought? Even if it’s just five minutes while making a cup of tea. To engage in creating stories, you also have to be aware of the stories that are being created around you. Actually, I think this is very valid advice for new writers – many a time I’ve gone through a submission pile and seen the same stories come up again and again, offering me things I’ve already seen, or rehashes of the same classic material. Don’t get me wrong, there can be something comforting, a delightful recognition, in a story recast, retold – as long as it’s well retold. But the things that really excite me in books are stories I haven’t encountered before. Okay, yes, coming up with a wholly original story is perhaps a bit of a challenge. But, even if you’re telling a tale that has its roots firmly in what has gone before, it’s essential for me as an editor that I at least get the sense that you believe in the story you’re telling, that you have invested enough of yourself in your words that I will want to read them.

The best advice you can give to anybody wanting to become a writer is – write. But, equally, read. Don’t forget why you fell in love with stories in the first place, don’t forget that literature is constantly evolving and is a dialogue that engages with the world and the people within it. Take time from you stories to be transported by the stories of others. Your imagination, your writing (and editing) will be all the richer for it.


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1 comment

  1. paulfny

    Great article, and something that’s been on my mind recently with the plethora of people who want to call themselves writers, but don’t seem to want to invest the time in reading the vast amount of great (and not so great) books and stories that are out there, and are coming out all the time.

    I know of some writers who haven’t even heard of many of the practitioners in current horror writing, never mind read them, and I have to wonder where they receive their influence if not from the considered greats. This lack of awareness is often reflected in their own ‘writing’, yet if they then become the standards that people point to, it spirals into bad writing leading to bad writing. I’m not talking of what ideas and concepts people choose to write about, rather the quality of the writing itself can suffer if if all you’ve read are bad and mediocre books.

    And I do think there are standards to which you can compare good and bad writing, it’s not just a matter of taste, though the borders are very blurred. It’s also not simply a case of ‘style’ or ‘voice’. Bad writing is bad writing, and an unwillingness on the part of the author to acknowledge this will never result in the evolution and improvement of their craft.

    But I suspect most of these kinds of practitioners are more in love with the romantic notion of calling themselves writers, than with the hard work, research (and reading is a kind of research, ongoing and continual), and deep, painful self reflection and critiquing required to continually improve.

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