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On genres and reading

I've never talked about the importance of reading to being a writer. It's something I hear mentioned all the time, that you can't be a writer if you don't read. Now I don't like can't statements and I am sure there are writers who buck the trend. But, for me, reading and writing go hand in hand.

I was the child who walked into a lamppost because I was reading. Who has missed many, many train stops. Who brings anticipated reads on holidays because it's a treat to have time. I read - everywhere. In the bath, in the bathroom, in bed, in the car. I read the back of cereal packets if I have nothing else.

I also don't always read science fiction and fantasy but I have read a lot. For instance, I say I'm not a big epic fantasy fan but I've made my way through Lord of the Rings, some Sanderson, Rothfuss. I've read Grimdark (ironically far from my favourite genre, although I like the humour), portal fantasies, young adult stuff, mythic stories, Irish stuff, all kinds of fantasy. For science fiction I love Space Opera best (and that shows in Abendau) but also writers like Clarke and Heinlein. Ironically, since Abendau has military characters, I don't read much military sf and have a very good beta to thank for keeping my characters on the straight and narrow.

But I also read, in no particular order, drama scripts, plays, horror, crime, mystery, chick-lit for want of a better word, literary, magical realism, the odd bit of romance, ghost stories, trashy fun. In fact I think the only genre I haven't tried at least once is Westerns, and I keep meaning to do so.

This means that the genre definitions that currently define our bookshelves irk the living hell out of me. I get why they exist - I used to be a bookseller, I understand stock control and display and space conundrums - but they still irk me. I love it when I find a small library where books are just A-Z and take my pick.

They irk me even more as a writer. From two perspectives, and one I covered last week: I don't find it easy to write in a single narrowly defined genre. I know my books don't just appeal to genre fans but have wider appeal once tried (except Abendau. A love of Space Opera is useful for it, I think.) That people shoehorn them as sff and not to be tried annoys the living hell out of me (especially for Waters and the Wild that is as much a fiction about families and mental health as a fantasy). But that's not the rant I want to embrace today.

They irk me because I think in not reading widely my writing toolbox* would be less varied. I write romance a little in my books and I'm comfortable doing so when the need arises because I've read just enough romance to know what touches might work (a certain look, or the physical signs that move me.) In fact, a couple of years ago I picked up The Bridges of Madison County and learned more from that read about physicality and showing it than in anything else.

Want to know how to handle gore? Try Val McDermid, or Robert Galbraith. Want to know how to reveal a mystery? Then read a mystery. Want to know about space battles? Peter F Hamilton's short stories helped me with this (because his books are dauntingly huge for me!) The Thornbirds did family intrigue across generations astoundingly well.

So, for me, writing is about reading. And varied writing is about varied reading. And I don't think genre shoehorning helps with that variation.

Here endeth the rant. :)

*For those not familiar with the Toolbox, go read On Writing by Stephen King who equates writing to a plumber's toolbox. You carry as much as you could possibly need, and know how to use it, so that when you writing you have the skills and knowledge needed for every scene and sentence.


wonderactivist said…
I agree. Good rant. I could have written these thoughts myself except my genre is thriller/suspense with a dash of art. Yeah, so many people can't handle the dash. But when they can, tey LOVE it. Vive le difference.
Jo Zebedee said…
Perhaps we should all be dashers. Or slashers for the horror types. :)