I can’t imagine a writer emerging from someone who doesn’t read. Sure, there are movies, TV, books-on-tape, and even plays. But I think “something” is lost if the work is not assimilated by reading the written word– if you don’t see sentence, paragraph, and story structure and punctuation on the printed page. It’s something like the writer’s equivalent of the eye-hand-brain coordination that artisans and athletes practice. You just don’t get any of that when you assimilate a story through alternate pathways that are more direct connections to emotions and “fact-registers” (for lack of a better term… I’m no psychologist or neurologist).
When we read, all that input travels through a word “de-processor” in our brains that reverse-engineers coded language from print (words on the printed page) to the emotions and facts that they represent, and which we react to as “story-receivers.” To say you can accomplish the same thing by watching a movie or listening to an audio tape would be like saying you could learn something about computer programming by simply watching a computer-animated movie like “Shrek.”
Reading per se is important for a lot of other reasons. There is something to be said about simply achieving the highest possible volume of reading you can manage to do. This accomplishes many things. It informs. It educates. It builds your cerebral data bases. It imprints (along the lines of what we talked about above). It entertains. And it helps develop your own personal taste in literature (pinky-up or pinky-down connotation of the word).
Learning your genre preference is an important step toward targeting your own writing. This is not to say that writers can only write in one genre, but most successful writers do tend to “emphasize” one or a few select genre niches over others. If you can “do it all,” more power to you. But it might be worth starting with a more modest strategy (conquer one genre) before moving on to others.
Reading to know what came before your idea on a given theme, subject, gimmick etc. is also important. It is important for every facet of literature, but it is especially important in SF- speculative fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Magic Realism etc.). These genres all have a strong dependency on the use of a clever innovative idea (technology, magic, fright, etc.). I call it the story “gimmick,” or, if you will, the SF-nal gimmick. Jeanne Cavelos of Odyssey calls it the story “novum.” Novum sounds a little more high brow, but to me it amounts to the clever gimmick of a SF story that sets it apart from typical mainstream writing, and which is often the signature aspect of originality that makes or breaks many a SF story. Not every SF story has an absolutely new gimmick. But it helps. At the very least it is especially useful/helpful/beneficial if the SF-nal gimmick is “handled” in a new way. Jack McDevitt’s recent handling of time travel in “Time Travelers Never Die” or Orson Scott Card’s handling of it in “Pastwatch” come to mind as examples when contrasted against H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.”
Another huge benefit of extensive reading is exposing oneself to and learning what constitutes quality. Quality can certainly be defined in a number of ways. At least two are important to me. One is being aware of what “the industry” regards as quality in the genre(s) that I care about and want to write in. Another is seeking out and learning from other writers that accomplish the kind of writing that I would like to emulate (regardless of what critics or the publishing industry have to say about quality).
Learning to read analytically is a skill that most of us develop gradually. It can be learned organically. Read enough and you almost can’t help but start identifying the reasons why you do or don’t like the way one writer writes better than another. But it can also be learned from books and from teachers (preferably other successful writers).
I’m not a big believer in reading critics as a source of “writing wisdom.” Critics can’t make a living unless they are identifiably and substantially negative some significant portion of the time (it is almost a quota thing). And, furthermore, critics can’t make much of a living unless what they say seems “unique” or “clever”. In my opinion, this often comes from being arbitrarily opposite of what someone else expects to hear. So, I guess I’m saying critics are a capricious litmus of quality at best.
Academic teachers also carry the burden of rote institutional adherence to “traditionally” accepted standards. For all of us, if we ever hope to be good writers, we need to know these standards, but there also comes a point where, if you ever hope to be successful, you need to have the courage to resist letting them confine you. Think of Vincent van Gogh in trying to get my drift. In my opinion, evolution in art has always forced the evolution of standards to encompass new approaches to subject matter. But this also implies (by the definition of evolution) that what you choose to do differently gives you a competitive advantage and makes your blood line equally or more survivable than what came before.
A number of successful writers at workshops I’ve attended have recommended a specific technique related to reading analytically. Find those works that represent the highest quality writing in the genre that interests you, and type out some of the best passages. The act of typing them imprints the brain in yet another dimension that is keenly important to writers. It creates a tactile connection to all the other nuanced writing skills that comprise what you recognize as quality writing. Try it. It works.
OK, ‘nuff said. The house is quiet at the moment– back to Joyce Carol Oates’ “Missing Mom.”