I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.
It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.
And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.
Neil Gaiman wrote that a couple months ago in The Guardian, and it’s well worth reading the whole thing. It’s the best case for the value of reading, and reading fiction in particular, that I think I’ve seen in a long time. He also has some very nice things to say about the role that libraries and librarians are playing in a world that transformed, in short order, from one in which information was scare to one in which information was overwhelming. Really good stuff.
But when I stumbled upon this article, it got me thinking about another group of people who don’t read fiction.
Yeah, you got that right. Fiction writers. Novelists. Not all of them, of course, and certainly not even a majority, but I’ve been surprised lately at how many writers who write fiction who don’t read much fiction. Most of them read nonfiction, of course, or, if you ask them why they don’t read novels, they often get defensive and say they get their story fix in other ways, from movies or television shows. Which is all well and good, but it’s not the same. You see, I think of my fiction as part of The Great Conversation of Literature. If I’m not engaged in a two-way conversation, then I’m like a loud-mouthed drunk at a party who’s telling you all about this antics but doesn’t hear a word you say when you ask a question. My novel, The Last Great Getaway of the Water Balloon Boys, is part of a conversation that started when I read J.D. Salinger as a teen. My book, The Gray and Guilty Sea, is my entry into a conversation that includes Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and of course John D. MacDonald. Heck, the title of that book is a direct homage to MacDonald. My book, Wooden Bones, took a book that had entered the public domain, Carlos Collodi’s Pinocchio, and kept a conversation going that includes everyone from the Brothers Grimm to . . . well, Neil Gaiman himself, whose book, Coraline, and its wonderfully dark feel, inspired me to write something along the same lines.
I’m not the most voracious reader in the world, but I read a lot of novels. I read a lot of nonfiction, too, but fiction is the coin of my realm. It’s the ongoing conversation, the one that began long before I was born and will continue long after I’m gone.
If you’re a fiction writer who’s not reading fiction, you may have readers, and you may even have a lot of them, but I doubt you’re going to grow much as a writer. And if you’re not growing as a writer, what’s the point? Just paying the bills? Sure, that’s important, and I can’t blame any writer for doing what they have to do to put bread on the table, but it’s so much more rewarding to engage in a two-way conversation rather than coming off as someone who’s just drunk on their own words.