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Criticism, Fiction, Reading, The Writer's Life

How Much Should a Writer Read?

I’m a writer, but I don’t read enough. There, I admitted it.

Most writing gurus insist that budding writers read, read, read. Read what you’d like to write. Read everything you can get your hands on. Friends in my writing groups read a book or two a week. At best I’ll read a book every two weeks. Often less, although I supplement book length reading with short stories in journals, book reviews and articles in magazines. But compared to most writers I probably read less.

When I’m reading, especially fiction, I almost always start thinking about writing. When I think about writing I think about revisions to stories or chapters I am working on, and that makes me wonder why I am spending time reading when I could be writing. And many times I close whatever book I’m reading and head for the computer, before the new ideas are lost.

The issue, I believe, is that I no longer read for entertainment. My MFA, my role as book review editor for Los Angeles Review, and the constant revision of my stories has programmed me to read as an editor, analyzing structure, word choice, characterization and other aspects of craft, looking for stylistic nuggets that might improve my writing, asking why an author made certain choices or what s/he might have done differently. To be honest, it’s rare that a piece of writing pulls me out of editor mode and carries me into the realm of the imagination, where I’m thinking only about the story. This practice has become so imbued I can’t even watch movies anymore, since I immediately begin critiquing the screenplay (and most times finding enormous flaws, to my wife’s chagrin).

This morning I finished a short story by Alice Munro, who is one of my favorite writers. Even this usually wonderful author couldn’t make me stop editing. I mentally marked passages as wordy, clunky, could be revised. When I finished I closed the magazine and said, “Not her best.”

I wonder if other writers have this issue, or are still able to read and enjoy, and become immersed in the world of the story. Is reading a more subconscious process for them? Have I allowed the act of reading to become too much a conscious process for me?


About Joe Ponepinto

Co-publisher, with Kelly Davio, of Tahoma Literary Review. Author of "Curtain Calls," a featured Kirkus Review. Married to Dona. Dad to Henry, the coffee-drinkin' dog.


21 thoughts on “How Much Should a Writer Read?

  1. I like your point about your MFA and your role as a book review editor. I have a similar problem — and since I also teach Freshman Composition, I always have to remember to turn off the part of my brain that wants to urge authors to re-word confusing passages for the sake of clarity! I do manage to read for pleasure on occasion, but there’s always that voice in the back of my head saying, “This is like so-and-so…” or “This fits in with whatever theory…” Then again, there’s always the voice that says, “Wow! This is cool! I could do something like this when I’m working on…” (Hmm… So many voices in my head. I guess it’s no surprise that I’m a writer!)

    Posted by Marc Schuster | March 10, 2012, 2:50 PM
  2. What I like is when I do find a read that takes me out of all that, and makes me lose track of time. I did just read a novel for review (Kino by Jurgen Faust), where portions of it did just that.

    Posted by jpon | March 10, 2012, 3:02 PM
  3. I figure all the books I read in my life add up to something. And teaching English didn’t hurt, either, especially because that meant I had to read the same books over again every year. Now I like you have little time for that, although when I’m stuck I go over to my bookshelf and pull out something good and read just a page or two to get me kick-started.

    Posted by girl in the hat | March 10, 2012, 4:36 PM
  4. Yes, knowing that there’s some authors who always inspire is a great way to get one’s own writing going. I have a few who rarely fail to help me invoke the muse. A lot of being able to write well depends on what else I have to do that day, though.

    Posted by jpon | March 10, 2012, 5:03 PM
  5. i’m so glad you are having this conversation! being in the MFA program changed the way i read, the way i respond to books, and the types of books i choose to read, but in no way has it diminished my appetite for reading. i simply have the unconquerable urge to annotate every book i read. i recently had a reading experience in which i felt disappointed in the language and in the arrangement and i realized that yes, my aesthetic has definitely changed but i do think my heart has remained open, is maybe more open than before, even with the strengthening of my critical mind and i was able to see, even in this experience, qualities in the work i wouldn’t have noticed before.

    Posted by moondaria | March 10, 2012, 5:48 PM
  6. Gwen, you’ve achieved what the MFA programs are designed to do–get us to read like writers, but still maintain the love of reading. I have to admit, though, there are many times I begin reading a piece wanting to like it, but find so many flaws my mind is occupied with things other than the story. One thing I think writers should pay particular attention to when they read is the economy and simplicity of the language used in a successful story. That helps avoid many of those flaws.

    Posted by jpon | March 10, 2012, 9:46 PM
  7. I think the loss of pleasure-reading is a job hazard. I’ve become increasingly critical of other writers’ work, and like you I find it difficult to become immersed in a story the way I used to be. However, it still happens. And when it does, I go back over the work to see what it was that pulled me in so deeply. Often I find it’s imagery and rhythm, beautiful language, or a really unique plot or cast of characters that overcame my critical eye. I make a note to self and get back to my pages.

