Do you need to read to be a writer?

This is a response to the frequent appearance of the question Do you need to read to be a writer on Twitter. At least once a week, this question appears in my Twitter feed. The last variation – As a writer, do you feel obliged to read – really annoyed me. The use of the word obliged suggests that reading is a chore. If that is how you feel, I’d have to question why you’d want to be writer in the first place.

There are two reasons I find this question irritating. First of all, to me it seems absolutely natural that reading and writing go together. For me, both are essential to the smooth running of my psyche. It’s not only that. You learn from the one how to do the other. When I first started teaching, there was a fad for teaching reading and writing as separate things. It soon transpired that this was impossible. You need to read models of good writing to know how to do it yourself. This is still true if you are writing a novel and not a letter to an editor of a newspaper for your GCSE exam.

The second reason is I can think of no other medium where people would think they could just go ahead and do it without studying or gaining skills first. Would a musician say do you have to listen to music to know how to write music or a film director suggest you could just go ahead and direct without ever seeing a film. Of course they wouldn’t and people generally recognise that you have to practise and learn skills before you can be good at these things. For whatever reason, we don’t think about writing like this. People think that everybody has a book in them and that they can just sit down at their notebook or keyboard and magic will just happen. This is not the case.

Of course, it’s not for me to dictate how much someone should or shouldn’t read. No one should feel obliged to do anything they don’t want to. Equally, I don’t understand why you would be interested in creating something for someone else to read if you don’t enjoy reading. Furthermore, how could you possibly write a book that might make them think reading is amazing and fun if you don’t even like reading yourself?

The Reading Year So Far

It’s been a mixed year so far on the reading front. On the one hand, I’ve read ten books so far which is good. On the other, there have been some disappointing reads. The start of the year saw me in lockdown again so I was able to get a lot of reading done. Now I’m back at work, I’m not so sure that I’ll get through some of the very big titles on my list. We’ll see.

The main achievement so far is having finished Middlemarch. I’m not really one for the classics so reading such a long book was a big ask. My main motivation was it is one of my father in law’s favourite books and he doesn’t really approve of a lot of the things I read (Terry Pratchett, David Mitchell, anything with a hint of fantasy or magic realism, in fact) so I don’t think he really believed I’d manage it. It was a slog for most of it. It was only the last two hundred pages where I felt compelled to find out what would happen. Now it’s finished, I’m glad I read it but mostly just because I can now say I’ve read it.

I’ve been trying to read more widely. My default option is male, white authors such as Julian Barnes, Chuck Palahniuk, Ian Rankin and Markus Zusak. Okay so often they have interesting things to say about masculinity but I’m trying to get out of this comfort zone. So I’m trying to read more women, LGBT writers and writers of colour. So far this year, this has brought me some of my favourite reads – Take Nothing With You by the fabulous Patrick Gale, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead – all of which are much recommended.

The other thing I set myself to do this year was to read more current fiction. I read a lot of contemporary fiction but not usually things that were out in the last couple of years. This hasn’t panned out quite so well. I found Where the Crawdads Sing tedious (as I so often do with things that have been really popular) and David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue was just disappointing. One thing with reading things from twenty+ years ago – it’s easier to know what is good because they have stood the test of time.

Another thing I’ve wanted to do is expand the genres I read in. I try as much as possible to read a variety of genres. It’s at least partly responsible for some of my less good reads. A lot of the people I’m friends with on Goodreads seem to read only one genre and they post a lot of five star reviews but I know that I would be bored with that. I view it as basically reading the same book over and over. My favourite genres are probably dystopia (I’ve already read two this year) and detective fiction and I fall back on them a lot but I try to make sure I step outside them as much as possible. So I’m currently reading Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre – spy fiction being very much unchartered territory for me – and I’m really enjoying it. I’m not sure how much of this genre I will read in the future but I think I will explore some of Le Carre’s back catalogue.

