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Why Writers Don't Read

 

In college, I assumed that when I became a Real Writer, I would hang around with other Real Writers in bars, coffeehouses and literary salons (whatever those were), where we would exchange bon mots, debate the meaning of life, and practice whatever minor vices we thought were fashionable. 

As I grew older and wiser, or at least more practical, I learned that aspiring writers gathered together in badly heated basement rooms of county recreation centers or in each others' living rooms. They shared carry-out food and exchange depressing bulletins about how little time we had to write, how many agents had rejected us this month, and how few editors still accepted unagented manuscripts. 

And now that some of my friends and I have become, at long last, published writers and are meeting other published writers, I finally know what Real Writers talk about when they get together, in real life or in cyberspace. 

We complain about the size of our to-be-read piles. 

Hey, don't laugh! We're talking about a serious problem here! New Jersey's toxic waste disposal woes are nothing compared with the challenges the average writer faces in coping with the TBR pile. 

First of all, there's the storage problem. I'll come right out and confess: I don't have a TBR pile anymore, or even a series of TBR piles. I have a TBR room, with annexes in several other rooms. A writer friend recently assessed her TBR pile and her reading speed, and determined that she had enough books around the house to keep her going until she was 120. I'm scared to make that kind of calculation. And what's the use, anyway? It hasn't stopped her from going back to the bookstore, the library, Amazon.comů 

I've gotten to the point where I have several levels of TBR. Near my bed, I have several stacks of first-priority books -- books by good friends, favorite authors, and of course books I'm reading for Crescent Blues reviews or interviews. I say near my bed because for safety reasons, I've had to move the first-priority stack off my bedside table. When one stack reached four feet in height, it fell over on me at 3 a.m. one night. Hardbacks, no less. I still wake up occasionally and find myself flailing at imaginary falling tomes, like Alice in Wonderland battling the playing cards. 

Then there's the guilt. When the only writers you know are a few unpublished ones with whom you trade critique, the guilt emanating from your TBR pile is low-level and non-specific. You may have a book a friend gave you for Christmas that you haven't read yet, or a classic you've been meaning to read for years. But you don't have great heaps of books by friends and respected colleagues that you know you really ought to have read already.  

Most of the writers I hear from are constantly reshuffling their TBR piles. Writer A has a new book out, and I haven't read his last yet; move it to the top of the heap. Oops! Writer B will be at the conference next month; I've got to read her book before I see her again. Move that to the top of the heap. Oh no! Writer C just emailed me to ask what I thought of her latest -- move that to the top of the heap, and meanwhile make noises about how irritatingly slow my ISP is in delivering email.  

And thank goodness I'm a newbie, and don't have dozens of younger writers begging me for blurbs. I mean, you do have to read the book to give a blurb, right?  

But I can't think of anything that will get me off the hook when my non-writer friends ask me what I think of a book. What do you mean you haven't read it? It's a National Book Award winner/New York Times Bestseller/modern literary classic. I mean, if you're a writer, naturally you read all the major books of the day, don't you?  

Alas, no. Not even all the major books in the mystery genre.  

The writing comes first; and that takes a big chunk of your time, any way you cut it. For most writers who, like me, still have day jobs, days -- sometimes weeks -- pass when you just don't have time to read. If it's a choice between the writing and the reading, you pick the writing first. Then at bedtime you fall asleep over the pages of a book you really want to finish, or you finish it and feel like hell the next day. That's probably why some of the hardest working, most successful writers I know are frighteningly knowledgeable about such subjects as current TV, bad movies, and computer games. That's what they have the energy for when the writing's done. That, and rearranging their TBR piles. 

These days, the best way for me ensure that I'll make time to read a book I really want to read is to volunteer to review it for Crescent Blues, or, better yet, interview the author. That way, I have not only my own guilt but also the grim threat of our editor prodding me along. 

Which reminds me, I should be bringing this to a close. Our editor has crossed her arms and is tapping her foot meaningfully. I owe her a book review, and then I'm going to do a couple of pages on the next novel. And then, before I go to bed, I'll rearrange my TBR stack one more time. Because that's what writers do. 

Donna Andrews 

Donna Andrews is currently revising the sequel to her St. Martins/Malice Domestic Award-winning mystery, Murder, With Peacocks.