I’ve been writing professionally for just over five years now. I’ve won a Lambda Literary Award and been shortlisted for several mainstream awards. I’ve been blessed enough to have had run away successes and number one hits. I don’t say this to toot my own horn, but to give you some context when I tell you about the question that I fear the most.
It would be fair to say that I move in bookish circles. I write fulltime, I speak to authors and readers on a daily basis, if I’m not writing a book then I’m editing one, and I attend many in-person and online literary events.
I’m fairly confident and I enjoy meeting people but there’s a question that I know floats around my bookish circle, and it should be a question that I can easily answer. But I can’t. And when I can’t, it’s met with a degree of surprise, sometimes shock, and quite frequently apparent horror.
The question? “What are you reading?”
There are other variations, of course. Have you read X? What was the last book you read? Which genres do you read? Which is your favourite book by Y?
You see, as strange as it may sound… I don’t read much fiction. I haven’t picked up a fiction book this year at all. I’ll give you a moment to slacken your jaw and/or gasp.
The thing is, while I have written more than twenty books, I just don’t enjoy reading. And there’s a reason for that: I’m autistic. When you admit to being autistic, you generally see pity in someone’s face. Or, if you’re an award-winning author, utter confusion. Because the autistic range is so wide and varied that there is no one definition of autism. Some people with autism love to read, they live for reading, they couldn’t get through a day without the comforting weight of a book in their hand or bag. I’m not one of those people.
But on the other hand, I don’t have difficulty reading. I’m not dyslexic. I don’t dislike the sound of certain words, or the inexplicable nature of the English language (why does was not rhyme with gas) like so many autistic people do.
I just don’t enjoy reading. And to some people, especially in the bookish circles I move in, that’s quite frankly crackers.
I’m not one to analyse my quirks in too much depth (goodness knows what you might find in there), but I have come to the conclusion that I have the attention span of a stuffed toy. If I did pick up a book and force myself to read it, I would no doubt forget what had happened in previous chapters in a short amount of time. Then there’s the fact that I’m a fulltime author. There’s not a week where I’m not pitching, writing, editing, marketing a book of my own. Often more than one at a time. I have difficulty remembering my own plot without adding someone else’s into the mix.
There’s also the fact that I’m stubborn. Presented with a forkful of salad that I know is good for me but will taste like chewy water, my mouth will close. Hearing the endless sound of the same irritating Christmas song in a store, my ears will stop registering. Seeing words on a page of a book that I’m supposed to be leisurely enjoying, my eyes will refuse to tell my brain the words they see.
A few years ago I was talking to my wife about reading and was shocked to discover that she creates whatever she reads in her mind. As she reads a story set on a gloomy New York avenue, her mind shows her that scene. When the heroine arrives, her mind generates an image of that person. My mind, sadly, does none of that. I’ve discovered that this is true of many people, readers and non-readers alike. But I’m certain it goes a long way towards my lack of enjoyment derived from books.
I know I’m in the minority. Do I ever know that. As I say, the “what are you reading?” question is one I have to dodge or gracefully back out of on a frequent basis. You see, it’s a bit of a crime to be an author who doesn’t read.
I listened to a podcast a while ago and the host stated that any author worth their salt had to be a prolific reader and claimed if any didn’t then they would no doubt be a terrible storyteller. Many a writing blogs’ primary piece of advice is to essentially read as much as you can. Writers read, it’s a fact of life. Except for me.
So, there you have it. I’d love to be able to recommend the book I’m reading, but it’s mine which I’m editing and that would be far too egotistical. And it’s not out yet.
But what I can say about reading is this… I’m very much aware of the power of reading. Not a day goes by when I don’t hear from a reader who has experienced real emotion via the pages of a book. Those simple words strung together to tell stories have amazing power. Some people love to curl up with a cozy mystery and figure out who in the quaint English town committed a dastardly deed. Some people sneakily read romance and even erotica on their train journey to work in the morning. I can’t recommend a book to you, but I can recommend enjoying books if you can. The next time you read a book that you enjoy, take a moment to appreciate how special that feeling is.
And then tell the world how wonderful that book was because spreading that kind of joy is a special and privileged thing to be able to do.