Reading Old Books vs New

A writing friend once, in the middle of a storycraft discussion, declared that if you want to be published, you shouldn’t be reading anything older than about five years. So, for example, if you’re reading anything before 2013 today, you’re only shooting yourself in the foot.

There is something to be said about this advice. By looking at the recent trends, especially in your genre, you can see what’s selling and what’s not, as well as what agents and publishers seem to like. (While something can come out of left field and be a bestseller, most books that are published are “safe” books.)

(Also, said friend is a bestselling author whose book has been optioned for television, so he does know what he’s talking about.)

If you’ve been around here at all, you know I’m terrible at following this advice. (As we speak, I’m wading through an 1896 novel called The Well at World’s End which is fantasy in the 1800s-romantic poetry sort of fashion.)

Is there something to be gained from reading older books?

Well, to be honest, probably not. I mean, not from a marketing standpoint. The publishing industry is not a static thing. Something that was big ten years ago probably won’t fly today. (And you have to remember that, if you’re reading traditionally published books, that the book that comes out today was probably accepted about two years ago, so the industry may have already moved on.)

But, I mean, that’s not why I’m reading them.

I’m reading them because I like to see the evolution of the genre. Because it’s interesting to see how genre conventions came into being and how they’ve changed over time. Because I like reading the stories that influenced the authors that influenced me.

And because, arguably, the things that worked once can be rewoven and reintegrated to work again in new ways.

What do you think, squiders? Do you like the occasional older work, whether it’s over a hundred years or closer to 50? Do you think there’s value in looking where we’ve been, or only in where we are?

2 responses to this post.

  1. I definitely think there’s value in where we’ve been – like you said, the ideas, but also the themes and arguably the stylistic choices. I think it’s a good idea to read widely and have a large spectrum of inspiration to draw on, not just the last 5 years, because trends change, and they’re likely to recall a trend that’s already happened. A lot like fashion, actually. Great post – loved reading your thoughts on this! (:

    Reply

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