Quite some time ago, I embarked on a reading challenge designed to improve my knowledge of my chosen genre (speculative fiction, or, more specifically, fantasy). I found a list of the top 100 best books in science fiction and fantasy, crossed off the books I’d already read (which was a rather dismal few), and started at the beginning.
Shortly after I decided to read through that list, I decided that I should probably be sure I was reading other fiction, too. I compiled a list of about 350 books from a variety of “top 100” reading lists I found online.
After I compiled that list, I started making note of other books I wanted to read. I realized I was woefully under-read in church history, theology, and apologetics, so I started a little list of those kinds of books. Then I started a list of histories and biographies that I want to read. Both of those lists keep growing. Another list that keeps growing is the “I want to read just because people have recommended this” list.
Right now, my whole “TBR” list stands at approximately 450 books.
There are two problems with being a writer who reads, as I alluded in my last post. (Side note: Dear God, I’m calling myself a writer again.) Problem number one is that reading bad-but-popular stuff (and yes, I’m sorry, I do believe there is a great deal of writing out there that is objectively bad and popular for no discernible reason) frustrates, irritates, and maddens the writer who is competent but unpublished (me now) or unpopular (me two years ago). Problem number two is that reading really good books–and not just interesting stories, but really, really good books that have the whole package–compelling characters, tight plots, brilliant prose, and captivating settings–frustrates, irritates, and maddens the writer who knows he/she will never be that good (me, always).
I know that Stephen King (or someone) has famously posited that “the first million words are crap,” but I’ve written the million words, and I’m pretty sure it’s still . . . well, if not crap, certainly not worth publishing. And the thing is, you kind of know when you hit that point of diminishing returns–where you just know on a gut level that you’ve reached your pinnacle, that you’re really about as good as you’re going to get. And yes, I do believe I hit that point, and my best is not good enough to compete (hence the concept of just giving it away and taking the pressure of competition off my shoulders).
But I do still think it’s important to read, and especially important to read really good books. And I think it’s important to read across genres, styles, and the like. I think everyone should read and read often, but it’s especially important for writers to read. We pick up so much from other works. We learn how to use language, what works, what doesn’t, how to build characters, how to structure books, and on and on. Reading non-fiction is important, too; I think that histories (especially war histories) and biographies should be a regular part of every fantasy and science fiction author’s rotation, because studying the past will help build better fictional worlds and conflicts.
When I unpublished everything and went dark, I decided that I would not return to writing and/or publishing unless certain conditions were met. One of those conditions was that I had to finish my massive TBR list (at the time, it was still in the 350-ish range) before I would consider returning to writing on any level. That condition has proven rather unrealistic, especially since I’ve added another 100 or so books to the list in the interim and have, simultaneously, dared to open and play around in my story worlds again. But still, there’s a sense in which I won’t feel like I can really compete legitimately in the world of literature unless I can say that I’ve finished this massive list. Only then will I feel like I can justify participating on any level–competitive or otherwise–in the world of literature.
But the problem is that the list keeps growing, and good books keep getting published, and I have a limited amount of time to read. I signed up to take the Goodreads challenge this year and committed to read 75 books in a year. So far, I’m basically on track (a smidge behind–I read long books). Let’s say I read 75 books this year and for every subsequent year until my current TBR list is finished. It would still take me six years to finish the whole list. Should I really put all of my writing on hold for six years because of this arbitrary condition I set for myself?
I can, certainly, wait six years to publish again. I am in no rush at all on that side of things. There are other conditions which must be met that aren’t negotiable; one of them is that I will never again publish part of a series without having the rest of the series waiting in the wings, ready to go. It will take time to write, edit, and polish the remainder of the two series I had started before I unpublished.
But I’m not sure I can wait six years to write again.
So I’m not sure what to do about this condition. There is still a huge, huge part of me that really feels like a pretender in the world of writing. Even if I don’t share my work with anyone else, I need to write satisfactorily for myself, and I’m not sure I can if I’m constantly comparing my work to the stuff I’m reading (my work does not come out smelling like a rose in such comparisons).
But on the other hand, the writing bug is there, and it’s getting more insistent. So . . .
I don’t know.
What do you think? Do you think there is some kind of threshold for writers–a level of reading/literary knowledge that he or she must attain before being “legitimate” in the world of literature? Or do we all just always feel like pretenders no matter how much or what we’ve read?