One of the more frequent pieces of writing advice I see is to read outside the genre one writes in. The reasons to read extensively in one’s genre are obvious: one needs to know the rules and assumptions that define that genre’s boundaries. Figuring that out, really understanding it, requires you to read books comparable to the ones you write. But the risks of reading exclusively one genre are a little more nebulous than the advantages of reading extensively in that genre. I think the fear is that reading one genre exclusively risks internalizing those rules too much and becoming formulaic and stale by creating a closed creative feedback loop.
Obviously, what we read is not our only source of inspiration, but, for me at least, it’s an important one. I want to write books I want to read. Reading a fantastic romance makes me want to write one. It inspires me to want to write better, faster, deeper. So, you know, that’s great! Read romance! Yay! And, honestly, I’d really be pretty happy if all I read was romance. About five years ago I realized that I have no interest in reading fiction that doesn’t have a happy ending. I remember the two books that drove that home to me: The House at Riverton and I Capture the Castle. They’re both fantastic books, but about 2/3 of the way through The House at Riverton I realized that there was just no way that book was going to end well and I couldn’t take it. I put it down and didn’t pick it back up and felt bitter and unhappy about having forced myself to read that far. I did finish I Capture the Castle, but the ending destroyed me. To this day I pretend that the end wasn’t, that my edition was just missing some happy epilogue found in all other copies of the book. In fiction, I need a happy ending to enjoy the experience. And reading for me is about enjoyment. I’m not going to force myself to read fiction just because it’s good for me, but I really do think that reading romance exclusively is bad for my writing. So what’s a happy-ending addict to do?
(1) I read mysteries by authors I know from past experience will leave me content. Romance is my current love, but mysteries were my first love and they meet my need for a satisfying ending without feeding my gluttonous desire for happy love stories. Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dorothy Sayers, Edmund Crispin, and Elizabeth Daly are old friends. They follow different rules and write in different styles and feed my creative well in an entirely different way than romance does.
(2) I read non-fiction. I go through phases where I start obsessively collecting books on different subjects. You need recommendations for an entertaining non-fiction book on the Black Plague? WWI? British travel writers? English country houses? The history of the British aristocracy? English social history from 1919-1939? I’m your girl. (I said they were different subjects, I never said they didn’t have a common theme. What can I say, I’m an Anglophile.) These are all subjects that are very unlikely to make their way into anything I write, but they stoke my curiosity and keep my brain learning and stretching in different directions. They’re not useful, except in the way that they get me outside of the obsessive romance-reading bubble I would otherwise happily live in.
What about you? Do you naturally read books outside the genre(s) you write in or do you have to push yourself a little? Any other Anglophiles out there?