After fifteen years of teaching Creative Writing at BA, MA and PhD levels in two well-regarded British universities, I still don’t understand how anyone teaches writing except by teaching reading, or how anyone learns to write except by learning to read. By ‘learning to read’, I don’t, of course, mean learning how to associate sounds with letters, I mean learning to notice and analyse literary craft in good writing. New and aspiring writers sometimes say that they don’t like to read because the author’s voice appears in their own work; mostly, I think, we should be so lucky. Occasionally I’ll find an MA student puzzled and angry at being required to read contemporary fiction as part of the work of writing it; they’re not paying, they say, to sit around talking about books, or sometimes, they don’t like the books I’ve chosen or consider those texts irrelevant to their own ambitions.
Reading what you don’t like is more important for your development as a writer than reading what you enjoy. ‘Liking’ is a matter of personal taste which should be separated from the judgement of literary merit. I don’t much like Henry James, certainly wouldn’t read him for my own amusement, but I understand why his work is interesting and important to the shaping of later British and American fiction, and it’s often my job to teach students that understanding. What annoys me when I read James is also what’s exciting about his writing: the exact observation of subtle speech and behaviour, the showing-not-telling of dark motives, the indirect conjuring of whole revolving worlds of wealth and assumption.
I have more fun with Edith Wharton, but most of the time my fun is irrelevant and so is yours. Seek out and read what’s new, exciting (to people whose judgement you respect), challenging. Even if you don’t like it, work to understand why others do. Try to think about admiration more than pleasure: what do you learn from this text? What can the writer do? Every novel has challenges: what made this one difficult to write and how has the author responded to those difficulties? What is the relationship between this novel and its peers, to what traditions does it respond? Whether you enjoy it or not, what qualities might please another reader? These are the kinds of questions we might ask when reviewing fiction, and the ones from which we learn most as writers.
This article is from a series of ‘How To...’ guides for emerging and developing writers, written in 2020/21 by Sarah Moss.
Sarah Moss is the author of seven novels and a memoir of her year living in Iceland. Her most recent novel Ghost Wall was longlisted for the Women’s Prize. She was born in Glasgow and grew up in the north of England. After moving between Oxford, Canterbury, Reykjavik, West Cornwall and the Midlands, she is about to settle in Ireland. She teaches English and creative writing at University College Dublin.