Writing, not reading?

Several times I have been intrigued by someone approaching me who wanted to be writer, but who – as became apparent during the course of the conversation – read very little, even in the genre they wanted to be published in. This strikes me as curious in several ways:

  • firstly, why wouldn’t you support the industry that you want to be a part of;
  • secondly, how do you expect to learn about stories/books and how they are written (put together) without reading them – many of them;
  • and thirdly, shouldn’t you know what’s out there (to study the market) before you write your contribution to the genre?

Maybe it is all part of a trend – the physical process of writing anything is now so easy, and publication/communication is so easy through the net, that everyone now wants to be a writer. I started by pounding out things on a typewriter back in the days when even correction fluid didn’t exist, so believe me, I know it has got easier.

At the same time, there are so many forms of other entertainment at our fingertips, in our homes, following us around through iPods and other portable devises, that our reading time is cut – unless we make a conscious decision not to let other forms of entertainment take over. It is not a coincidence that I have not had a working TV in the house for well over two years now.

Still, it does seem weird that everyone and their cat apparently wants to write – but not everyone wants to read…

This (written by Rachel Donadio) from the New York Times, Sunday Book Review of 27th April, via Bibliobibuli (a great site if you want to keep track of what is happening out there in the literary world).

“… Americans are reading fewer books than they used to. A recent report by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 53 percent of Americans surveyed hadn’t read a book in the previous year…”

“In 2007, a whopping 400,000 books were published or distributed in the United States, up from 300,000 in 2006, according to the industry tracker Bowker, which attributed the sharp rise to the number of print-on-demand books and reprints of out-of-print titles (…)the same N.E.A. study found that 7 percent of adults polled, or 15 million people, did creative writing, mostly ‘for personal fulfillment’.”

“And the numbers suggest the books will keep on coming. IUniverse, a self-publishing company founded in 1999, has grown 30 percent a year in recent years; it now produces 500 titles a month and has 36,000 titles in print…”

Do they get read? Not much, apparently. “Most writers using iUniverse sell fewer than 200 books.” Even though there is loads of help out there:

“…there are hundreds of creative writing programs offering M.F.A.’s and other credentialing. The Association of Writers and Writing Programs represented 13 programs when it was founded in 1967. Now it includes 465 full-fledged courses of study, and creative writing classes are offered at most of the 2,400 college English departments in North America.”

So…who is going to read all those books?


Writing, not reading? — 4 Comments

  1. Two thoughts here. The more cynical one is that there have always been people who are more interested in what they have to say than in listening to what other people are saying. :

    The second is that the entertainment media (TV, radio, newspapers, movies, theatre, music industry, internet etc.) already bombard us with a huge amount of stuff, even if we don’t get the time to sit down and read books; but for the average person wanting to respond with their own thoughts and ideas, writing (a book, a blog, whatever) is perhaps the most readily accessible means of communication. We may not have the skills or resources to make movies, for example, or express ourselves through material arts like painting and sculpture, but just sitting down and writing is (as you say) easily within our reach. In such cases it is perhaps not so much about wanting to enter a particular literary circle or genre, but more like the readiest way to respond to the barrage of ideas from a whole variety of sources.

    Also we have had the saying for many years that everyone has at least one book inside them that they could write; so perhaps it is not so much the urge to write that is new, but having the means available to do so.

  2. I think there are two processes at work here. The article mentions that many people write ‘for personal fulfilment’. I think that a lot of people start out like this. They just write for fun (even if they think they’re serious). I don’t think that ‘having’ to read is mandatory for that. As hrugaar says, many things vie for our sparse leisure time.

    However, I think as the non-reading writer progresses from wanting to write ‘for fun’ to ‘wanting to get published’, reading becomes a greater necessity. Here, I agree with all points you make.

    Having been a non-reading writer for a bit, I sympathise with the other side. With a full-time job and three kids under six, I simply hadn’t the peace and quiet to read. I chose to spend my time in other ways. I wrote a bit for fun.

    Now I’m getting more serious and I know that reading is important. It’s enjoyable, too… if you have the time.

  3. I think that a lot of people these days want instant gratification without the hard grind of learning, research, mistakes, rejection and polishing of their art or trade. Hence the growth of fringe publishers to meet this need.

    Most of the bios I have read of popular writers have had one thing in common: they have all started in childhood with a love of reading and eventually writing their own stories.

  4. You guys all have wise things to say. Very true.

    On the down side, I think we are becoming a world where people find it hard to be stimulated by their own imaginations – we receive sounds and images already conceived for us all the time, instead of doing it ourselves.

    Reading requires the reader to imagine. So does writing. For some reason I can’t explain, we are dropping one form of stimulation (reading), yet upping our interest in another more challenging form – writing, which requires imagination plus creation. Perhaps that says something about our world…we need creativity more than we need a more passive mental stimulation?

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