What Do You Read? Huh?

Jeffrey Cohen

I am a bad mystery author.

Quite often (okay, once every few months, but for me, that’s often), I’m asked by a reader, an interviewer, or just this guy who always follows me into the Stop & Shop, “what do YOU like to read?” The guy at the supermarket asks everybody that question, so I’ll discount his participation, but the others seem to think that, as a published author, my taste in reading is in some way more relevant than their own, which it’s not.

Because I have a reputation, and a very minor one, for including humor in my writing, I can get away with a snappy comeback like “I read graffiti,” “I read my wife’s moods, in order to stay alive,” “who said I could read?” or “I read grocery lists,” which really only works on the supermarket guy. But the truth is, I’m embarrassed to say what I really read, because it’s not what they want to hear.

I’ll confess it here: I’m a mystery author. I don’t really read mysteries all that much.

It’s not that I don’t find the form interesting. It’s not that I don’t ENJOY the odd mystery book here and there. But the sad fact is, after a day of toiling away at my own meager work, it’s depressing to read someone who does it better, and whose book is, after all, finished. It all seems so easy for those other authors–even though I know it’s really not, their work is between covers and has a copyright date on it, and everything, so it feels like they’re just flaunting their success at me.

Besides, I’ve seen enough words for one day. Spending hours staring at a screen with words on it, I believe, has a finite capacity. After a certain number of words, my brain goes into a fetal position and gives up for the day. I just can’t deal with any more, especially if the words are actually challenging.

And the sad fact is, when I do read for pleasure, I tend more toward non-fiction than fiction. I’m currently listening to an audiobook of Manhunt, a description of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth, by James L. Swanson. Booth has just gotten to the home of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd to get his broken leg set, and at the rate I’m going, it’ll be a lot more than twelve days before they shoot him in a barn in Virginia.

Why don’t I read more mysteries? Well, for one, I don’t want to steal stuff inadvertently (or even advertently) from other authors, and there’s sure to be some morsel of plot that will make me go: “oh yeah, that would work perfectly with the story I’m working on now!” I’d have to suppress that impulse, and would do so, but it’s just too upsetting to go through the process.

There are certain authors I can’t read when I’m writing. For days, my work will sound like a bad imitation of theirs. Scarier than that, I’ve been told at least once (okay, once) that at least one (okay, one) author can’t read me while writing. I assume reading too much of my writing while working on one’s own would lead to an upset stomach. Lord knows, that’s what happens to me.

On the other hand, I do sometimes read mysteries by friends I’ve met through this adventure of an industry. For example, this week I read the ARC of Julia Spencer-Fleming‘s upcoming All Mortal Flesh, and I’ve gotta tell ya, it’s dynamite. Luckily, Julia and I don’t write on similar themes–her heroine is an Episcopal priest, and my characters are about as not an Episcopal priest as you can get without actually being a different species. But Julia writes with humor, with emotion and with an evil sense of plot and pacing that will keep you turning pages, which is what this business is all about. I’d ask her how she does it, but then she’d just tell me, and I still wouldn’t do it as well, and that would be the waste of an afternoon.

What was I talking about? Oh yes, what I read.

A few years ago, an interviewer asked me what my favorite book was, and I said, Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo: A Celebration of the Marx Brothers and a Satire on the Rest of the World, by Joe Adamson. For some reason, the interviewer thought I was kidding. I wasn’t. Concerning itself with one (well, four) of my favorite subjects, this is the book that I would have written if Adamson hadn’t gotten there first. It’s out of print now, but you can find a copy. The information is copious, and it’s a funny, funny book.

I know what I was supposed to say. I should have looked thoughtful and said, “you know, my real influences have been Chandler and Hammett, but I’d have to say my favorite book is The Canterbury Tales. What a depth and breadth of character!” Of course, I wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about, and I wouldn’t know one Canterbury Tale from another, but that’s what you’re supposed to say. (Although you can substitute Moby-Dick or Ulysses for The Canterbury Tales and still be considered acceptable.

A lot of people cite Dickens, Shakespeare, Salinger or (god help us) James Joyce as influences. For me, it was Joe Adamson for how to make non-fiction entertaining, and for storytelling, I had to go to Irwin Shaw. A storyteller beyond compare, Shaw’s novels had lots of juicy plot to chew on, and characters who weren’t stupid, which is a plus. If you haven’t, check out Nightwork, in which a hotel clerk’s life changes when he comes across a tube filled with money one night. Some would say shallow; I say, ahh.

You don’t get to choose your influences, or everybody would be writing in iambic pentameter, and wearing accordion collars. And those would chafe like crazy in this heat.

