Why Aspiring Writers Need to Heed K. Tempest Bradford’s Advice

25 Feb

In this article from K.T Bradford,  “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year,” writer K. T. Bradford says she was looking to improve herself as a writer a few years ago and decided to focus, for one year, on reading stories by authors of color, LGBT writers, and writers who were women.

As you can imagine from an in-your-face headline like that, a lot of white male writers (and others) are upset by Bradford’s suggestion. They say it’s reverse racism, white-shaming, it’s punishment/censorship of perfectly good authors, and so on.  Readers can read the article and decide if Bradford is playing race cards or not.

But this post of mine isn’t about race, really and it isn’t for readers. I want to talk to the would-be writers out there, and I want to back Bradford’s suggestion 110%. To me, this is such a self-evident suggestion for aspiring writers that it’s astonishing to read the blowback that Bradford is getting (even from some witers). Reading outside the mainstream pool of white, straight, male writers is something you absolutely need to do at some point soon in your development as a writer, if you haven’t done it already.

A lot of people have dismissed Bradford’s idea as an exercise in political correctness, but that knee-jerk reaction totally misses the point where writers are concerned. Writers are the assessors and observers of culture. Whether young/new writers realize it or not, they are judged by their powers of observation and their ability to translate life into scenes, plots, imagery, compelling description, etc.

What you have to observe about life is what makes you interesting as a writer. It’s also part-and-parcel to why cliches are anathema to good writing. This isn’t just because readers don’t want to read crap they’ve read a thousand times before, but because using or misusing cliches shows very unsophisticated observational skill.  If your characters are simply too easily recognized or your plots are trite or your turn-of-phrase is cliche, it’s because your skill as an observer of life is weak. You’re relying on the work of other authors (television screenplay writers?) to do your observing for you. And that doesn’t cut it. Not remotely.

If you want to be a writer, your ability to encapsulate a character into a stick of dynamite on the page, your ability to craft a great plot with perfect beats, and your golden writerly voice are essential, of course. But a writer’s ability to assess the world effectively, beautifully, and UNIQUELY is unteachable. If you have it, your ability to observe well will separate you from your peers very quickly (all else being equal).

Observing well is unteachable in the sense that if I were your teacher, I couldn’t say for certain if I knew how to give you what you need to become a decent observer of society, of homo sapiens, our emotions, human drive, life. So much of that depends on what kind of observer you want to be, and what kind of observer you are capable of becoming, and that’s almost impossible to assess for any teacher. Who can say what any human mind needs to fertilize itself and grow into becoming a decent writer? An established author could assign you all the reading that was important to him, that helped his mind open, stretch, and become what it became, but, truly, no teacher has a clue how your mind works. Teaching you isn’t a guarantee, and in most cases, isn’t possible.

But you can learn to observe and assess by watching how other, better writers do it. In fact, it’s the only way to become an effective writer: Watch, learn. READ. And try imitating your heroes by writing, writing, writing. You might have had teachers who reached you along the way, but leaving their sides and learning on your own is absolutely essential. Who are your writer-heroes, can you say? I hope you can. Who writes the way you wish you could? Which books fill you with the boiling desire to sit down at your computer and bang out your own words? Make a list. You might be surprised which names spill out.

Chances are, you did something like this in high school, even grade school. Naming your heroes is how you quickened into becoming an embryonic artist/storyteller/journalist/writer. You began honing in on your goal and your pantheon of favorite writers changed along the way. New writers were introduced to you — maybe in school, maybe by respected peers — and these new heroes were more robust thinkers and better storytellers than the ones who originally moved you. And of course, the writers you worshiped at the age of eleven were different than those who blew your mind at twenty-two. At thirty-two.

At least I hope so.

Bradford’s advice is for the writer who knows herself well enough to steer against her own trends and predilections. That’s what she did as a writer, after all. She realized she was slipping into frustration because she wanted to get better as a writer, so she decided to focus her reading, hone in on a certain type of writer. The reason writers develop at all  is because their own sense of what’s entertaining, beautiful, striking, and wonderful becomes more sophisticated, fine-tuned as they grow. And writers who limit themselves to reading mostly (or only) from the predominant culture are self-editing to a degree that’s damaging to themselves as observers. They are swimming dangerously close to cliches, always.

