Does being well-read help you write?

Despite the flood of self-published books, there are still agents searching the field of writers attempting to discover the next best-selling author. I read a long list of short blurbs written by these agents describing what they required of those submitting to them. Although most didn’t specify a shelf life for “comps,” some would only consider writers with submissions comparable to more recent well-known books.

However, one insisted that writers not bother him if their comps were published before 2000. The agent wanted an author who was producing a sure thing, which emulated what currently sold. This short range of years for comps increased his likelihood of receiving works with synopses that sounded much like many others. I was certainly not going to interrupt his little bubble by submitting my own attempts to create unique novels.

Some authors want their work described as similar to a currently famous writer, while others fret about writing a novel that imitates another work too much. This second group wants to be well-read but not so influenced by their reading habits that they regurgitate something too similar. Their concern is that a reader with access to the real thing would not want to read an imitation. The best way to avoid producing work which simply mimics other author’s is to have a wide-range of reading, a range that goes well past twenty years and encompasses the work of five centuries or more. However, I have noted an increasing disregard for notable authors of the past centuries.

Before my first writing conference I read the biographies of all the speakers. One question asked of each one was “Which classic novel is on your want to read list?” There were a number of different answers, and with one exception I had read them all. Before that time, if asked, “Does writing well depend on being well-read?” I would answer with a confident “It definitely helps.” But, I’m not sure of that anymore. Over the years the question growing in the back of my mind is “Does being well-read actually hamper a writer’s ability to publish popular books, today?”

At that same conference, I sat across the table from an editor who described seeking a new kind of book, “dark” adventure and fantasy works. The keynote speaker stood up and inquired if any of us had the experience of reading the work of an author and wanting to write like that. Softly I blurted out, “That would be The Idiot,  the first book I read by Dostoevsky. The editor snapped “Nobody writes like that anymore.” Perhaps not, there is not a lot of concern about the soul of man in much current writing. However, The Idiot introduced a naïve Prince Myshkin into a corrupt society that was pretty dark. One man was dangerously obsessed with the love of a woman, and that woman was growing merciless to the man who had abused her. Perhaps a modern version of these struggles might have been exactly what the editor was looking for. But then, Dostoevsky wrote classics, not current best sellers.

Knowledge of classic authors from past centuries is not necessary to be well-read today. It doesn’t matter if their works have survived the test of time. Authors can copy ideas from them without too much concern about people recognizing the content, because nobody writes like them, or evidently reads them, anymore.

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