As it’s nearly the Easter holidays, and once I’ve finished Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I’m going to embark on another of the large classics on my list – probably Moby Dick. And then it will be on to some non-fiction as I’ve not read any of that yet this year. Although often when I make proclamations about what I am going to read, I completely abandon them. One thing is for sure, it will be an interesting reading year.

2020 Reading Catch Up 2021 Reading Plans

One of the good things that 2020 has been is a good reading year for me. I met my target of reading 40 books on Goodreads. While this might sound like very many, some of them were quite difficult – Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, for example or John Updike’s Rabbit Run. However, I didn’t quite manage to read an author for every letter of the alphabet for my reading challenge, having mistaken Shakey as a Neil Young autobiography rather than a biography. Having no unread Y authors in the house and this being mid december, I decided that I didn’t have time to try and procure another Y and read The Book of Evidence by John Banville as my last book of 2020 instead.

Top Five Reads of 2020

  1. Bridge of Clay – Markus Zusak – This was one of the first books I read last year and I could not put it down. I was worried it might not live up to The Book Thief but, in fact, I enjoyed it more. It was the story of Clay and his brothers, their relationship with each other and with their father. It was emotional without being sentimental. The storyline was non-chronological and needed some unpicking but I like to have to work a bit and not have the answers handed to me on a plate. Definitely recommended.
  2. Born a Crime – Trevor Noah – I’ve always admired Noah. He has a reasonable and sensible view on things that always just seems to cut through the bullshit. This memoir about his South African childhood is both tragic and comic and never less than enthralling. Noah was a naughty child and he starts by telling about his mother chasing him and how he learned to run so fast. Pretty quickly we are into more serious territory, given that Noah’s very existence was considered a crime. Noah’s mother came across as a fantastically strong woman who has clearly been a huge influence on him and seems to be responsible for his attitude to life.
  3. The Hand That First Held Mine – Maggie O’Farrell – There are two main storylines in this novel – Ted and his wife, Elina, in the present day, and the story of Lexi Sinclair set some time in the past. I admit I did manage to work out some of the twists to this one but it was beautifully written and I still felt compelled to read on.
  4. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro – I wasn’t sure if I was going to like this or not. I’d read Ishiguro before and I hadn’t been massively impressed but this was so different to the other two, I was quickly taken with it. The story of Stephens, the butler at Darlington Hall and his unrealised love for Miss Kenton, the housekeeper is a subtle and clever joy from start to finish.
  5. No is not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need – Naomi Klein – This is a call to arms. Klein’s political observations were on the money as were her solutions to the current political situation in the US. Klein argues that Trump is not an aberration but the logical conclusion of recent policies on both the left and the right. She then suggests ways of working together in order to make sure it never happens again. Even with Biden now about to take over the white house, we shouldn’t be complacent and allow the same issues that caused it to happen before to resurface so it happens again.

Of course, there were also less good reads although none warranted a one star on Goodreads. The three I liked the least, I expected to like better – No Surrender by Constance Maud was recommended by a BBC program on women’s fiction and I thought it sounded interesting, being about the fight for suffrage but it was tediously dogmatic. P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley was also tedious. James never managed to quite pull off her imitation of Austen and the style spoiled the story for me. Finally, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain was not the first world war memoir I was expecting and I felt that it talked too much of things outside of her nursing career and I did not find that particularly interesting. (I just realised that all of these were by women. I’m not sure whether that is important but I do often find it hard to bond with female authors.)

And for next year, well, I’m not yet sure what my reading list will look like. I’m not following a online challenge because I couldn’t decide what I wanted to do. My husband has volunteered to give me a list of books and I have agreed to this although I admit that I’m feeling a little worried. There are certain books on our shelves that he feels I should have read and I think there is a good reason why I haven’t. The Lord of the Rings is one, anything by Hemingway is another. So we shall see. I’ve started reading The Testaments by Margaret Atwood just to ensure that I’ve at least one good read over the next twelve months.

