I’ll begin with a story.
Once, at a weekend workshop, I had a disastrous manuscript conference with an editor from a well-known publisher. I think she started by saying, “This doesn’t work for me,” and it went downhill from there. As I felt the icy waves of disinterest breaking upon the shores of my ego, I thought of a friend of mine who, in his hunt for a spouse, was subjecting himself to an endless round of blind dates. He said he always knew by the end of the appetizer; time after time, he just wanted to leave after the fried mozzarella sticks. (He was casting his net wide, and his restaurant budget was strained.) Sitting there, I felt his pain, and was grateful that I was, in effect, in a speed-dating scenario. The editor and I had fifteen minutes. There were now thirteen to go.
She asked me to whom I’d compare myself as a writer. I stammered and babbled and finally managed to say that I thought I was only supposed to sound like myself. The editor looked very tired. I offered to tell her who some of my favorite writers were. Sure, she said, brightening slightly.
William Maxwell, I said. William Trevor. Peter Taylor. Marguerite Duras. She was looking blank. Virginia Woolf? I said, feeling beyond cliché. Fitzgerald? Cheever?
I was proud of myself for remembering not to say James—I wasn’t that stupid. Also, for sticking to the twentieth century. But the editor said, anyone who’s alive?
Well, to be honest for a long time I had a rule to only read people who were dead—
At this point her look bordered on contempt. She told me to start reading current writers. She told me to go to bookstores and see what was new and to look at bestseller lists. She told me to figure out who I was like. I needed to be able to say this to a future–different–prospective editor. She also told me I should think about taking writing classes. I have, I said faintly, and then stopped listening.
When I stood up she looked surprised—which surprised me—and said, but we have five minutes left.
I know, I said, shaking her hand, in effect leaving the mozzarella sticks congealing on the plate, of which I was rather proud.
The first and obvious point of this story is that that editor and I were not a match. The next point is that it didn’t matter. (That manuscript eventually became my first published novel—after much revision.) Publishing is so frustrating and mysterious because it is built on the unknowable alchemy of taste; just because someone hates your work doesn’t mean someone else won’t love it. That’s so obvious I hesitate to even write it down, but I well remember when people In Publishing—when I happened to meet them, or, in this case, pay for the privilege—seemed to me interchangeable, monolithic arbiters of worth. Writer, they are not.
But the main point is that even seemingly knowledgeable people—people In Publishing, or teachers, or even other writers—can lead you astray, and you have to know who you are. I went home after that conference and cried, but then I got mad, and that was healthy. I did not rush to my local bookstore and buy all the bestsellers and try to imitate them. If you’re going to be a writer, there will come at least one time, and probably many, when, for your own survival, you will have to believe that you are right and someone who has way more power than you is, nevertheless, wrong.
What does this have to do with reading?
The advice this editor gave might have been useful for another writer. In all fairness, she was trying to help. Those pages were pretty wooden, and I’m sure she looked at idealistic, clueless me and thought, Lord. But when she told me to make my reading more current, and to figure out where I fit, she was giving me marketing advice, not writing advice. She was getting ahead of herself (as was I, by even meeting with an editor in the first place). Some writers are geniuses at marketing; some are even able to do it and not let it mess with their creativity. But even if you suspect you might be good at it, if you are a Young Writer, you have no business right now doing anything but writing. You are neither an editor nor a marketer. You are a writer, and you need to read like one. That editor should have known that. Oh well.
“If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry,” Emily Dickinson said. You need to read those mind-blowing things. You absolutely need to reread, and you need to monitor what you turn to over and over again. Hopefully there is a stack of books that you can’t be without. If someone gave you a perfect little studio in the woods—or, lucky thing, if you already have one—those books would have to go with you. They’re the books you pick up weekly, even daily, just to read a sentence or two. They might seem to have nothing to do with each other—but taken together, they form a Rorshach blot of who you are as a writer. I do not need to point out that Rorshach blots are unique, and everyone sees them differently.
