My reading list is about a million miles long and never seems to be getting any shorter. When I finish a book, I often find myself at a loss for what to read next – there’s just so many things I could pick. Obviously, I should stay up to date in my chosen genre of fantasy and scifi, but have you seen how many fantasy and scifi books are released on a monthly basis? Good god. Then, of course, there’s the reading I do to research the classes I’m going to teach – studies in American Modernism, for instance, and other literary movements. I’ve got to do that reading, or I can’t reasonably teach the things I claim to know about (and honestly this reading takes up most of my reading time). Then there’s research for my writing, which often takes the form of history or philosophy (and I just simply don’t read enough of that). Then there’s the simple caveat that one should always seek to read broadly – outside the regular genres one is usually accustomed to – and so I find myself putting books of essays, poetry, plays, and other stuff on my reading list, just as a lark.
So, when the time comes to read another book…I’m sometimes at a loss. Accordingly, I’ve created a new rule: one new book, and one old one. I will read a current novel, published in the last few years. Then I’ll go back and read a book I missed – a classic, often. But sometimes it’s a book that I keep hearing about, over and over again. I keep getting the question “have you read (insert title)? No? You have to!”
They always say it that way, too: I have to. I must. It is a requirement of my existence. I cannot define myself as a reader, let alone a writer or professor, if I do not read this book. Frequently these are books I would not pick up on my own. Sometimes they are books in which I have absolutely no interest. It doesn’t seem to matter. I must read them.
As a rule, any book suggested to me this way I will take me, on average, 10 years to get around to reading. While not a conscious act of spite, it is the result of a kind of subconscious revulsion at doing what everybody else is doing at any given time. I hate being part of the crowd. In the end, though, frequently my curiosity gets the better of me and, if I have no better ideas of what to read next, I dig up that dusty old list of “must-reads,” immediately skip over Infinite Jest (screw you all – not reading that. Not ever.) and pick up some blockbuster from ages gone. I call this the “What the Fuss is About” Read. At this exact moment, I have finally gotten around to reading Gaiman’s American Gods.
I am, of course, well aware of Neil Gaiman’s work. I read the Sandman comics (or some of them, anyway) in the mid-late 90s and thought them very clever and off-beat. I liked them. But then I moved on from Gaiman onto other authors and, next thing I knew, people were scolding me for not having read his magnum opus. Of course, they all had different opinions of which book his magnum opus was, but more often than not it was American Gods.
I’m enjoying the book. It is within the wheelhouse of my favorite genres anyway and Gaiman is an excellent author. I don’t quite understand how this book (or Gaiman’s work in general) is quite as celebrated as it is. I suppose that is essentially the problem with reading a book that has this much hype associated with it: the odds of it failing to live up to whatever magical expectations have come to surround it are large. When I read them, then, and they don’t live up to whatever it was I was expecting, I spend half of my time reading the book trying to figure out what other people saw in it. This is almost impossible to do and can be very distracting.
Such considerations are sort of inevitable for an author though, right? I picked up American Gods for the same reason I picked up The Time Traveler’s Wife and The Night Circus and Scalzi’s Old Man’s War: word of mouth. All authors know that is the most powerful sales force in the world, and all authors want to know how to cultivate it. As far as I’m aware, no author actually knows. So, there we all are, reading Dan Brown and going “really? This?” We start dissecting it in our brains, like an alien on an autopsy table. What makes it tick? Where was the magic sauce? Why don’t I get it? Sure, it’s good, but…that good?
Then, of course, there are those moments where the book lives up to the hype. Neuromancer did that for me. You know what else? The Grapes of Wrath. Tim Powers. Neal Stephenson. Those books – those books are magic. And, of course, they make you feel a little terrible about yourself as an author because you know you’ll never write anything quite that amazing and isn’t that disappointing.
I guess it all makes me wonder why I do it. Why do I read books that don’t strictly interest me just because they were (or are) popular? Because I need to learn. I need to look around at the reading world and try to understand it. If I don’t, what kind of writer am I? In the end, I read these books because, well…I kinda have to.
There’s been a kerfuffle on the Internet today, specifically on Twitter. It was launched by this tweet by the esteemed Niel Gaiman, who said:
http://clarion.ucsd.edu is where you apply to go to Clarion. If you want to be a writer, you want to go to Clarion, NEED to go to Clarion.
Now, first off, I don’t really think Gaiman meant that the only way to become a writer was to go to Clarion’s writing workshops. I think he meant to endorse them as a good place to go to help you become a writer. I think, perhaps, the 140 character limit got the better of him and it came off sounding a bit elitist. I mean, Clarion is no doubt wonderful, but the subset of people in the world who can afford to spend $5000 and ten days to attend a workshop in San Diego is, let’s say, somewhat circumscribed.
I don’t mean to suggest that Clarion isn’t a wonderful opportunity and a great program – it seems to be both, by all accounts, by those who can manage to get there. However, you don’t need to go there. There is only three things I would argue you require in order to be a writer. They are as follows:
1) You Must Write
This should not be revolutionary, but if you do not write things you cannot be a writer. How often should you do this? Hell if I know. I think this little piece of advice from by Daniel Jose Older is a good start. But however you do it, you need to do it. If you don’t do it, you aren’t a writer.
2) You Must Take Your Writing Seriously
If you define your writing as a hobby, I would argue that you are a person who writes, but not necessarily a writer (i.e. somebody who is a professional at this trade). If you intend to be a professional, you need to take your work seriously, strive to improve it, and push yourself to do your best.
3) You Must Strive to Publish Your Work
Again, speaking professionally and defining “writer” as a profession, you need to intend to release your work for public consumption, ideally for compensation (or, provisionally, for the purpose of securing compensation in the future). You do this by publishing it, either yourself or through more traditional means (publishing houses, etc.).
That, friends, is it. Now, the above three things don’t make you a good writer, necessarily, nor do they guarantee you to become a successful one. I would say, however, that the above is the bare minimum for entry. A writer writes, treats their work seriously, and strives to publish it. That’s literally it. You don’t need an MFA, you don’t need publications, you don’t need to go to Clarion – none of that. Will those things help? Sure, probably. But they are not requirements for entry. There is only one person who controls whether or not you are a writer: