Jeanne Matthews is the author of the Dinah Pelerin international mysteries published by Poisoned Pen Press. Like her amateur sleuth, Jeanne was born with a serious wanderlust. Originally from Georgia, she enjoys traveling the world and learning about other cultures and customs, which she incorporates into her novels. She currently lives in Renton, Washington with her husband who is a law professor. Where the Bones Are Buried, the fifth book in the series, is in bookstores now . You can learn more about Jeanne’s books at http://www.jeannematthews.com
I’ve been auditing the mystery fiction class taught by Lawrence Block at Newberry College, reviewing at random the books on his assigned reading list and blogging about them. The course was designed to encourage people to read crime fiction for pleasure and the mysteries he selected include some of the classics of the genre. I was knocking off a couple of books a month and relishing all the clever variations on the theme of murder I had missed. It came as a shock when Block canceled the assignment and tossed the list. It seems his students found the reading burdensome rather than pleasurable. They felt overwhelmed, pressured to whip through the stories as fast as they could and dash off a paper that would satisfy the instructor. Said Block, “they’ve been schooled out of reading for enjoyment.”
He was philosophical about the change in the reading habits of the young. He notes that older people don’t read as much as we used to either, and with every age group there’s a preference for shorter stories, nothing that requires too much concentration or too much time. The onslaught of technology has multiplied distractions and shortened attention spans. Studies show that after college, the average American spends only a half-hour a day reading, mostly information necessary for the job or texts and emails from friends.
Even avid readers rarely become so lost in a book they will ignore an incoming text message. The excitement derived from the printed word doesn’t come close to the rush of dopamine to the brain we get when the iPhone dings. It’s irresistible. Something new! Something new! But if reading long-form fiction has turned into such a chore, how is it possible that a million books are published every year? Who reads them? Well, if they’re murder mysteries, I’m happy to report that a lot of us do. A survey conducted by Sisters in Crime found that mystery readers spend ten hours or more each week with our noses buried in a whodunnit.
Given the profusion of mysteries, it sometimes seems that writers outnumber readers. Perhaps it’s the appeal of the glittering lifestyle – the adulation, the awards, the million dollar advances. Dream on. Most of us snap out of that fantasy soon enough. Realistically, what inspires an ardent mystery reader to begin writing is a compelling idea for a plot or character and the desire to write the kind of story she likes to read. Having read so many other mysteries, she is already equipped with the know-how to tell her story effectively. Readers make better writers.
Correspondingly, writing makes writers better readers. Writers read both to expand their imagination and to hone their craft. We never stop learning the tricks of the trade, never stop sharpening our perception of what does and doesn’t work, never stop noticing a perfectly deployed verb or an original phrase. And of course we keep our eyes peeled for bits we can crank through our mental kaleidoscopes, twist into something fresh, and use in our own work. “Reading is the creative center of a writer’s life,” says Stephen King. On a more cautionary note, he adds, “The more you read, the less apt you are to make a fool of yourself.”
I admit that in consideration of my limited time on this earth, I’ve given myself permission to abandon a book if it fails to engage my interest after the first few chapters. Truth to tell, I abandoned one of the books on Block’s reading list. The Fools In Town Are On Our Side by Ross Thomas appealed to me at first because the title comes from Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And ain’t that a big enough majority in any town?” I thought I was in for a humorous blend of crime and political satire. But the protagonist, Lucifer Clarence Dye, acted and spoke almost as if he were narcotized. For this reader, Dye was a deadly bore. I was however taken with the character names – Gorman Smalldane and Homer Necessary. What a pair of lulus!
Unlike me, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake, John D. MacDonald, Eric Ambler, Sara Paretsky, Robert B. Parker – all count Ross Thomas among their favorite authors. Readers have widely differing tastes. De Gustibus. Still and all, it’s important to sample as many styles as you can. You always encounter something worthwhile or thought provoking, if only a name.
After Block’s students were excused from the burden of reading the books, I wonder what they talked about in class. Perhaps he handed out cliff-notes? I’m sure he gave excellent advice on what it takes to become a writer – when they have a minute. But to quote Stephen King again, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”