Be Careful What You Read!!!

by Mark Alpert

Tom Wolfe has a new book out — Back to Blood, just reviewed in last Sunday’s Times — but I’m not going to read it right now. I enjoyed his earlier novels, especially Bonfire of the Vanities, which at the time of its publication seemed like an important cultural event, a summation of the whole Eighties-financial-boom-and-seething-inner-cities gestalt. His next book, A Man in Full, wasn’t as successful, but it had some great descriptions of prison life, which I assume are pretty realistic since Wolfe is famous for his exhaustive research. (I’m a sucker for any fiction about prison. It’s like watching a train wreck. There but for the grace of God…) And his third novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, had some good moments too, although much of the book was cringe-inducing.

But here’s the problem: after I read Wolfe’s last book I noticed changes in my own writing! Mostly in the use of exclamation points! Wolfe uses them a lot, and I picked up the habit! They started cropping up even in the articles I edited for Scientific American!! I added exclamation points to stories about cosmology and quantum physics! The magazine’s copy chief had to institute a new rule: no more than one exclamation point per story!!!

I’m in the middle of writing my next novel, so I’ve decided to abstain from Wolfe for now. His prose is so catchy and exuberant, it can have an especially strong influence on impressionable authors like me. I can’t stop reading fiction, of course — as Woody Allen might say, it’s my second-favorite activity — but I’m more careful about what I’m reading when I’m in the throes of composition. Does anyone else out there worry about this?

13 thoughts on “Be Careful What You Read!!!

  1. This is a really good topic, Mark. I had a friend who once read a bunch of Elmore Leonards in a row, because he’d been told that was the gold standard. Problem is, my friend writes expansive fantasy, not minimalist noir. He says this experiment almost ruined him! (Exclamation point!)

    Personally, I think it’s good to read off your normal genre, to stretch your writing muscles. But then you just have to be cognizant of how it’s affecting your own work. In some cases, it might be a good thing. (Wolfe, of course, has such a unique style it’s probably not a good thing, unless you’re writing huge contemporary-satirical!!)

    I’m curious to hear what others have to say.

  2. Great post and made me laugh. I wonder how many of us wouldn’t be able to relate to this phenomenon? (Author-transference.)I love authors Anne Lamott, Barbara Kingsolver and Michael Perry and will often find myself trying to imitate their style after reading one of their books.

    On the other hand, how wonderful to read such engaging writing and hope to absorb the lessons. Inspiration, and not imitation, is probably the key.

  3. Oh, yes. Reading Lovecraft was a big mistake on my part. When one of my beta readers complained that the style of my latest ms sounded like I was imitating Poe, I knew it was time to avoid Cthulhu forever.

  4. Very interesting topic. There is only one author in my genre I can’t read when I’m writing or editing. The funny thing is that she’s not may favorite author, but her prose seems to stick in my mind.

  5. Goods grief. I hadn’t thought of this and I’m reading Cormac McCarthy. I’d better check to see if I’m still using capitals and punctuation.

  6. I’ve been reading Lee Child.
    I’ve been doing it lately.
    Yes, I have.
    I don’t think it has affected me. Or my writing.
    Or my ability to form a compound sentence.
    I would it hadn’t.
    Oh, hell.

  7. Oh yes. Very interesting topic. In my case, I write both Regencies (not necessarily sweet and light – I like dark) and also Romantic Suspense/Thrillers. But not only do I have to be careful not to be influenced by reading someone else’s Regencies, but also if I read dark contemporary suspense, I have to work extra hard to keep the tough matter-of-fact tenor of those thrillers out of my historical Regencies. Double whammy.

  8. Tricky (embarrassing?) thing for me is taht I will find sections of my WIP that are *clearly* influenced by different things I’ve read– Different things in the same novel.

    This, I’ve decided, is the trouble of working for years on the same thing (actually I’ve been compiling a list: #1- you improve so much over the years you can’t stand the earliest scenes and want to redo them even when they work…) #4 is that I’ve had time to read enough differnt books that is can look as though my novel is a compilation piece.

  9. Very interesting topic, Mark.

    What I read when I draft definitely seeps into my writing, which is mostly very unpleasant and hard to control. But I’ve also discovered I can use to my advantage.

    I tended to under-describe setting, and my first drafts read almost like scripts. So in the rewrite phase, I read a little before I rewrote scenes, and intentionally picked writers who wrote clear and elaborate descriptions (Dan Simmons, for example), to get in a more… descriptive mindset.

    I no longer need to do it now, practice got me over the hill on this one, but it was a good way to wrap my mind around writing descriptions.

  10. What you’re describing is an interesting phenomenon. It’s as if another author’s compelling prose draws us into seeing the world as she or he does, and the rhythm of that world view subtly infuses itself into our own writing. For this to happen, I think there must be some aspect of that writer’s style that we aspire to. With Wolfe, it might be his Super-sized characters and sensational plot lines that we want to emulate (hopefully without the exclamation marks). The challenge is to find our own unique way of injecting that quality into our own work.

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