All readers read for different reasons. All writers write for different reasons. The reasons I read Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four for my GCSE English Literature were different to the reasons I re-read it three or four years later. The reasons I wrote my first full-length novel, Blue Angel, were different to the reasons for which I am writing the Clovenhoof novel with Heide Goody.
And it occurs to me that my approaches to reading and writing are linked and have evolved over the course of my life and indeed can be divided into five distinct stages.
The passive/submissive reader
I have loved books for as long as I can remember. As a child, I read Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree stories, the Choose Your Own Adventure books and Tolkien’s The Hobbit out of the sheer love of story. I read and absorbed and loved them and, when I failed to understand a passage or the story didn’t seem to hang together quite right, I blamed myself. I clearly hadn’t understood it properly and was sure that if I went back to it later, I would understand it fully and it would make sense. In short, if the book was no good it was my fault.
The demanding reader
At some point, my view of the reader-author relationship changed. I decided, possibly in my mid-teens, that if I didn’t understand the book or the story didn’t function the way it ought to, then it was the author’s fault. The reader was king and it was the author’s responsibility to meet the reader’s expectations. Some authors (Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Brian Aldiss) passed the test. Others (Piers Anthony, Raymond E. Feist, Shaun Hutson) did not. It’s a view I still subscribe to, although perhaps without the judgemental zeal of my teenage self.
The plagiarist writer
At the age of eighteen, whilst at university, I decided to become a writer and, with modest ambitions, began to write a full-length novel. At the time, I was a huge fan of William Gibson’s cyberpunk novels and the SF and non-SF novels of Iain (M) Banks and my novel was a wilful culling of all their best ideas. My protagonist’s world borrowed its grimness from both authors and I stole characters entirely unaltered from the pages of Neuromancer and The Crow Road. I read in order to fuel my writing, treating other people’s work as a rich (and free!) source of material. I don’t know which is more appalling: my plagiaristic nature or the fact that it was that first novel which secure me a contract with a literary agent.
The fearful writer
And then I grew up a bit and realised that if I was to be a writer, I needed to be my own writer. Sure, I would write in the genres and styles I loved as a reader but my effort was to produce something that was mine and mine alone. My relationship with other books became a less pleasant one then. If I was attempting to write a sprawling science fiction adventure story, picking up Ender’s Game or The Use of Weapons could spell certain death for my writing project for how could I possibly hope to write something that could compete with such masterpieces? Who would be interested in my magic realist thriller when Jonathan Carroll and Michael Marshall Smith were on top of their game?
And so, when in writing mode, I hid from good books, fearful that they would put me to shame, halt my pathetic writing project or, worse still, lead me to copy them. My solution? To only read books that had no link to my current writing or (even better!) read books that I knew were far worse than anything I could write. Shaun Hutson and Pier Anthony books reappeared on my shelves but for the most cynical of reasons.
The reading writer (or the writing reader)
These days I’m not so fearful. Is it a growing confidence in my own writing or the indifference that comes with approaching middle age? Either way, my reading and writing go hand in hand. I read what I want to read but, more often than not, my reading is guided by the genre or style I am writing in at the time. My non-fiction reading is entirely led by the research needs of my writing. Why else would I purchase books on the French Resistance, astronomy or cognitive science? I read fiction that is closely linked to what I am writing, partially so I know what ground has already been trod in that genre (Heide and I often remind one another that, in Clovenhoof, we are not writing Good Omens 2) and also so I can avoid the occasional errors made by other writers in their work.
In terms of the Clovenhoof novel Heide and I are currently writing, everything I have chosen to read in the past six or seven months has had some sort of link to the novel. Even my film-watching and radio-listening habits have been coloured by Mr Jeremy Clovenhoof.
The other day (which is the actual prompt for this blog) I made a list of everything I have read, watched or listened to in recent months which has a link to our Satan-in-suburbia comic novel.
Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven by Mark Twain (currently free on Kindle)
The Devil: A Biography by Peter Stanford (favourite Christmas present 2011)
Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake
Paradise Lost by John Milton
The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis
Various bits of the Bible
Lucifer by Mike Carey et al
Sandman: Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman et al
Preacher by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (it shares Clovenhoof’s comic irreverence for religion even if the characters and setting are utterly different. It also has a brilliant premise that it couldn’t live up to in the end, a salutary lesson for Heide and I)
Legion (with a depiction of Archangel Michael a million miles away from ours)
Old Harry’s Game (with series 2 currently enjoying a repeat run on BBC iPlayer (UK only))
I wonder what else I will read (or ought to read) before Heide and I have put Mr Clovenhoof to bed. Suggestions welcome.