Yes, it’s all right to have not-read that one classic

How have you not read that? You’re a writer! If you’ve ever found yourself surrounded by fellow authors, you’ve undoubtedly heard that phrase in one form or another. For those of us who claim to live and breathe novels, spreading the love is like a second nature — and a very pushy one at that. So much so, in fact, that many of us are reluctant to admit when we haven’t read whatever masterpiece is being pushed down our throats.

Yet it’s all too common.

As writers, we’re especially sensitive to feeling out of the loop. After all, who could forget the harrowing tragedies that befell young Oliver Twist? Nabokov’s controversial exploration of human sexuality in Lolita? How Proust’s In Search of Lost Time shaped a century’s worth of literature?

Well, for one, I could. Because I haven’t read any of them.

See, here’s the thing. Jane Austen wrote some 14 books in her lifetime; Tolkien contributed a respectable 36. The Brontë sisters had 16 between them; Tolstoy wrote some 48-odd; Agatha Christie somehow managed a mind-boggling 85. Add to that list such fan favourites as Paulo Coelho, Stephen King and David Foster Wallace, and you’re looking at well over 300 books clogging up your to-read list.

That, I’m sure you’ll agree, is a whole lot of books. If you were to stack them all on top of each other, you wouldn’t even reach halfway before realising that book towers are a fairly pointless endeavour to begin with. Even if you limited yourself to the classics alone, it’d take you decades to work your way through every novel ever labeled a masterpiece — and even then, you’d mostly cover male authors in your particular corner of the world.

Here’s a secret about human nature. More often than not, recommendations aren’t just about helping someone else discover a masterpiece; they’re thinly-veiled displays of stone cold vanity. We love being perceived as straight-up knowing our shit, be it in novels, music or whatever else strikes people’s fancy. And so we jump on the bandwagon of praising things that have already been praised — and putting down people who don’t jump on there with us.

And in moderation, that’s not a big deal. We can indulge in some therapeutic cockiness every now and then; pat our own backs so we might walk a little taller. It’s a way of navigating the murky waters we call social status, and it’s something we’ve been doing since the dawn of man. It’s harmless behaviour, for the most part — until you let it hold you back as a writer.

If there’s one lesson I want you to take away from this guide, it’s that all great authors were at one point terrible. That goes for Austen, for Tolkien, for the Brontës and for Tolstoy — and, for that matter, for every author you’ve ever read. Writing something bad isn’t just laying the groundwork for future greatness: it’s following in the footsteps of those unread greats themselves.

Of course, none of this means you should steer away from the classics altogether. Most of them are classics for a reason, and reading them may very well make you a much better writer. At the same time, some of them are bound to never appeal to you, and leaving them to catch dust is perfectly fine too. You can still write an outstanding novel with unchecked items on your to-read list, no matter how many pretentious snobs may try to tell you otherwise. Because measuring your worth by someone else’s standards isn’t just stupid; it’s a surefire way to keep you from ever finishing that novel.

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About the author

Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Very fond of semicolons.

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about the teacher

Creator of Nearly Complete and author of Dav Iven. Very fond of semicolons.

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