Can you be a writer if you don’t read?

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Can you be a writer if you don’t read?

the-reader

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” 

– Stephen King 

Sitting in a university creative writing class last week, the question arose: “What do you read?”

I’m not sure what I expected to hear from the students. It’s likely I expected to hear the usual suspects, perhaps some Milan Kundera, a hint of Sylvia Plath, William Blake (absolutely!), a little Charles Bukowski thrown in for good measure. Yes, it seems reasonable that’s what I would expect. Something along those lines.

Instead it was Harry Potter, 50 Shades of Grey and “I don’t read anything.”

Okay the geeky wizard with glasses is better than nothing, and its popularity means a great deal of children may discover the joys of reading and hopefully move on to adult fiction as they get older. But by any standards its kidult fiction, and there is probably better literature you could be reading by the time you’re 18 or 19.

I’m not sure if this is more a sad indication of the lack of depth of a current generation (I suspect it’s not, as a whole), or more a reflection of a more specific problem: New Zealander’s lack of cultural sophistication.  I know on the bookshelves of Europeans in a similar age group you will find Kafka or Herman Hesse, or any number of great authors. In New Zealand you will find homes where there are no books at all. New Zealand has a lingering image which is hard to dispel, of uncultured binge drinkers who are sports obsessed and elevate fools into rich heroes.

Preeminent English scientist and BBC presenter Professor Lord Robert Winston, expert in how genes and the environment combine to develop human identity, believes Kiwis are guilty of worshiping false idols by building up stars of the entertainment industry and of the sports field out of all proportion to their value.  “New Zealand celebrates attributes which really aren’t that important,” he said. “You do it with sportsmen and you don’t do it particularly with intellectuals, for example. In New Zealand, being an intellectual is slightly disadvantageous and is often seen by the press as being something which is rather well, not to be celebrated.”

Sports achievement is of course not completely worthless. The worry is when everything else slides. There is something lacking in a society which lifts say, a Jonah Lomu to near iconic status. Does anyone know New Zealand has science Nobel Prize winners such as Ernest Rutherford, Maurice Wilkins, or Alan MacDiarmid? There are also internationally respected writers such as Katherine Mansfield and Maurice Gee. The achievement of sportspeople is fleeting and of little lasting importance to the culture, society or the world. Has any sports star ever said anything at all important or useful, ever?

Perhaps in a society like this you actually have to seek out culture, and seek out great writers – because otherwise you will end up reading Harry Potter and Twilight and think that’s as good as it gets. Here’s an analogy – E. L. James  vs. Anais Ninn – it’s the difference between buying a plastic McCains supermarket pizza or going to an Italian pizzeria and ordering an authentic margarita pizza made from fresh ingredients by an expert chef from Italy. It’s more challenging, you have to seek it out, but it’s ultimately better for you, tastes sublime, plus you don’t run the risk of developing irritable bowel syndrome.

You are what you eat.

And lastly yes, as Stephen King said – if you read nothing – then you cannot hope to write. If you don’t read widely in many genres you can’t even know how to write.  You can look up grammar or words in a thesaurus.  You can lift carbon-copy ideas from films, but you cannot understand structure and what works with good writing and what doesn’t. Stephen King should know – he’s made millions from writing and in his book On Writing, he says that he reads a lot.

More to the point you cannot be a writer if you don’t read, because you don’t have the love of the power, complexity and beauty of words.

2 Comments

  1. Anonymous says:

    >we know that word turned up side down, people changed and we are the only one to blame for it!!! bad influence from society, TV and Internet… in my opinion great part comes from a family. BUT looking around I dont find to much good example to follow, because ethic is not in favor. Its not the good thing for popular person. Rebelliousness and eccentricity are the main thing to get an attention. We read a lot of books in our litterature lessons, but kids are not ready for most of them at this age… only a few years later reread them I can say how greatful most of them are. So should we blame the youth for not doing smth that they didnt like at first? Like in childhood tried the peanut butter and find out you didnt like it… I still hate it!!!
    Trying to escape from reality we trying something new… considering books we try to read fantasy and fiction so we can get rid of reality… as Enstein said ''Logic will bring you from A to B, but imagination will take you anywhere''!!! there is nothing already what can surprised us, but long time ago people were so gled and impressed to get the light, bulb, the medicine from some disease!!! we are kids of 21th century, we are spoild… we cant imagine our life without internet, mobile and other stuff which made our life so much easy and convinient!!!
    As you know I am from post Soviet country and i have a lot of books in my library, but to be honest with you most of them are books of Russian writers. I remember as a child I was forced to read eveything i needed for school by my parents and grand mother, but once I started i couldnt stop! and now, look at the people, young parents? bad once dont pay attention to their kids, so last one grow up on the streets, parents think that teachers should do their job – to raise their kids, teach them everything; and the good ones tries to make eveything possible to survive and give as much as they can to their kids!!! other time kids grow up with TV and Internet, and what we can see there??? for the past years we can see a lot of movies made from some book, and of course for some people its better to spend 2 hours whatching the film – except of ''wasting'' the time for reading!!! I dont think everyone is like this, but this is a reality!!!
    I can discuss it for hours, there is so much to talk… the only thing i am hoping, we wont degradate to much or at least i will not see it by myself…

  2. Anonymous says:

    > I honestly don't understand why people don't read. I don't understand what is going on with people. The great dumbing down started. People don't read and they're pround of it.
    During a literature class the teacher asked us about the last book we read or our favourite one, and one guy says that he read a book last time in elementary school. He was applauded; people thought it was funny. Next year all I heard before any literature class was: have you read it? do you know what it is about? because basically no one could read a book such as "Hard Times" or even "The Fall of The House of Usher" in two weeks time. They confused "Wuthering Heights" with "Gone with Wind". When the teacher changed his strategy and asked the class to watch a documentary movie during his absence, as an introduction for the next class, there was no one in the room after 10 minutes. Next week he asked who the Lake Poets were, and no one seemed embarrassed by the fact they didn't know.
    What's going on with these people? Maybe it’s because TV is easy and reading takes time and effort? Or maybe because people lack imagination and books don’t do it for them? Or maybe it's a generation of reading impotents?

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