Let me start with a caveat: for the writer there is a danger in not reading. A writer should be reading widely, analysing the skill in other writers, learning and growing through the process. It is equally important to know what is currently happening in a chosen genre.
But this post is about the dangers of reading, of which I can see several.
The most common effect is when reading begins to over-influence writing with themes or style bleeding over.
It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit a personal experience, even though it’s been half-a-life time since this happened. My love for fantasy was grown through reading The Eye of the World, book 1 of the Wheel of Time series. My imagination was so captured by the mythical world of Robert Jordan, I began to write my own story. I must point out that this wasn’t supposed to be fan fiction, but clearly it was. It was allegedly my own story, in the same way that a man who was caught red-handed is allegedly guilty of a criminal act. It was all but rubber-stamped fan fiction.
My protagonist was a a young boy, the only son of a farmer whose mother had died when he was young. The protagonist had a best friend who was a trouble-maker. The protagonist didn’t know it yet but he could telepathically communicate with the ‘higher-order’ animals…
If this doesn’t sound familiar it can only be because you haven’t read Wheel of Time. The content is so similar that it would make copyright lawyers salivate. Beyond all reasonable doubt I was allowing Jordan’s writing to influence mine.
Positive and Negative Influences
But there is another way that what I read influences how I write. I have read, partially or fully, seven books in the last few months: I have stopped more books this year (unfinished) than probably my entire life before that. Among my aborted reading list have been a selection of free books from Google and purchased award-winning novels. The majority of my recent reads have been disappointing with one or more insurmountable problems with the characters, plot or quality of writing.
If I read sub-standard work then I am either buoyed (I can do better) or depressed with fear that I too will be guilty of adding to the sea of slush. If I read something good, it can inspire me in appreciation or depress me (they are so much better than I).
An Appreciation of Style
Recently I bought The Eye of the World and began reading, never having actually finished the series since the sad death of Robert Jordan. Immediately I was enchanted by Jordan’s mastery of description.Take for example these non-consecutive quotes:
The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.
He stepped carefully, handling his cloak fastidiously to avoid brushing the dead.
“She will give me the rough side of her tongue if she thinks I have been hiding a guest from her.”
His howl beat at the walls, the howl of a man who had discovered his soul damned by his own hand, and he clawed at his face as if to tear away the sight of what he had done. Everywhere he looked his eyes found the dead. Torn they were, or broken or burned, or half-consumed by stone. Everywhere lay lifeless faces he knew, faces he loved. Old servants and friends of his childhood, faithful companions through the long years of battle. And his children. His own sons and daughters, sprawled like broken dolls, plays stilled forever. All slain by his hand. His children’s faces accused him, blank eyes asking why, and his tears were no answer.
She held herself with a grace and air of command that made him feel awkward and stumble-footed.
I was absolutely intimidated by his formidable talent, on full display in the hooking first chapter.
The more I read however the more I move from slack-jawed awe to a respectful and modest appreciation. Jordan was an immensely talented writer with incredible world-building and depth of plot and character.
But I am no longer intimidated because I have realised that his style is just different to mine. His description and narration is more dense, mine is becoming leaner and faster the more I write. The quality of writing is such a subjective subject: some will like my writing, and others will hate it. That’s fine by me.