The Un-Obligatory Reader

Mike Duran

Botanists estimate that there are more than 240,000 species of flowering plants. Herbs, grasses, cacti, crab apples. Egads! Why limit your enjoyment to buttercups, when lupines and lilies are equally elegiac? In a world of wildly diverse blooms, confining oneself to locoweed seems crazy.

The same is true for reading. Noir and romance, horror and historicals, cyberpunk and espionage, sociology and satire. Where do you begin? Well, if you’re a writer, you begin with your genre.

The first writer’s conference I ever attended, I was given a name tag that included, in big block letters, the genre of my choice. So I was:

Mike Duran
SUPERNATURAL SUSPENSE

Trouble is, I’m much more than that. I’m courtroom drama and urban myth and political essay and poetry. But, alas, writing in a specific genre requires reading in that genre. In other words, despite the other 239,999 other flowering plants, you should confine yourself to locoweed.

Sure, reading nothing but chick lit, sci-fi, or cozy mysteries, will keep you up on that particular genre. But it also can lead to a creative echo chamber, a literary myopia that insulates you from a broader spectrum of books. Even though I love supernatural suspense, reading only supernatural suspense gets boring.

In The Modern Writer’s Workshop, author Stephen Koch addresses this “boredom” that authors sometimes get mired in:

…please, don’t sink into this woeful nonsense about not having time to read. Find it. Make it. How much time each day do you give to TV? To the daily paper? The crossword? The real culprit here is almost never your schedule. It is boredom — your boredom with the books you think you are supposed to read. Find a book that you want, a book that gives you real trembling excitement, a book that is hot in your hands, and you’ll have time galore. (emphasis mine)

This notion that aspiring authors are “supposed to read” certain books is prevalent in writers’ circles. It can lead to guilt (What? You haven’t read Self-Editing for Fiction Writers?), contempt (You call yourself a Fantasy fan and haven’t read Lord of the Rings?), exclusion (Finishing the Harry Potter series is a requirement for inclusion in our coven… er, group), and eventually makes for one long must-read list.

But shouldn’t there be books that you, as an author, are “supposed to read”? Shouldn’t some books be “obligatory” for writers?

Hmm. Applying the elements of style is probably more important than reading The Elements of Style. A publisher could care less if I’ve studied Strunk’s classic. What they’re looking for is the application of its principles. Still, familiarity with the work can’t help but get you pointed in the right direction. Likewise, one might aspire to create the next Lord of the Rings. But getting there without having actually read Tolkien would be a fantasy. Classics, they say, are books that everybody knows about, but no one has read. Could this be why there’s less and less “contemporary classics”?

So if writing good stories is the result of reading good stories, then immersing oneself in the best of any given genre is a necessity. The problem is when these “must read” lists become obligatory.

Koch again:

All serious education necessarily involves a certain amount of obligatory reading. That is how it has to be and exactly as it ought to be. Yet this essential aspect of growth does have a dangerous downside: It can darken all reading under the dull shadow of obligation. At a certain moment in your life as a writer, you should resolve to read only what matters to you. Not what people say should matter. What does. You should seek that out relentlessly, find it, and then you should read and read and read. (emphasis mine)

I’ll admit, this advice that “you should resolve to read only what matters to you” sounds subversive. I mean, what about Phillip Marlowe, Huck Finn and Atticus Finch? Don’t these classic characters warrant a hearing? It feels like I’m violating some sacred oath by not reading Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby. If I’m writing Supernatural Suspense, don’t I have an obligation to read Stephen King? And if I’m writing YA, isn’t the Twilight series required reading? Conversely, if I’m writing Romance, what am I doing reading Enders Game or Odd Thomas?

The real “obligation” of the writer is to tell a good story. And how she gets to that point is entirely up to her. It’s why I’m currently reading about Matrioshka brains, Unhistory, and the Nature of Mass Movements. No, it’s not what I’m “supposed” to read. But it sure fends off the boredom. Besides, in a world of Plumerias and Passionflowers, why confine yourself to locoweed?