Writers need to read beyond our comfort zone, and branch out to embrace genres and styles we don’t normally approach, because otherwise we run the risk of becoming self-absorbed.
Reading works we wouldn’t normally consider widens our perspective, improves our style, and opens windows to other ways of telling different kinds of stories.
We need to reach out synchronically, to contemporary works, and diachronically, to works of other literary periods, in order to know what’s happening now, and what has been happening for centuries, in the literary world.
Last week I read three wonderful books, and I’m more than half way through a fourth, and although I’ll be reviewing each one separately, I’d like to share my general reflections with you, first, and explain how each book has helped me grow as a writer.
I started off by rereading a classic, which I make a point of doing regularly. They offer us so much intellectually and emotionally that we cannot ignore them.
Classics hold the origin and the substance of our language and thought, reading and rereading them is mandatory for all readers, writers and reviewers.
We are part of a literary heritage which we should honour and add to, by producing works which contribute to the quality and continuity of literature as a means of both describing and reinterpreting our world.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen, has always been one of my favourites, although sadly, this rereading (which will not be the last) has revealed some flaws, it still holds a special place in my literary heart.
When I finished Persuasion, I chanced to find a debut novel by Ellen Quinn, on Twitter. I looked at the blurb, a Regency Romance, so I thought it would be an ideal complement to Persuasion. I skimmed over the first pages on Amazon, and was convinced to give it a go. When I started reading, in depth, I couldn’t put it down!
Reading both novels consecutively has given me plenty of food for thought about what constitutes a good novel, by 21st century standards, and how this conception has progressed over the last two centuries.
I enjoyed the challenge of reflecting on the similarities and differences between both these novels, and how these differences reveal who we are, and how we read and write, today, and how we did so two centuries ago.
I myself am writing a neo Victorian trilogy, so it also helped me reflect upon the similarities and differences between these successive historical periods, Regency and Victorian. The stiff Victorian clothing, aimed at covering every inch of the female body, contrasted starkly with Regency clothing which revealed a major portion of ladies breasts, as Ms. Quinn reminds us:
‘He wanted to groan as he took in the gown’s low neckline that barely encased her ample breasts.’
This would never happen in Victorian social events, because ladies breasts would be well-preserved from male eyes with plenty of silk, gauze, lacing, or other material.
I was able to ponder on this through Ms Quinn’s novel. Jane Austen, of course, had no idea how fashions were going to change, and wasn’t prone to describing clothes in detail, why should she? Her readers knew what they were wearing!
The new Victorian fashions were aimed at curbing sexual desire, promiscuity, and the liberal ideas represented in women’s attire, as well as promoting a renewed religious fervor.
I also thought long and hard on why The Seduction of Lady Phoebe was such a great read, and Persuasion, this time, proved to be more of a struggle.
This led me to analyze what makes a good novel, for contemporary readers, but that will be the subject of another post.
The third novel I read is another debut novel, Death on a Red Canvas Chair by one of my new virtual writer friends and blogging sisters, Noelle Granger . Noelle has taught me how important it is to have a thorough plot with plenty of twists and turns, and how including the author’s valuable knowledge and expertise increases authenticity and interest.
The novel I am reading at the moment is the disturbing, yet beautiful, The Death of Bees, another brilliant debut novel, by Lisa O’Donnell, which was recommended and gifted to me by my best friend, Anna, a few months ago. I was not disappointed by Ms O’Donnell’s multiple narrators and tight hold on the surprising narrative.
The last two novels are set in contemporary New England, and Scotland, respectively. They are in no way related to anything I write, yet they have valuable lessons for me as a writer. Noelle has reminded me to tighten my plots, and keep the reader on her toes, while Lisa has taught me that traumatic events can be told with humour and feeling.
The four books have decisive, determined, and brave heroines, who easily bond with the reader. The first three heroines are good at what they do and lead relatively successful lives, and The Death of Bees, well, all the characters are flawed, perhaps too flawed to be likeable.
Reading these books has helped me realize I am attracted to imperfect characters who struggle with their weaknesses. Happy endings are satisfactory, but deep down, they make me feel there’s something missing or unfinished in the narrative.
Reading widely and critically helps me understand why I write the way I do, and it helps me identify what I want to achieve through my stories and characters.
How do I want my readers to feel? Satisfied? Happy? Challenged? Upset?
What do I want my readers to think about? Love? Happiness? The meaning of life, or lack of it?
I’m still exploring what kind of a writer I am, but reading other works helps me understand my own writing style, what I want to accomplish, and how I can get there.
What kind of novels help you grow as a writer?
A special mention to Irene Waters, who contributed to the motivation to write this post, as a result of our exchange of comments on this subject recently. Check out her inspiring blog Reflections and Nightmares.
