One piece of advice often given to writers is to read. It might seem obvious: you can’t learn to write unless you’ve been exposed to many, many examples of other people’s writing. But looking closer it isn’t very clear how this works, and there aren’t many activities where the same advice applies. Teaching perhaps: if you want to teach it helps to observe other teachers. But you won’t learn to play the piano by listening to Chopin, nor learn to drive by sitting in a car with Lewis Hamilton.
I think there are two ways the reading-writing relationship can operate, explicit and implicit. In my student days we used to engage in literary analysis, dissecting a text to see how such and such an effect was achieved. A writer could then consciously apply a similar technique to their own writing. But such deliberate imitation will surely be sterile. I went through a Kerouac phase in my youth, but his influence was more on my outlook than on my writing; the only time I tried to imitate the breathlessness of his style, the result was rubbish. Or rather, it might have been fine if Kerouac hadn’t already done it, but to a reader it would come across only as what it was: imitation. Writing is all about finding your own voice.
Which is where the implicit learning comes in, the cumulative effect of the millions of sentences we’ve read. Here we pick up not just the obvious points of vocabulary and syntax, but the more subtle matter of style. But every writer’s style is different so what is the result of reading 100 different writers? Is our writing then a mishmash of them all? More likely, we’ll be receptive to the style of writers we enjoy, the others having only a minimal effect. But if, out of those 100 writers, there are 20 we enjoy, we still have to find a style of our own, so how does reading those 20 writers help us?
The question could be, and often is, put another way: who are the writers that have influenced you? Here again, I think there are two ways of looking at it. There are writers who have revealed to me the many forms a novel can take, extended the boundaries of what I saw as possible. Virginia Woolf, for example, showed me how a character’s inner life can be portrayed; Gabriel Garcia Márquez showed me that reality can be bent in different ways according to our purpose. These are general lessons that stay with us all our lives, to be tapped into at will. But there’s also the more transient influence of the books we read while we’re working on our own. Some writers, I know, don’t read while they’re writing, precisely in order to escape that influence. And I can understand that – we don’t want the call of another’s voice to deflect the one we’ve been honing for so long. And it’s insidious. I recently read Bleak House, thinking that I couldn’t be influenced by such outmoded prose, but 700 pages of Dickens gets into your mind and I found my sentences becoming a little bit more elaborate, more ornate. So there’s a lot to be said for not reading at all while writing, or at most reading non-fiction. But I find it hard to back off completely, and now I trust my own judgement to tell me if I’m straying too far in one direction or another.
For example, I’ve just finished Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which, with its scrupulously detailed dissection of the central character’s emotions, is far removed from what I’m writing myself. But it so happens that I’d chosen anyway to grant more prominence to my own character’s state of mind, and I’m ready to be receptive to the ways it can be done. What’s important is to be vigilant, rein back if I’ve gone too far, not lose sight of the overall blend of character and plot. I have no doubt that in the revision process, I’ll need to delete or attenuate certain passages, because after all, it’s a mystery novel, not an exploration of a person’s character. But there’s no reason why a mystery novel can’t do that as well – it’s simply a matter of how the two are dosed.
Perfecting our own unique voice, developing it to accommodate the overall purpose of our novel, all the while drawing upon what we read – writing is decidedly a complex and mysterious affair .