• Does Every Book Have a Lesson?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in ABCs of Writing     Comments 20 comments

    TL;DR version: Is “reading like a writer” really a thing? Charles Baxter kinda/sorta says “Eh, not really”; Stephen King says every book has a lesson. What say you? This week in the comments below, I want us to discuss this concept of reading like a writer and how — if at all — you do it.


    Here at WriteByNight we’ve always been proponents of the idea of reading like a writer; of using reading as a tool to help us grow as writers, through learning what to do and what not to do, learning what works and what doesn’t work.

    But a recent interview with one of our favorite story writers, Charles Baxter, got me wondering if I actually do read like a writer, or if I just pay lip service to the idea.

    In the September 2016 issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Baxter is asked to talk about what he has learned from some of his favorite writers.

    “This is a very American question,” he says, “with pragmatist assumptions. What do you ‘learn’ from your reading? In my case, sometimes nothing. Fiction doesn’t typically yield up lessons or tools for me. I know, I know: when we’re reading like writers, we’re always supposed to be learning something, but I’d rather just be taken away to Storyland.”

    He’s not saying “Don’t read like a writer”; he’s simply saying that it doesn’t work for him. (And probably that he no longer tries.)

    I wonder, though, if there’s something to learn merely by recognizing what kinds of stories take us away to Storyland?

    Your turn: Do you try to learn while reading, or do you allow fiction to take you to Storyland? Is there a way to do both at once?


    I Like Reading Magda Szabo

    Baxter continues: “For instance, I’ve learned from reading Magda Szabo’s The Door that I like reading Magda Szabo. I’m not being quarrelsome, I hope. But the point is that great fiction isn’t there to give you lessons but to give you aesthetic bliss — delight, fire, passion, despair — orchestrated by language.”

    I liked reading The Door, too. But if you asked me what I learned from it, I wouldn’t be able to say anything useful. In fact, I mentioned the book on a podcast last year, and when asked to say more about it, I stammered out some nonsense before changing the subject.

    If asked again, I’ll likely say, “It whisked me away to Storyland.”

    Your turn: What are some recent books that whisked you away to Storyland? Do you have ideas about why they did so?


    Learn What Not to Do

    My take is this: If a piece of fiction begins to take you away to blissful Storyland, let it. But when you return, don’t be afraid to ask yourself why it took you there.

    And if a book or story doesn’t whisk you away? Try to identify why. What didn’t work about that story? What could the writer have done differently? What would you have done differently? And how can you use that lesson to your advantage?

    Stephen King had this to say in On Writing: “Every book you pick up has its own lesson or lessons, and quite often the bad books have more to teach than the good ones.”

    I definitely agree with the last part.

    Your turn: So what do you guys think of all of this? Are you able to read like a writer? Or are you content with reading like a reader? Do we learn more from bad books than good? Do you agree with Charles Baxter or with Stephen King, or with both, or with neither? Let’s talk about it in the comments below.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    20 Comments to “Does Every Book Have a Lesson?”

    • I am like Baxter. I cannot get into reading a fictional book to learn something. I read fiction for entertainment. Now, when I read a non-fiction book, especially on the subject of writing, I do it to learn. It is my main objective. Nonetheless, there are fictional books that have taught me things and I am always amazed when it happens because it was not intentional.

      • Thanks for the response, Glynis. Do you have an example or two of a novel that unexpectedly taught you something, and how it did so? Those to me are the best lessons — the one we don’t expect and aren’t even looking for.

    • I read for entertainment, but many fiction stories also have lessons which you receive without even realizing it as you enter another world and join in with the characters and what they are doing in their lives.

      No, I don’t read like a writer unless the book has major problems…usually due to lack of editing. I totally dislike picking up a book where they haven’t edited it. Multiple major errors make me take a closer look at the story and pick it apart like the writer I am. I also do that to my books in (possibly futile) attempts to improve them.

      If I want to learn, I’ll go to what I call reference material and learn, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like a good fiction book which has really neat lessons woven into the story line while it takes you to another time and place. Maybe it’s the reason I loved fairy tales as a child. They all had a lesson as the basis for the tales.

      • Hi Barbara. Like Glynis, you seem to not necessarily look for lessons, but are clearly receptive to them on some level. I think that’s probably the best of both worlds; allow yourself to be entertained and go to Baxter’s Storyland, but leave part of your brain open to soaking up lessons. Do you have an example or two?

    • I’m learning and find that reading good fiction helps me improve my writing.

      • Thanks, Joe. What have been some of these takeaways for you? Do you have an example or two of a novel that helped you improve your own work?

    • To answer “The Big Question,” I mainly read to escape my reality and be swept up in someone else’s, even though I’m aware it’s fictional. No matter where the story takes me, when I finally reach the last page I feel as if I’ve had a nice little vacation.

      However, with that said, I do find that I learn a lot about writing along the way. I’m not doing it intentionally or even consciously, but I know it’s happening because when I put the book down, I find myself thinking about how the author used certain words, phrases, metaphors, and/or similes to paint the portraits he/she wants to place in my mind. I’ve also found there are times I’ve learned something else along the way – a life lesson, something about another culture, etc. – without realizing it until I’ve finished reading the story.

      • Hi Robin. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I like the vacation metaphor in particular; many of us travel for both fun and education, right? We want to enjoy ourselves, but in seeing the sights we can also, like you mentioned, learn about another culture. And for some people, learning about those other cultures is a huge part of the fun.