16 thoughts on “Which books should writers read?”
Lovely post, Luccia, and you really bring out how reading the classics can also throw light on what works as contemporary fiction. Like you, I’m trying to learn how to write from my reading. Reviewing novels, as I’ve started to do recently, helps to bring this out, although I’m not always so clear about what I’ve learnt. The one I probably found most helpful was unpacking Instructions for a Heatwave:
Thanks for commenting and sharing Anne! Great post. I’ve posted a reply on your page.
I’m sure all writers are constantly learning and improving their/our craft.
My previous post is about The Tempest, believed to be Shakespeare’s last work. It has some tremendous lines, which he couldn’t have written in his first play. If he had written only one type of play he wouldn’t be the greatest!
Totally agree Lucia with everything you say here Luccia and glad I stimulated the post. I joined a book club to force me to read outside my comfort zone and it is surprising how enjoyable many of these books turn out to be and how so many of them inform your own writing. Stephen King calls “reading the creative centre of a writer’s life” and I have to say I agree. I also think that if you can write like a reader and read like a writer both processes cannot help but improve. As in art where some artists live on beyond their period so too with writers. There is a quality in the writing which lives on, that the modern person is touched in the same way that a person of the era was touched. Reading these old classics certainly helps us develop a sense of what that something was. An emotion we still feel, beauty of language or some other intangible but the more we read the more likely that our writing will improve and who knows where we might end up. I’ve had Noelle’s novel on my list for awhile to read and will add the other two new ones as well. Sadly my reading is confined at the moment to works related to my study but that will not be forever.
The only thing that I will add is that although I agree you have to read widely out of genre it is also important that the writer reads widely within genre. You need to know what others have written in your field and what is your unique take on the particular subject. Examined critically you can also see what works and what doesn’t allowing you to consciously improve your own writing as a result.
I agree with everything especially your last paragraph. I didn’t develop this idea in this post because I wanted to bring attention to moving out of our comfort zone, but we do need to read within our own field, too. Thanks for reminding me 🙂
Thank you for the shout out, Lucy. You are so right about reading other genres – it opens your eyes to descriptive possibilities and ways of considering human emotion, as well as showing some of the writer’s soul. I think the one characteristic of all good books is: they tell a good story. It doesn’t matter how or the setting, just the story. All Hallows tells a great story, and I’m looking forward to the next book in your trilogy.
I think the books that got me started in mystery were PD James and her wonderful Adam Dalgliesh (I could never write as well as she does), and Sue Grafton and her creation, Kinsey Milhone. More recently I’ve become addicted to Craig Johnson (I’ve read each of his books at least twice for the descriptions, the characters and the humor -and even got to meet him) and CJ Box, a lyrical mystery writer. Interesting that both of these writers set their books in Wyoming.
Great post, even if I do say so myself1
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I love crime mysteries and thrillers, but I always think you need a more ‘scientific’ mind to pull them through all the way. There ia a murder in Twelfth Night at Eyre Hall, I hope I can pull it through. There is arsenic and laudanum involved, which were widely available (and used to this end) in Victorian England. I may private message you for advice about some aspects of this murder, if you wouldn’t mind 🙂
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No problem. Poison is a woman’s way to kill, so I already suspect a woman is at the bottom of this! Plus arsenic was used to whiten the skin, if I am not mistaken, And laudanum was frequently prescribed by physicians at time.
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There’s a great book: The Arsenic century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work, and Play, by JAMES C. WHORTON, published by OUP in 2010, which is very informative! You are right, a woman is ‘involved’ in the murder…. I can say no more at this point…!
Reading something different can send us down paths we never expected to walk.
Thank you for dropping by Paul! Sorry I’ve been a but absent as a visitor to your blog. I’m (half) on holiday with limited time and access. Will be dropping by ASAP 🙂
good point well made. I simply don’t read enough. How someone like Anne or you find the time defeats me. Maybe if I gave up cricket?
I don’t watch TV, and my children have grown up and left home! That gives me so much time… It would be a pity to give up cricket! I’m thinking of taking up golf…. One day…
Am curious about what you found “less than satisfactory” about Persuasion. Was it about style, subject matter, cultural norms, or some other issue with the experience of re-reading it?
This time round it didn’t work so well for me because I found the first third far too much ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’. I also found parts of the dialogue ‘stiff’. Finally very little introspection into the characters, especially the men. That’s why the letter by FW is so powerful. It’s the only glimpse you get of what makes him tick. It has surprised and saddened me because it used to be one of my favourites. I’m sure I need to have another look and discover what captured me in the first place, so many years ago…
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