    Posted by Averil Dean | March 10, 2012, 9:50 PM
  8. You’re right, that kind of writing is the most inspirational. Those pieces tend to be ones in which the author knew so much about what s/he was writing, and was so immersed in the fictional characters and setting, that they almost hypnotize the reader, transporting him from the dullness of this real world into the reality of that invented one.

    Posted by jpon | March 10, 2012, 10:38 PM
  9. One of the qualities that makes a storyteller good is the ability to listen. I also think that writers need to read to be better writers. It seems that, until we learn to stop the clock, there will never be enough time to read and write. But today I took a couple of hours to fill up my story bank with a great novel, and it had the same effect as a glass of fine wine.

    Posted by Naomi Baltuck | March 11, 2012, 5:42 AM
    • A great novel AND a glass of fine wine and I’m in writer’s heaven. Thanks so much for the comment.

      Posted by jpon | March 11, 2012, 1:55 PM
      • I must confess that, since I have become a writer, part of my brain is analyzing the writing, even as I take the story in. I do think that is the price you pay to be a writer, but the solution is to read excellent literature. One novel that sucked me in completely was The English Passengers by Matthew Kneale. After reading it to myself, I brought it to Australia and read it aloud to my family on the long stretches of road while traveling there, and they loved it too. I would be interested in knowing if you have read a novel that was so well written and engrossing that your critic was silenced. If so, which one.

        Posted by Naomi Baltuck | March 11, 2012, 7:16 PM
      • There have been a few. The ones that come to mind are The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis by Jose Saramago, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers (after page 100, that is), and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. In all these books the author spoke to something in me that matters. I’ll admit that there are other books in which the writing may be as good, but the theme just didn’t resonate with me.

        BTW: I really like the fact that you read from the novel to your family while traveling. Apart from planned readings, it seems like the act of sharing literature has been lost in our society.

        Posted by jpon | March 11, 2012, 11:35 PM
      • Thank you. I will check them out (so to speak).

        Posted by Naomi Baltuck | March 11, 2012, 11:45 PM
  10. I have been reading short stories and poetry lately, and while I obviously do not like the style or topic of everyting I read, there are always these amazing surprises that take your breath away. What you describe, Joe, is a hazard of being more accomplished at what you do. I am a good cook ( or so some people have told me), and I am increasingly critical of even “good ” restaurants because I have much higher standards than the average consumer.
    I confess to feeling the same about some stories I read in the top tier literary magazines. While acknowledging that excellence is an honorable pursuit, I accept that perfection is elusive. Very few paintings can be Rembrandts.

    Posted by Nadia Ibrashi | March 11, 2012, 5:56 AM
    • Maybe one of the by-products of this knowledge and experience is that it becomes harder to find writing that challenges and excites. At least when I do find something like that I can still appreciate it as much as I always have. Thanks, Nadia.

      Posted by jpon | March 11, 2012, 2:07 PM
  11. i guess i would answer your question with one of my own: is there joy in the analysis? partly, i left grad school because I didn’t want everything to be so analyzed/deconstructed/critiqued all the time. but the truth is that if you want to tell stories, you can’t help but learn from others. if you don’t feel excited by the words you read, can you at least take joy in the learning? i imagine it’s hard to do when reviewing books.

    for me, i have to admit that last year was the first year i felt myself not wanting to read fiction–or not wanting to read a lot of it at least. the more i make up stories, the more I want to read non-fiction books. i don’t know why this is. but i imagine it’s a phase i’m going through. i hope it is. since i don’t think i have a non fiction book in me.

    Posted by the circular runner | March 13, 2012, 8:19 AM
  12. Yes, there were many a novel I slogged through in grad school, reminding myself that even if I didn’t like the story, I was learning about craft. And I read plenty of nonfiction too–a holdover from my days as a journalist, probably. I have noticed also that I seem to get inspiration from reading fiction (good fiction), while I get ideas and themes from nonfiction. That may explain why many of my short stories are so dark.

    Posted by jpon | March 14, 2012, 10:14 AM
  13. I cannot read poetry for pleasure any more; I’m always reading it as a writer and editor. Fiction, however, is still my territory to enjoy.

    Posted by Kelly Davio | March 14, 2012, 6:52 PM
    • Never thought I’d hear you say that. Seems almost tragic. I admit, sometimes when I get a new journal to read, I get more enjoyment out of the poetry.

      Posted by jpon | March 14, 2012, 8:33 PM
      • Well, I suppose I should say that it’s not as if I never enjoy reading poetry. It’s just that I don’t ever go to it looking for a relaxing afternoon anymore. It’s more of an intellectual enjoyment, I suppose. I hope I don’t slaughter fiction in the same way, or I’ll really need some new hobbies.

        Posted by Kelly Davio | March 14, 2012, 8:59 PM
  14. I am not a writer, except for a lot of answers on Quora.

    But Joe, you need to find a way to turn off that critic thing to enjoy other people’s writing.

    My sympathies.

    Posted by Raghu Venkataraman | August 19, 2014, 1:07 PM

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