Between 1985 and 1987, I read almost exclusively Latin American writers because I was obsessed with El Boom, coming out of Mexico and Central America. I was so obsessed with this particular brand of “fantasy” and the very words these writers used that I started reading them in the original Spanish, too, and in the case of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I translated certain beloved paragraphs from Spanish to English myself. I did this because I was curious why his words and images hit me so hard, even though I was reading him in translation. Were his scenes of magic butterflies and starving angels hitting me because of the images’ potency or because of the delivery of the prose? I wanted to know how Garcia Marquez’s magic worked, both his word-magic and his stories about magic (I decided it was both — his wondrous imagery delivered via his journalistic, matter-of-fact bluntness was the formula, a technique that works even better in Spanish, to my ear). Breaking down his sentences to the level of poetry seemed the best way to learn how to do it.

I did this earlier when I started reading lesbian writers (again almost exclusively — not quite a year). Andrea Dworkin’s writing was so effective to me because not only was it so radical compared to anything I’d read before, but her prose itself had a steamrolling, hectoring quality. Every word hit like a punch, a kick. Was it hitting me that way because I was a young, straight, white man reading her work so fresh from rural Wisconsin taverns that you could smell the stale beer on me? Sure. But once I filtered out the “bullying” as I thought of her words at that age, I could easily hear her arguments — and I got that same quality from Audre Lorde, Pat Califia, and other lesbian writers from the mid-eighties. Clear-cutting points of view that had to be delivered via potent, condensed prose — so very admirable to me as a young writer learning how words worked.

Reading the literature (the accepted great works by writers who’ve come before you), reading the great works by writers who are writing today whether in your culture or not, and knowing where the predominant trends are in literature and in your specific market are vital to being a serious writer. You need to be a voracious reader capable of digesting great volumes. If not, you’ll limit yourself — damagingly so. You won’t understand why your work is rejected (not an impressive trait for someone who needs to be an assessor, an observer). If you resist knowing where your place is in the larger world of letters, you won’t comprehend why reviewers trash your work as they place you in a context that you won’t understand. Worst, you won’t learn from being in a writers group, because your peers will be assessing you in ways that make no sense to you. Everyone will be speaking a language that you have chosen to ignore.

Conversely, reading outside your culture will feed you. The pepper and zing of words, thoughts, ideas, and points of view from writers writing outside the predominant culture — whomever they are and whomever YOU are — aren’t just spice. They’re your nutrition. At this stage in your career, you need to read different points of view like you need air. Deny yourself to your peril.

So forget the debate about whether Bradford is being a PC race-baiter. That’s just bedlam and noise. If you’re a writer, open yourself to the idea that you need to expand your color wheel and read accordingly.


* Free Issue of Uncanny Magazine to People Taking Bradford’s Challenge

5 Responses to “Why Aspiring Writers Need to Heed K. Tempest Bradford’s Advice”

  1. lydamorehouse February 26, 2015 at 5:29 pm #

    OMG Barth look at you making SO MUCH SENSE. (ILU, I seriously do.) Because I had a very similar reaction to all this (at first, before the crap hit the fan-dom), which was, I’ve done this–of course I did this. I read everything in order to learn to write. I still do this.

    Thanks for this. I needed it today.

    • barthanderson February 26, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

      Thanks!! Love you too! You’d THINK writers would have the basic “no doy” reaction to this post. Especially since that’s exactly how Tempest frames her article — as a writer writing. Not terribly controversial, really!


  1. » Reading, Challenge, Strength max gladstone - March 18, 2015

    […] challenges as a writer. I approach my reading the way fighters approach their diet, or the gym. Barth Anderson has a similar angle on the topic here. People coming from different backgrounds, or coming to reading for different goals, may have […]

  2. Sad Puppies, The Walking Dead, and Hunting for Conservative Science Fiction | con gusto - April 14, 2015

    […] in my far-left politics, books that don’t match my worldview don’t rattle me. As I’ve said, I like and need to read work that comes from outside my point-of-view, and I can do it without hating the writer, condemning the entire publishing industry, or bemoaning […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: