Writers need to read. When successful authors give advice to aspiring authors, one thing that comes up again and again is the need to keep reading.
Fortunately for me, this is not a problem. Reading is second nature to me. I will read anything, and have, in the past, done just that. At work in the bookshop, I would read proofs of books I would never dream of buying, and I learnt how to skim read a novel out on the shop floor without anyone noticing. Even a rubbish book is better than no book.
However, between the demands of family, work and writing my own fiction, I don’t actually read that much these days. So when I do, I try to only read books that I know are well written. I don’t just want a decent story and interesting characters, I want beautifully crafted writing, with cliché-free combinations of words that give as much pleasure as the plot. I know enough about the literary fiction market to know which authors I am going to enjoy and admire. Sometimes the only surprise is that it took me so long to get around to reading some authors, such as William Boyd, Ian McEwan, Matthew Kneale, Colm Toibin and Anthony Trollope. It is a joy to finish a novel and know that that are other by that author to be enjoyed another day. There are some authors that I admire so much that it is almost painful to read them, knowing that their writing is so perfect and brilliant that I can never hope to put words together in the way they do. David Mitchell, Sarah Waters, Hilary Mantell, how I devour their books, rereading them over and over again, hoping to soak up their genius, but all I get is a uncomfortable reminder of how pedestrian my own writing is compared to theirs. A novel like Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End is a kind of exquisite torture; it is a miracle of a book but every page, every sentence is an example of the best kind of writing that I could never dream of achieving. And maybe I could console myself that these are experienced writers who have crafted their art over years of writing. But then I read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, and Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill, authors new to fiction, and it depresses me that they are so good, so perfect. They have already jumped into the game way ahead of what I can achieve. I’m not being modest; I know what I am capable of, and how my writing compares to theirs. It is a double-edged sword, to be able to recognise and appreciate outstanding writing. I wouldn’t want to live without good fiction, but oh my god, I wish more than anything that it was mine.
So it has been quite refreshing to recently read something that wasn’t so brilliant. I did something I never do anymore – I bought a novel in a bookshop by an author I’d never heard of, simply because it was recommended. I won’t say what it was, because that’s not important. The point is, it wasn’t that good. It wasn’t bad – it had an intriguing plot and I raced through it to find out how it ended – but it wasn’t especially well-written. It was rather clichéd, and as I went along, I was noting all the phrases that I wouldn’t have written, the kind of writing that I am trying to strip out of own work. And instead of despair, I was reassured that my writing is better. Of course that’s just my opinion and I could be wrong, but it’s given me a new perspective on my writing – I might not know how to be a brilliant writer, but I do know how to not be a bad writer. If I have any confidence in my work, it is that I am not a bad writer. So surely there must be a place for me in the fiction market.
And here is my advice to aspiring authors (including myself) – read good fiction, but also read bad fiction! Only by learning to recognise what you don’t like will you know what to avoid in your own writing.