You do not need to read books and wonder why they became bestsellers. Because no one knows. You need to read books and wonder why, and how, they blow the top of your head off.
What you read is who you are. Books are the writer’s nutrition. Why did I have that nutty rule about only reading dead authors? (Well, of course I broke the rule. It was more a guideline.) It came about for three reasons. One, I realized that if a writer was the New Hot Thing, for some reason that voice was much more likely to creep into my voice. Probably because I also wanted to be New and Hot, not to mention Published. There is nothing wrong with imitation, especially when you are beginning—but you need to be in control of it. Imitate consciously. Dissect sentences you love—I’m talking about the ones that other people have written. Write them down yourself to feel how they are put together. But imitating unconsciously can mean you are moving farther away from your own voice, not closer. (There are people in publishing who don’t care if you have your own voice, as long as you have a salable one. Others care very much.)
Two, I realized that those hip, geniusy, published Under-Thirties made me jealous. Pure and simple. And panicky, and more crippled than usual by self-doubt. Keeping abreast of the market was not a good use of my energy, so I went cold turkey for a while. And I knew that if the New Hot Things were really good, they would still be around when my fragile self was ready for them.
Which leads to the most important reason. Even though I have an honors degree in English from a major university, and a master’s from another, I still feel undereducated. Recently I was reading an essay by the inimitable James Wood about Virginia Woolf. He details her reading, supervised by her father, Leslie Stephen: Plato, Carlyle, Pepys, Macauley. Shakespeare, natch. This was when she was fifteen. Wood writes:
There is no other twentieth-century English novelist who seems so native, so germinally alive, in her language ….She, who loved first and most dearly the Elizabethans and the Carolinians—like Melville, she revered Sir Thomas Browne—historicizes language….she gives us, in her prose, the room of her entire accumulated historical reading.
Carolinians? Sir Thomas Browne? I still need to finish The Ambassadors. I haven’t read enough Chekhov. Somehow, in my fancy-pants education, I never got to The Tempest. Do I have time to read everything from the New and Noteworthy table at the local big-box bookstore, just because? No, I do not.
I should note that the list of still-kicking writers I deeply admire is long. Marilynne Robinson, Paul Harding, Susan Minot, Alice McDermott, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatjie, Richard Ford. Some of them are in my pile. Recently I read a new book by Jane Mendelsohn that blew the top of my head off: add it to the pile. You might think I’m an elitist. But what I want to be is good, which is different. What I want to do is learn. I don’t want to shut myself off from what is happening in the literary world: on the contrary. I want to be a part of it.
And so do you, or you wouldn’t be reading this.
The point is not to be checking canonical boxes. You are, as a writer, what you read—but the food metaphor can only go so far. I am not advocating the equivalent of kale and quinoa three times a day. Jack Lalanne, the original bodybuilder, said of eating, “If it tastes good, I spit it out”—no, no, no, no. I’m not saying never feel reading pleasure again. I’m saying pay attention. And don’t forget that difficulty is sometimes its own pleasure.
The books you should be reading are the fearless ones. The authors should know who they are. They should be speaking in their own unique voices from the very first word. As humans, we are enigmas to ourselves, and to each other; literature is a door to understanding. Look for the door that is open wide to you. It might be a book that was written five hundred years ago, or one. Then find another, and another. The right books should not make you feel hopeless or unworthy. Rather, when you finish one you should be filled with excitement about doing the same thing—not about using the same plot or style or voice, but about flinging the door wide. The right books should not be intimidating, but freeing.
And if any of this advice seems off to you, then ignore it. As Woolf herself said, “The only advice, indeed, that one person can give another about reading is to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” You will be the first person to hear your own voice. When you find it, the first and most important thing to do, before you even write a word, is listen.
Holly LeCraw’s The Swimming Pool was a Kirkus Top Debut of 2010, and was named a “Best Book of Summer” ba>y The Daily Beast and Good Morning America. LeCraw has published short fiction in various literary journals and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A native of Atlanta, she now lives outside Boston with her husband, journalist Peter Howe, and their three children.