Unlike the vast majority of colleges (especially on the west coast), my alma mater offered two English degrees: Literature and Creative Writing. As part of the creative writing degree requirements, we had to take a certain number of writing courses in different genres—I studied the fiction and creative nonfiction tracks—and a variety of literature courses. Now, when I was a freshman, I didn’t understand why lit courses would be required for a creative writing degree. I wanted to write for the rest of my life, not read centuries-old manuscripts and analyze the author’s use of motif.
I’m probably not the only student who shunned the lit requirements at my school. I could do the work, but it wasn’t as interesting to me as writing my own stories or reading more modern fiction. No part of me wanted to read the works of nineteenth-century American authors, but I had to do it.
I don’t remember the specific moment when I realized why my professors required writing majors to take lit courses. I mean, I’d always had some vague understanding of the motivation behind it. Reading the stuff that came before you can make your writing better. But I hadn’t really internalized that. It wasn’t until I had taken a few writing courses that I truly realized the necessity of reading as a writer. The readings in my creative writing courses and the texts I read in literature courses allowed me to make informed decisions about my own writing: how to develop believable characters, for instance, and how to make characters interact with the setting of the story. Reading truly improves my craft—even reading stories I don’t like. (Especially the stories I don’t like.)
I know there are a number of non-reading writers out there, or writers who stick to reading works in a specific genre (typically the genre they intend to write). I’ve always been a fantasy writer and reader, and I probably always will be. But please know that there is so much to learn from reading other genres or other styles you’re not familiar with. Most of the books I’ve read recently have been in the high/epic fantasy realm, because that’s what I enjoy writing, and it seems perfectly natural to me to read only those books. But I’ve also read a number of more “literary” novels, such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Tatjana Soli’s The Forgetting Tree, and those books have helped me hone my craft in ways the high fantasy books had allow me to neglect.
Reading as a writer helps in so many ways. It lets you know which stories have already been written, which characters and worlds have been explored. It provides insight on how to manage world building and character interactions and dialogue. It gives you a model for your story’s narrative arc. And, perhaps most important to writers who intend to sell their work, it allows you to draw comparisons between established novels and your own.
I refuse to accept the myth that reading books is a dying pastime. As long as there are writers, there will be readers.