No more neglecting my blog: A reflection on where it went wrong this year.

I feel a bit sorry for my blog. It must have been wondering what it had done to cause such neglect. The last time I blogged was in October. I’ve never had such a large gaps between blogs before. The main reason is that wage paying work has been incredibly busy. I haven’t even had time to edit Choose Yr Future. Exam work, steady teaching work and the run up to Christmas conspired to make it impossible for me to get anything that wasn’t strictly (financially) necessary done.

Of course, I used to be able to write whenever I had a minute. These days whenever I have a minute I fall asleep. That is one of the most annoying things about getting older; I just can’t burn the midnight oil anymore.

I failed once again to finish this years Full House Reading Challenge. My error was to ask my husband to help me pick a book at random. His throwing a paper ball at the bookshelves resulted in me having to read Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. Which I started in September and have not yet finished. (Although only about 10 pages left!) I might have abandoned it if he had not watched me very closely to see if I stuck with it. I am very much looking forward to reading a different book.

I’m not sure about doing any reading challenges this year. It might be time for a year off. A year of reading what I want to read sounds appealing but I will probably get sucked into something. I usually do.

Now the worst of the busyness over. Exams are done with until the summer. Supply work is back to day to day and no responsibilities. So hopefully back to blogging regularly and editing every day. It’s exciting. One thing to be said for this prolonged absence, I’m raring to get going again.

Not a Good Year for Reading

I’m not sure what I’m doing differently but I seem to be picking a lot of bad books at the minute. I don’t know if I am getting harder to please as I get older. (This does seem to be a genuine problem for some readers. My father in law has been like this for some years and now seems to just read tried and tested authors or books that he already knows.)

For the last few years, I have tried to read different genres more and to expand my reading behaviour. I was stuck in a rut. Now I feel like I have the opposite problem. There is no end of reading choice but a lot of it sounds dreadful.

Following big sellers such as the Hunger Games series and thrillers such as Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, publishers seem to be grabbing at any opportunity to gain the same possible success. Most of these books are dreadful. It is the same in cinema, a proliferation of genre fluff  follows every a big success until eventually the genre is drowned in a sea of mediocrity. It’s making me wary of choosing anything.

Maybe I read too much literary fiction to ever be fully happy reading popular fiction. Maybe I am an intellectual snob. (No maybe about it, some would say.) Undoubtedly this is where my longing for more comes from – more depth, more characterisation, more distinctiveness. Like with watching Indie films and then trying to go back to watching blockbusters, maybe I’ve just spoiled the mainstream for myself.

It’s very easy to wax nostalgic about books and films – “but blockbusters were better when I was young” and so on. Maybe that is true. Or maybe it is just that tastes change and refine and what you like when you are twenty is inevitably going to be different when you are forty. Or maybe the search for the next big money spinner is genuinely ruining the  viewing and reading experience.

Books Read in 2014 – 17. All the Flowers in Shanghai – Duncan Jepson

Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: A chronological first person account in the style of a memoir written for her children

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 2011

Synopsis: The story of Feng, a young Chinese woman who suddenly has to download (5)replace her elder sister in an arranged marriage. The novel begins in the 1930s and moves through to the Cultural Revolution showing the effect on Feng and her family.

This was quite an easy read – straightforwardly chronological and with easy to follow prose. The pace was good and there was enough interest to keep the reader going. At first, it was difficult to pinpoint why I didn’t like it more.

I think my main problem was with the character of Feng. At the beginning of the novel, she is a sweet girl left to her own devices because it is her elder sister who will make the important arranged marriage. She spends most of her time in the gardens with her precious grandfather learning the names of the flowers and trees in Latin. However, when her sister dies, she is forced by tradition to take her place.

She has no idea what lies ahead. Even after the wedding, she still seems like an innocent abroad, lost in among the plots and petty problems of a large family.

