What Should Young Writers Read?

the textbook towers background
the textbook towers background

Dan Chaon was recently taken to task in Salon for suggesting that young writers read literary fiction. Why? Because it's "terrible." I've already had my say about that blanket condemnation here.

But Chaon wasn't recommending that young writers read only literary fiction. His advice was actually more specific than that. What he said was pretty sensible:

The writing community is full of lame-o people who want to be published in journals even though they don't read the magazines that they want to be published in. These people deserve the rejections that they will undoubtedly receive, and no one should feel sorry for them when they cry about how they can't get anyone to accept their stories.

Look: writing is work, and publishing is also work. It requires that you develop an acquaintance with the literary world that you'd like to be a part of. I don't mean to sound like a scold, but it has surprised me, over the years, how few of my creative writing students have made any effort to engage with the community that they supposedly want to be a part of.

Though "lame-o" isn't my style, I'd say pretty much the same thing to my creative writing students, just as I'd tell them to read widely in any genre if that was what they wanted to write.

Salon's critique also urges watching TV and not writing, among other things. Both pieces of advice have their place. I study well-written TV shows myself for dialogue and pacing, and taking a break from writing is almost always a good idea.

Where Salon's piece really gets it right is with this observation: "In my view, a good writer can learn something from whatever he or she reads." The best advice I got from a creative writing professor in college -- who correctly predicted I'd be published and win awards for my work--was a straightforward "Read everything!" She meant read everything of an author I liked; read across genres; and even read authors I didn't like to discover why and see if I could learn from them in some way, too. That's what I've done, and that's helped my career infold: I've published in almost a dozen different genres, exploring new ones all the time. I let my students know what's worked for me, and suggest it might help them, but of course they'll have to be the ones to decide.

I also tell writing students that if they want a career as authors, they don't just need to work hard and be stubborn and study their markets. They need friends who aren't writers so that they're not constantly immersed in their profession and its inevitable ups and downs. Most of my local friends are not writers, and our conversations about our kids, our dogs, politics or anything else are a welcome relief from shop talk.

The author or co-author of 24 books, Lev Raphael has recently been guest teaching creative writing, crime fiction, and Jewish-American literature at Michigan State University, whose Library has purchased his current and future literary papers.