    • The places I go while I am reading are difficult to describe, though, as I am aspiring to better writing I suppose I should allocate some of my attention on learning how to better describe things that are difficult to describe. I both read and write every single day of my life. I am of the firm belief that the writing would be significantly more difficult, if not all together impossible, without the reading. The benefits for me seem to happen by some form of osmosis. I read a story good or bad, I am apt to finish no matter which (when the writing is good, I am easily transported and when it is bad I attack it like a miner pounding at the rocks for some beautiful sentence that I am sure is hidden in there somewhere), and the material is absorbed and processed by some region of my brain where it is converted to something beneficial that my brain seems to automatically access as I write. I have no active method for reading in the way that will most benefit my writing. If other’s have discovered or developed such methods I am keen to hear about them. For now, I read from all corners, classics, contemporary, self help, non fiction with the firm belief that the information consumed will be converted into something useful.

      • Hey Andrew. Welcome, and thanks for the reply. This seems to be the popular take here; read for pleasure and entertainment (Storyland), but allow yourself to be open to lessons, even if that part of your brain is only on autopilot. Because it’s still absorbing, like you said. Do you have any examples that stand out of books you were entertained by but also helped you with your writing?

    • While it certainly can be done deliberately, I think “reading like a writer” comes on its own the more experienced we become in writing fiction. Even when I’m enjoying a story, I’ll often note the plot points and uses of convention and technique in the storytelling. Most often, I’ll do that kind of thing intentionally after I’ve finished the story, and especially if I write a review. Even when I get lost in storyland, the appreciation, afterwards, of what the author did is part of the fun. Sometimes, it’s even an inspiration to return to the task of doing the same in my own storytelling.

      • Apologies, my name is Andrew not Andre as my first comment indicates. Your point makes very good sense to me Raymundo. Like most who read voraciously and have the desire to write I often find myself moved momentously by a story. Sometimes, this experience is difficult to convey to someone who is not of the same ilk as myself, but I suppose that is the case in all passions, reading, writing or otherwise. This forum will be of great use to me, as I imagine most of you to share a passion similar to my own. The next time I finish a story that leaves me spell bound, I will make an effort to analyze the writer’s approach and isolate what techniques and plot points were most effective at rendering me to such an affected state. Though, I am a beginner and easily distracted/frustrated, and I am unsure whether such things will be readily apparent for me. I plan on asking those who participate in this forum a lot of questions. Also, I am eager for suggestions of literature those of you in this group have read and found to be particularly helpful.

        • Andrew, exploring the Write By Night website is very helpful to the aspiring writer, especially their videos. I would also recommend the books: “Elements of the Writing Craft” by Robert Olmstead and “The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know” by Shawn Coyne.

          • Thank you very much Raymundo. I just joined Write By Night a few days ago, and I look forward to utilizing the website. I appreciate your recommendations. I’ll be sure to check them out as soon as possible.

        • Maybe the next time you do find yourself spellbound, take a few minutes and write down some thoughts/ideas about why it happened. And maybe try once to take notes during the reading of such a story, see how that affects your enjoyment. Probably you’ll discover what you already know: that it’s more fun to be whisked away and to analyze why afterwards. But maybe you’ll surprise yourself and learn that analyzing a story while you’re reading it is a more enjoyable (or at least more educational?) experience.

      • Thanks, Ray. I find that the books I’ve reviewed tend to stay with me much longer than the ones I don’t. I think more carefully and deeply about them, both while I’m reading and (especially) afterwards. So I think you’re spot on here. For writers whose brains work this way, it’s probably a good idea to write at least a few words about a book once you finish it, even if those notes are only for yourself.

    • I’m with King on this one. Each story is a lesson whether we want it to be or not. Reading good literature will push us towards a higher standard. Reading bad literature will make us think “Well if this crap can get published then I certainly can”. Either way, what we put into our minds will affect what comes out of our minds. Ok, now that I’ve said that, I realize someone out there is going to tell me I’m a snob and it’s gonna be “Say what, Teresa? You think we need a formal education to be creative in a way that adds value to society’s collective artistic production? What was Shakespeare reading before he wrote his works?” And for a brief moment, I’ll pause and wonder whether the Baxter/King question can only be asked in a society with mass production of popular culture. But after that moment passes, I’ll double down and say that even in a society that is illiterate and cultural work is committed to memory and spoken out loud, even then, the culture informs what the individual produces. I don’t see any way around it.

      Now to answer the question that was asked… I can’t remember the last time I read a book and was completely taken away into Storyland such that at no point did I stop and observe how the writer was writing.

      • Hi Teresa. Thanks for this response. If the good books push you to a higher standard and the bad books give you a confidence boost, I think you’re in a good place. Some writers will take sort of an opposite view: “I can never write something this good, so why even bother?” and “Only garbage gets published, and I don’t want to write garbage, so why even bother?” You may have a dim view of the culture, but at least you’re not using that as an excuse not to contribute to it. I know plenty of people who do so. They are not happy people.

    • Once I started writing, I’ve been dissecting books and thinking like a writer. I wish I could get “taken away into Storyland” (as Baxter said), but it has been harder for me to do that and separate the true-reader with a writer-reader experience. If a book is well written and the character has a great, consistent, believable voice, I have more moments of blissful reading and less writing-focused assessments.

      • Hey Emily. It sounds like you do get taken to Storyland, just not as often as you used to. But maybe that’s not so bad. You’re working toward a goal of becoming a better writer. So you’re reading more tactically, and because of that, you’re learning. But you’re still open to these moment of blissful reading, and so as long as they still come along occasionally, reading can still be a pleasure. Because you never know when you’ll get swept away.

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