August 22, 2012, by Jon McGregor

Am I reading too much?

Occasionally, an email arrives via my website with a question about books – my books, or any books – and about writing. Recently, a writer – who I’m calling “K” because it sounds literary and mysterious – emailed to ask whether he should avoid reading fiction while writing his own in order to avoid being unduly influenced or losing valuable time and/or thinking space. It’s a question I’ve been asked before, so I thought I may as well share my response here.

Dear K.,

Thanks for your email. It’s not a foolish question at all, and one which I thought about a lot when I started writing. And in fact, while I was writing my first book I avoided reading other fiction as I was worried about being unduly influenced. As it happens, I now think that was a mistake. If I was planning to carry on writing fiction (as I have done), when did I think I was going to get round to reading some fiction? And if I wanted to learn how to write, who did I think I was going to learn from, if not from other writers of fiction? And anyway, that first book turned out to be riddled with transparently influenced sentences and images and ideas, from the work of writers I’d already been reading for years.

It’s possible – likely – that, while deeply engrossed in the work of a particular writer, something about the tone of voice or use of language or approach to storytelling will seep through to our own writing. It’s possible that this will happen so markedly that our own “voice” will be lost. But I’d say that being aware of this possibility is enough; we can look back at a new piece of writing and wonder whether it’s straining too hard to be the voice of a writer we admire, as well as looking for all the other problems and failings we should look for when we read back a new piece of work.

Mostly, I’d suggest reading as widely and deeply and thoroughly as you can. Read for pleasure, for stimulation, for interest, for challenge, and for ideas you can steal. Give yourself time to think, and time to write, and time to do all the other things life has to offer. But if you enjoy reading, don’t stop yourself for the sake of a theory that it will make your writing better.

By the way, you might also be interested to read this piece on “influence” by J. Robert Lennon, which I just came across this morning.

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