You Are What You Read?
By Randy Ingermanson
Years ago I was talking to a fellow novelist whom I’d just met and I asked him what his Top Five favorite novels were. This is a question I ask writers a lot. I’m always looking for great books, and one place to find them is on the Top Five list of another writer.
This guy’s answer just about knocked me over. He said, “I don’t read fiction.”
I couldn’t believe it. I asked him if he meant he didn’t read much fiction. No, he didn’t read any. He was a nonfiction kind of a guy. He wrote fiction, but he didn’t read it. That was years ago, and I haven’t seen anything from him recently.
To put it bluntly, I don’t see that as a recipe for success. If you’re a novelist, you need to be reading fiction.
There’s a saying that “you are what you read,” and I think this is partially true. If you read great fiction, you’ll absorb some of it, and you’ll become a better writer. You’ll learn what’s possible to do in writing, and it can’t help but expand you as a writer.
But I think it goes beyond that. I recommend reading widely, even if it isn’t great fiction. Because the fact is that you are MORE than what you read. What you read is fuel for your mind—it’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient. Novelists need to be reading fiction. A lot of fiction. Not just the bestsellers. Obscure stuff. Good fiction. Great fiction. Horrible fiction (not too much of this—if you do manuscript reviews at a writing conference, you’ll see more than you need).
When you read other people’s fiction, you learn things that you couldn’t learn any other way. Because when it comes to the craft of writing, you don’t know what you don’t know. The only way to learn what you don’t know is by reading other people’s work. For starters, you should read widely in your category. You need to know the rules of your genre—which ones are ironclad and which ones can be bent.