You Can't Always Read Stuff You Like
I’m a part of an online writing community called The Habit, a group for primarily writers of faith to encourage and provide fellowship for the creative process. One cornerstone of our community is a series of classes where we read books by accomplished authors and study them from the perspective of the writing craft.
A couple of years ago, we did a class on Pride and Prejudice. This was mildly frustrating to me because I really, really hated Jane Austen (if you just had a knee-jerk desire to unsubscribe from my blog, please note the past tense in that sentence). I first read Pride and Prejudice during my junior year of high school (which was already a very bad year for numerous reasons) and spent the entire unit wanting to set my Dover Thrift Editions copy on fire.
I wasn’t psyched for this class, but all around me, fellow writers were gushing about how great this was going to be. My primary faith, though, lay in the fact that our fearless leader, author and writing instructor Jonathan Rogers, was at the helm of the class. His classes had already transformed my writing abilities and I knew that even if I walked away from this course still totally hating Jane Austen, I’d get something out of it.
I also was well aware of one possible danger: I might actually end up liking the book.
In the end, I still didn’t love Jane Austen. But I also didn’t completely hate Pride and Prejudice anymore.
When you read any book through a writerly eye rather than as a passive consumer, you notice elements of craft and technique that you otherwise would miss. In my case, I discovered that what Austen accomplishes in Pride and Prejudice is quite astonishing.
First of all, there’s the narrative voice, which doesn’t just relate the action but walks you through the world of the characters, introduces you to them, and even gives commentary on them that may or may not be biased. There’s also the widespread cast of characters, which all manage to be fleshed out, fully developed people.
Not a single cardboard cutout or “bit player” exists. The novel is cinematic in its scope—we are always aware of who the characters are, what they are doing, and what they are thinking about each other, often to the delight of readers.
I would have missed all of this if I had decided to be a party pooper and not do the Pride and Prejudice class.
“But I Don’t Like That Book/Genre/Author!”
It’s okay to have preferences as a reader. I work with a lot of high school and college students and I always tell them that if they don’t like reading, they just haven’t found the right book.
I don’t care if you like the classics, auto repair manuals, sci-fi, graphic novels, Shakespeare, poetry, romance, or video game novels—as long as you are reading something, I think it’s all great.
But if you want to be a serious writer, there is a problem with declaring any author or type of writing off limits simply because you “don’t like it.”
All those writers spent a lot of time writing, revising, and executing their visions for their work, and as a result, there is a lot to learn from the final product and the decisions they made for telling the story . . .
. . . and when you declare a book unworthy of your time and study because it just doesn’t fit your preferences, you’re saying that there is nothing to be learned from that author’s hard work.
Here’s a way to bring this home: what would you like people to learn from your writing?
Even if whatever you write isn’t “their thing,” what do you think people can still take away from it?
We all have something to learn from other writers’ hard work. If you would like people who may not like your type of story to nonetheless give it a chance, wouldn’t you like to do the same for other authors?
Diversifying Your Reading Lets You Experience Different Perspectives
I just finished reading Dr. Mary McCampbell’s book Imagining Our Neighbors as Ourselves: How Art Shapes Empathy. The book focuses on a number of literary, cinematic, television, and musical texts and how they help readers to better imagine the life experiences of a variety of characters, ranging from the brutal and disillusioned prophets of Flannery O’Connor to the marginalized heroines of Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the Netflix series Unbelievable.
One benefit of reading books that are outside the boundaries of our own tastes is that we get to see what life is like for authors and characters that come from different life experiences. The characters McCampbell features in the book are slaves, immigrants, rape victims, people with mental health issues, atheists, and people experiencing deep emotions of grief and loss.
When we read stories about characters dealing with these experiences and issues, we learn how to relate to those topics in more sensitive ways, which we can then apply to our real experiences with real people.
This isn’t just about learning more about marginalized perspectives, though. Reading different genres can provide us with a greater sense of empathy. For example, I’m not much of a sci-fi reader, but a couple of years ago, I decided to read Ursula K. Le Guin’s short stories so I could better understand the writing style of a client I was working with.
Her linked novella trilogy “Forgiveness Day, “A Man of the People,” and “A Woman’s Liberation” floored me with how relevant their discussions of gender, race, religion, and suppression of free speech are to the present day, even though they take place in a futuristic world.
It’s worth moving outside your own influences and preferences to see how other genres portray topics that matter to people. It may even create a deeper sense of empathy in your own writing.
What About Issues of Conscience?
Not all readers avoid particular genres or authors because of preference. Many of them choose to do so because reading those works would violate personal ethical or moral views.
Some readers may avoid romance novels because they would prefer not to read works with sexual themes or content. Others may not want to read books that feature dark content involving magic. For readers who struggle with trauma, books that include physical abuse, rape, or other violent actions as part of the story may be particularly challenging.
I encourage all readers to be open-minded about the works they consume. But if reading about certain topics or in certain genres would cause you personal difficulty, by all means, avoid those titles.
In Romans 14:13, the Apostle Paul writes, “Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” Obviously, Paul is writing this from a Christian context, exhorting members of the church to defer to one another in issues of preference. One person’s exercise of freedom in Christ could be the source of deep spiritual struggle for someone else, and Paul is commanding that we deal with these differences with love, sacrifice, and compassion.
This isn’t a purely Christian concept, though. We all need to not just know what our personal limitations are in terms of what content is acceptable for us to read, but also be respectful and compassionate toward the boundaries of others.
Regardless, there is great benefit to be gained by reaching outside of our comfort zones as readers.
You can choose to only read things that you agree with and personally enjoy. But in a lot of cases, when you take that approach, you lose.
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Need recommendations for books that will teach you more about the writing craft? I can help with that.