However, when she becomes pregnant, she changes. She makes the decision to send the child away if it is a girl and she becomes hardened. While it is likely that she would grow up a bit, this change in personality does not quite ring true. Later still, she runs away from her home, ashamed by how she has behaves and this too seems unconvincing.

Finally, she is able to contact her long lost children with what is, in my mind, a pretty weak plot device. The happy ending that this dreates is, to my mind, a little forced as the other changes had been. It isn’t that Feng’s voice is unconvincing particularly but that she is used by the plot regardless of whether the behaviour fits in with her personality.

At the beginning of the novel, I was a little lost as to when it was set. It wasn’t obvious and I suppose that this is because Feng was sheltered from the real world by her wealth. The end section is much more successful and the way that China was scarred by the Cultural Revolution is well documented. In fact, the way that Feng is constantly ruled by forces out of her  control shows the problems with both the old and the new regime.

 

Books Read in 2014 – 6. The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman

Sandman_Dolls_HouseGenre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Mix of viewpoints. Generally linear.

Rating 4/5

Format: paperback

Published: 1989

Synopsis: Due to the absence of Dream from his realm, some of the dreams and nightmares have escaped. This leads to all sorts of bloody mayhem. Add in the presence of a Vortex that could wreck the dream world forever and you have the makings of an exciting story.

As I mentioned in my last post I was going straight on to read the next Sandman book The Doll’s House. I was glad to have been loaned the second one as well as otherwise I would have felt a little bereft. I’m pleased to say that I was not disappointed.

Having said that, this is much less a story about Dream – obviously he appears in it but he isn’t the centre as much as he was in the first book. Instead, Rose, granddaughter of Unity Kinkaid (a character from the first book) is the focus and her search for her younger brother supplies most of the narrative momentum.

One the way she meets a whole host of wacky and wicked characters. There seems to be no limits to Gaiman’s imagination in this respect. And while they are strange, they are never less than convincing. Such is the level of his talent.

There is plenty of gore, as well and the illustrations are just as impressive and vivid – in fact more so, as the story allows for an unleashing of the artists twisted imagination much more than in the first book.

I felt this book was more compact and self-contained than the first and I don’t feel such a compulsion to read on immediately. Having said that I am much more interested in reading the rest of them now.

Books Read in 2014 5. Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman Vol. 1) – Neil Gaiman

eclecticchallenge2014_300Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014

Genre: Graphic Novel, Fantasy

Narrative Style: Mix of viewpoints. Generally linear.

Rating 4/5

Format: Paperback

Published: 1988

Synopsis: Crowley like magician, Burgess tries to summon Death, in order to live forever. Instead he gets Dream (or Morpheus or The Sandman). He keeps him prisoner and steals items from him. Eventually, those guarding Dream make the mistake of falling asleep and he escapes, aiming to wreak vengence on those who imprisoned him and to get back the things that belong to them.images

When this genre came up, I knew immediately that I would read one of The Sandman books. I had read a couple of the comic books a long time ago – from the middle of the series but the nature of these stories means they can be read out of sync. I thought it would be nice to see if they stood up to the test of time. I also knew that Gaiman’s subject matter would be pleasing to me and I hoped to enjoy this as much as other things that he has written. So I asked a friend who is a big fan to loan me the first book.

Preludes and Nocturnes was definitely a page turner. I read it quickly and not just because obviously the words per page are less than in a novel. I wanted to know about Dream’s revenge and how he would regain the tools of his trade. The action did not disappoint – from duels with demons in hell to the spectacular nightmares unleashed on the world by John Dee- and I was often surprised at the turn that events took. At the end of the book, I wanted to read on straightaway – which was okay because I have been loaned a copy of the next book as well. I have an awful feeling I’m going to end up buying the rest.

