If you are a published writer, no matter how crappy you are, people will automatically assume that you know Faulkner by heart. Even if you specialize in YA novels, you will be expected to have intelligent opinions on Proust and Joyce. Of course all writers are supposed to be able to quote at least a few lines from each of Shakespeare’s plays. If you write fantasy, people will ask you not only on your take on J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and G.R.R.Martin, but your thoughts on Kant, Heidegger and Faucault. If you write science fiction, people will jump to discuss Thomas Pynchon and Kafka with you, unless they would rather talk about Einstein and Heisenberg (and not the Breaking Bad kind). In fact, if you cannot explain why Walter White called himself “Heisenberg” when his brother-in-law called him “Einstein”, you shouldn’t be writing science fiction at all. Having read all the works of Doyle, Sayers, Christie, James and Chandler will not make you a mystery writer, because anyone intending to talk to you as such will assume you can tell them about Machiavelli or Freud or Sartre and how he relates to your work.
How much background knowledge do you expect your doctor to have? Even if the doctor is a dermatologist, you would expect him to have at least some basic knowledge on brain tumors and heart attacks. If your cousin was a doctor, you would ask his opinion about the headaches you have been having lately even if he was an orthopedist, because doctors are supposed to know more about this stuff than lay people.
Writers are professionals on writing. You are supposed to know more about writing than lay people. You may not have yet digested Jung if you are a teenager just beginning to put your ideas on paper, but if you want to turn pro, eventually you will have to acquire an arsenal of knowledge befitting your profession.
Stephen King said that any writer must read a lot of books from a diverse range of categories, or you will not have the tools to write. But it is not just tools or raw materials. It is a professional body of knowledge that will separate you from the amateurs.
I have always had this inferiority complex about books. I keep feeling inadequate about the quantity and quality of my reading. I wish I could say that I read more. Much, much more. There are just so many books I haven’t read and I believe I must read. But I know that I will never get around to it.
A few years ago I built a house and moved out of the house I rented. I never considered myself a big reader or even a sufficient reader, so books were not a priority in the design of the house. In the house I rented, I kept the books in an assortment of old shelves, most of them cheap, old and in poor condition. I also used crates and cardboard boxes stacked on top of each other to serve as bookshelves. When I moved out of the old house, I thought I would just take the books to the used book store and be done with them. I would only keep a small fraction of the books I liked. It was only after I made five trips to the used bookstore, unloading five or six crates of books each time, that I realized it was not making a visible dent in the amount of books in the house. That was when I finally took a tape measure and measured how much shelf space there was in the house. I measured side to side the length of every shelf, crate and cardboard box that contained the books and added them up. It turned out that I had forty nine meters of shelf space in my small home.
And this is coming from a person whose reading has been utterly inadequate. I have never gotten around to most of the authors I know I must read. I know I should read all of J.R.R.Tolkien, C.S.Lewis and G.R.R.Martin along with a host of classic fantasy like Mary Shelley, William Morris, and George MacDonald. I know I must read all of Doyle, Sayers, Christie, James and Chandler. I have to read more philosophy, more psychology, more history, more poetry and more classic literature. I haven’t read even the bare mandatory levels of Stendhal, Balzac, Dumas, Hugo, Flaubert, Voltaire, Rousseau, or Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov, or Goethe, Schiller, Hegel, Mann, Hesse and all the other bare minimum basic authors of the cannon. I can’t even get around to the authors I want to read like Bellow, Conrad, Updike, Le Carre, Leonard, Irving, and Follet. The wall of books that I haven’t read can stop an army. How do real writers do it?
I can make excuses. I can say that I have no time to read because I am a busy professional with preposterous working hours, no real vacations, and few real weekends. But the truth is, I have a serious lack of reading because I too was one of those silly young people who was more interested in writing than reading. Is it any surprise? I was always a bad listener and incessant talker, like so many people.
If you are a young writer, my advice to you is to start reading now. With luck and persistence, you will have enough reading under your belt to call yourself a writer by the time you turn fifty. But if you get caught up in the ego trip of writing too long, you will never attain what amounts to the board certification that makes a doctor a doctor, the flight time that makes a pilot a pilot, which in this case is the track record of reading that makes a writer a writer.