Should Writers Read Classics or Trash? Four Writers Answer

In recent months I’ve interviewed a few writers. There’s a certain question I try remember to ask them all, since it is something I wonder a lot about when it comes to choosing which books I read in an attempt to become a better writer.

Here is the magical question:

Authors Dan Simmons and Stephen King have different philosophies when it comes to reading choices. King says “Read everything, from classics to trash” (paraphrasing) while Simmons says that writers should read only the very best writing; Tolstoy, Dickens and le Guin, or your writing will suffer. Which side do you fall on?

The reason this question is so important to me is that I so firmly believe that Mr. Simmons is right; that what we read impacts our own writing, so it should follow that we read only the very best books available. Here’s the Simmons quote:

“We may not really be what we eat, as the saying goes, but – as writers – we are, always, inescapably, what we read. Read mediocre work and make it your literary model, and someday your writing may rise to the dubious level of mediocrity. Study the best literary models and – while you may never equal them and even if you can just stay in the ring for one or two rounds with them — your own writing will benefit immeasurably from it.

And here are the answers from four writers that were kind enough to allow me to interview them (complete interviews are linked to after each answer).

– Hugh Howey –

Hugh Howey

“I would agree with both. I’m able to do this because I think I would classify a lot of what Simmons would deem “trash” to be classics. Writing is about two things: plot and prose. We are storytellers. The plot is the story bit. The prose is the telling bit. Of the two, the story is far more important. You can tell a great story poorly, and people will gobble it up. This leads to what Simmons might call “trash” that sells very, very well. On the other hand, you can have the finest prose in existence and no story, and no one will read it. Some “classics” fall into this category. I think it serves writers well to study the story and the telling and try to improve at both.”

Read the complete Hugh Howey interview

– Barry Napier – 

Barry Napier“I actually agree with King. I have no problem admitting that some of the best books I have read this year are the Young Reader books my 6 year old daughter is obsessed with right now. I’m taking away awesome lessons about dialogue and character development from those books, believe it or not (Sarah Pennypacker’s Clementine series is exceptional).

On the other hand, I am also one of those readers that will usually stick with a book until the end, no matter how much it stinks. I like to figure out how and why thing’s don’t work before I make those same mistakes. I also think my love for poetry comes from the fact that I literally did read damn near anything when I was in college.”

Read the complete Barry Napier interview

– Felix Gilman – 

Felix Gilman photo“Sorry, but I’m probably on Team Read Everything. Grab ideas from everywhere. Take stuff you don’t think much of and do it better. Anything that someone has taken the trouble to create has something in it that’s interesting and important to at least one person.”

Read the complete Felix Gilman interview

– Alden Bell –

Alden Bell“I actually agree with you.  What makes a good writer is being a good reader. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and at a certain point in my education I had to decide whether I would go the creative writing route or the literature degree route. I chose the literature degree route, and I believe I made the right decision. Creative writing classes are great for giving beginning writers deadlines and opportunities to showcase their work. But if you really want to learn how to write, you should be spending your time reading Shakespeare and Joseph Conrad and William Faulkner and James Joyce and Virginia Woolf–rather than spending your time reading other 20-somethings who are learning how to write. I learned more about writing from reading ULYSSES than I ever learned in creative writing classes. So, yes, reading quality literature is key. On the other hand, you do have the problem of who gets to decide what is “quality” and what isn’t. But that’s a problem for a different forum.”

Read the complete Alden Bell interview

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3 thoughts on “Should Writers Read Classics or Trash? Four Writers Answer

  1. Interesting post. I would have to fall under the Read Everything category. Even though our readings influence our writing style, I think we still have the power to block out books that were awful.

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    1. I try to read the best, or least when I read the classics I read them with an eye towards the craft. When I read newer stuff I focus on what they do right, story-wise, with the classics I try to focus on how the writing itself is.

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