The character of Dream is not really what I would have expected from the character of The Sandman. my impressions of The Sandman before reading any of this series was much more whimsical. I’m sure I’m not alone in having quite a dreamy, sweet picture of the man who brings you dreams at night. Of course, this discounts the idea of nightmares completely. In fact, few dreams are ever straightforwardly lovely – at least in my experience. It makes sense then that Dream should be a harder, more difficult character. And he is one of the Endless along with Death and Desire and that gives him an isolation from the humans whose dreams he crafts. There is something attractive about Dream – perhaps this is as it should be – even though he is not a nice person if that is even an appropriate thing to say about an anthropomorphic personification.

The illustrations are amazing. Vivid and nightmarish, they make the story come alive for the reader. The use of colour is often jarring as if to ensure that this is recognised as being a fantasy world. They are the perfect way to capture the ideas in Gaiman’s imagination.

If there is anything to complain of here, for me, it is the fact that their is less work for my imagination to do. Imagine the prose that would describe some of these drawings. It would be truly amazing to read. That said, there is nothing intellectually lacking about these stories. They stand up to rigourous scrutiny along with the best of fiction. Much recommended.

Plans for this year

I’m bit late writing this. It is now beyond the middle of January and I still haven’t posted my new year resolutions / plans for the rest of the year. Perhaps one of them should be getting myself organised.

In terms of reading, I am doing two challenges this year:

  • The TBR challenge – I’m excited about this challenge for a nu2014tbrbuttonmber of reasons. First of all, it is always exciting to be forced to read books you’ve been meaning to read for ages. One of the books I am reading for this (Death Comes to the Archbishop) has been on my shelf for twenty years. This really is ridiculous. If not for this challenge then I probably would never have picked it up. It becomes far too easy to ignore these books in favour of new and more exciting books. The other reason that this challenge is good is that it does not involve my kindle. It is all books from my shelf. It doesn’t involve buying new books either. This can only be a good thing.
  • The Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014 – I’m looking forward to theclecticchallenge2014_300is challenge for different reasons. I really enjoyed the way it took me out of my reading rut. This year there are even more genres that I don’t usually read so that should be interesting.

In terms of writing, I have a few things I want to do.

  • In terms of reviewing, I am going to try to write a review for every book I read this year, regardless of whether it is for a challenge or not.
  • I have a few final tweaks to Choose Yr Future and then I will be looking for beta readers and hopefully be looking towards publication this year.
  • I am going to try and use writing prompts to write more short fiction and also make more efforts to get what I have written published / entered in more competitions.
  • Finish my current project which hasn’t got a name yet but is about 60000 words long.

So an exciting year hopefully. Certainly a busy one with lots of challenges and lots of fun and hard work ahead.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2014

After the enjoyment of doing last year’s Eclectic Reader Challenge twice, I am really looking forward to this years challenge. This year the categories are going to take me more out of my reading comfort zone, I think but that can only be a good thing. eclecticchallenge2014_300

The challenge is hosted by Shellley Rae@ Book’d Out. The idea is to read a book for each category and then post a review for each one.

Here is what I intend to read in each category.

  1. Award Winning – Anita Desai – The Inheritance of Loss
  2. True Crime (Non Fiction) – Ann Rule – The Stranger Beside Me
  3. Romantic Comedy – David Nicholls – Starter for Ten
  4. Alternate History Fiction – Jasper Fforde – The Eyre Affair
  5. Graphic Novel – The Sandman Vol 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
  6. Cosy Mystery Fiction – Dorothy L. Sayers – Five Red Herrings
  7. Gothic Fiction – Daphne Du Maurier – Rebecca
  8. War/Military Fiction – John Boyne – The Absolutist
  9. Anthology – Irvine Welsh – If you liked school, you’ll love work
  10. Medical Thriller Fiction – Patricia Cornwell – Post Mortem
  11. Travel (Non Fiction) – Travels in the Congo – Andre Gide
  12. Published in 2014 – The Good Girl – Mary Kucica