Every writer knows they’re supposed to read books from different areas of the bookstore.
Wait, no. Every reader knows that, too, or at least has heard the recommendation to read widely.
The advice goes something like this:
“You write sci-fi/mystery/romance/YA/whatever? Read everything, old and new, in your genre. Then read lots of stuff in other genres.”
Or, alternately for readers who have less interest in writing:
“You like westerns/fantasy/literary fiction/whatever? Try something different to expand your horizons.”
Basically, that thing you like? Read lots of it. Then also read EVERYTHING ELSE!
But, wait … that’s a lot of stuff. One estimate is that there were more than a million print books published in 2013. That’s in the US, in one year, and only print books. How can you possibly keep up?
Well, you can’t.
And there’s the problem with the suggestion of reading outside your genre. If you love reading fantasy (like me), you want lots of it. So you go and you gorge on George RR Martin, JRR Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, and the like. Then you might dig into older stuff like Robert E Howard and Fritz Lieber. And once you hit some of the big names, you move on to the deep tracks of lesser-known authors who still offer incredible stories and great writing. Because there are thousands of people telling different, amazing stories in every genre, you always have something new to read.
It’s like cheeseburgers. Yes, burgers. They’re delicious and fill you with happiness. There’s an incredible variety of of how they’re made, what is in them, and how much you’ll enjoy them, and you want to taste them all! (I once had one—a burger, not a book—topped with a marrow ragout that was unbelievable!)
And if your love as a diner prompts you to become a chef (please follow my extended metaphor here), you want to taste as many burgers as you can. If you’re creating burgers, you need to experience the options and see what other people have done to help you perfect your own patties. So it’s easy to limit your consumption to what you want to create, especially because there are so many choices in your niche that you can never complete an exhaustive survey.
Yes, there’s a but. For readers and writers alike, it’s important to taste new things. It’s challenging to pick up a new book with a cover that doesn’t look like the rest of those on your shelf. It’s not comfortable. What if you waste your time on this weird literary fiction thing? What if the mystery you pick up is dull and formulaic? What if this fantasy book is filled with saccharine and stilted dialog?
Well, then you’ve tried something different and learned about your own tastes. The more important question is: what if this literary fiction is filled with amazing insight? What if the mystery keeps you huddled under your bed lamp while your spouse snoozes? What if this fantasy book reveals more about our real world than “realist” novels?
And for writers, the temptation to stay with your type of book is even greater. There are so many giants in your genre that you haven’t read yet!
Here’s how I wrangle that. As a kid, I found The Hobbit, and then the Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms books, and fell in love with fantasy and have had a steady diet of it since. But thankfully, some people pushed me to read other things. And without that push, I’d have missed out on pure enjoyment and writing lessons offered by writers like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, and Virginia Woolf.
I haven’t read everything that’s categorized in my favorite genres. It’s almost (if not entirely) impossible to. But I’ve read a lot, and continue to, while also taking time away from the type of stuff I write to read something very different. Because as much as I love cheeseburgers, sometimes a good piece of salmon is just as delicious.
With that in mind, and with thanks to Evan Ronan for his suggestion and my sister for her gift card with which I purchased some books, I’m trying some things that I wouldn’t ordinarily pick up.
Let’s start with The Big Sleep.