This post originally appeared on the blog of literary journal, [untitled]. However, Busybird Publishing significantly retooled their website and the post was lost to cyber space. Therefore, I’ll be reposting it here in two parts.
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Recently, I took part in a discussion about books with a friend I hadn’t seen since high school. Once we were like brothers but now, after this reunion-cum-heated debate, I think this particular friendship needs re-evaluating. We’d always considered ourselves voracious readers, so it seemed obvious that our first discussion in all these years should be about what we’d been reading lately. He was always headstrong, but I was taken aback seeing him get so worked up.
‘What’a’ya mean you haven’t read the latest Stephen King?’ he spat. ‘It’s been out almost a month!’
I told him I’d been busy, that my reading schedule had become relentless; I likened it to a busy restaurant, explaining that new books needed to make reservations if they expected to be read in the near-future. I even tried telling him that, while I hadn’t gotten around to King’s hot-off-the-presses 11.22.63, I had read two of his older books sometime last year. Immediate offence was taken. How could I ‘turn my back’ on Stephen King? Wasn’t I supposed to be one of his devoted Constant Readers? I understood his concern; after all, we’d passed many a free study period comparing favourite moments from King’s vast oeuvre. I told him that King didn’t mind my taking a little break (in fact his permission was attained, I joked, over a game of badminton), but there’s no resolve stronger than that of the diehard fan. There was no use in trying to appeal to his logical side; in his eyes, I had betrayed our friendship. And all I’d said was I wanted to expand my horizons.
This friend had always been a little temperamental, so I had to act quickly if I hoped to avoid having an ironclad grudge held against me for the next fifty years. I tried to smooth things over by explaining what I had read over the past eighteen months. I sifted through them, searching for something that might appeal to his tastes. I offered a few titles – some genre stuff, mostly – and said I thought it would be good to see how some of King’s contemporaries tackled similar subject matter.
‘But … King’s the best,’ he explained.
Really? I mustn’t have gotten the memo. ‘How do you know?’ I asked.
His response, in a nut shell, was that King had made the biggest cultural and financial impact of any author in the past fifty years.
I tried to argue back but discussion time was over. No more drinks. Collect your coats and vacate the premises.
I think the world of Stephen King. He’s a master of storytelling and is responsible for getting me hooked on reading at a younger age (no small feat – most kids have the attention spans’ of goldfish). Certainly King’s earned his stripes in literature. But the lesson I was trying to impart on my hopeless acquaintance was that you can’t be sure any writer is ‘the best’. Especially if you’ve never given any others a fair chance.
The term ‘best’ is a prickly measuring stick, anyway. I’ve read a lot of great stuff from a lot of different authors, but I couldn’t say that any are definitely ‘the best’. I have my favourites, but mistaking opinion for fact is a fool’s game. It’s like saying that pizza is definitely the best food ever, or that bowl cuts or bouffants are the best hairstyles.
Art is simply too subjective for a steadfast rating system. So – and this little anecdote is now zeroing in on its point – where does that leave the average reader (or, specifically, the reader who is also an aspiring writer)? With so much out there, how do you know what’s worth your time and what isn’t? In my opinion, it’s all worth your time. At least initially.
Reading a broad range of books is a crucial part of growing as a writer. It introduces you to different styles, leaves your expectations susceptible to being challenged, helps you find your voice, and teaches you rules, conventions and different ways to reach your chosen demographic. I guarantee that, while you may think you know what you like (see: my buddy, the President of the Stephen King Club), you haven’t really scratched the surface unless you’ve tried on several different writer’s and reader’s hats.
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Post continues in Part II.