What it comes down to is, it doesn’t matter what an author reads. It matters what an author writes. And you should read what you want to read. Assuming, of course, that my books are included on that list.

After all, a guy’s got to have priorities.

9 thoughts on “What Do You Read? Huh?

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hmm, scary, Jeff – you’re a little too much in my head this morning. I got to the end of my writing day yesterday and couldn’t go anywhere because I’ve sprained my wrist and can’t drive and I thought, well, I’ll read! Yay!! But nothing appealed. Nothing. I must have picked up 20 books that I got from Thrillerfest that I’ve been dying to read and I couldn’t get more than a few pages into any of them.

    I’m too close to a deadline to be able to get involved in anyone else’s characters, I think.

    Honestly, most of what I read most of the time is for research. It’s a dilemma because I’m beginning to KNOW all these authors and I WANT to read them. But the time, the time… who has the time? Where do you start?

  2. Mark Terry

    Ah well, I’m a book reviewer and I make just enough money off it at the moment that I’m not likely to voluntarily quit doing it, so I read tons of mystery, suspense and thrillers.

    I also read a lot of nonfiction for my work (although I’m doing a business report that involves reading company annual reports which sometimes seem like fiction).

    When I took part in my first author panel at GenreCon years back, we had about 14 authors sitting on the stage and the question asked of each of us was who were our writing influences. Since I was on the opposite end, #14, I got to hear everybody’s first, which gave me a lot of time to wish I was somewhere else. A lot of “Shakespeare,” and “Dickens” and “Jane Austen” and I thought, “You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me. You plowed through “Macbeth” and decided, “Hey, that’s inspired me to write a mystery novel featuring a hairdresser.” I envision ol’ Bill Shakespeare sitting up in his grave and saying, “What the f—?” Or, knowing what a writer’s life is like, maybe he’s sitting up in his grave and saying, “Do I get royalties off that?”

    By far the best answer was, “Everything I’ve ever read.”

    I can honestly say that my inspiration to try to write fiction seriously was an essay by Stephen King called “The Making of a Brand Name,” or something along those lines.

    I can honestly say that one of the reasons I tried my hand at suspense was because at the time I was reading “Marathon Man” by William Goldman. But I can’t really discount the thousands of books I’ve read over the years starting with Dick & Jane, The Hardy Boys, Robert B. Parker and oh yeah, those dead white guys I was forced to read in high school and college.

    I think the best smart-alecky answer I’ve had (and it also happens to be true) to the question of what’s your favorite thing to read is: Checks. Perferably with lots of numbers in them.

  3. Pari

    Heya, Jeff,Some days, I’m lucky to read the cereal box.

    When I’m working on a manuscript, I might not get any pleasure reading in at all. Right now, that’s the case. But, because I’ve got kids — at least I get some young adult fiction in there. We’re reading: THE SWISS FAMILY ROBINSON, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, and should be starting either FRANKENSTEIN or DRACULA in the next month.

    My influences? Hells bells. Some of the worst inspired me to write in the first place.

    Oh, that sounds so snarky — and it’s not meant that way . . .



    I mean it .

  4. Elaine

    Interesting points, Jeff! When I’m writing, I tend to read mysteries with male protags-especially books written by U.K. authors. It helps me keep Molly’s voice her own.

    An exception, however – was Julia’s latest -this is one ARC I broke my rule for – ALL Mortal Flesh – is, I think, her best.

  5. Julia Buckley

    Some people just don’t get the genius of the Marx Brothers.

    And I’m going to have to look up that book about Lincoln, since I’ve always wanted to travel back in time and prevent his assassination. Didn’t Booth have a compound fracture? Didn’t that mean his bone was jutting in and out of his leg when he rode his horse away from the scene of the crime? Just curious. Hope that description didn’t make anyone queasy.

  6. Beatrice Brooks

    Hey, Mark Terry, my biggest influence was William Goldman, as well, but for a different reason. Characterization. I liked Marathon Man, but oh how I loved Boys and Girls Together. I adore good books, love to read, and I’ve developed my own voice, so reading other mystery authors doesn’t bother me – except, of course, for that momentary lapse with my Albino perp. But sometimes after a day at the computer, my eyes are just too tired to do anything but watch So You Think You Can Dance…Hugs,Deni

  7. Tenbrooks

    During a discussion at the Harrogate Crime Writing Festival Ian Rankin confessed he his surprise at the uproar caused by his-honest- reponses in an article rounding up summer choices by well-known authors.

    He listed “To Kill a Mockingbird” which he’d never before read and an author I didn’t know but is evidently instantly recognizable in the UK as a beach book type.

    He was entertainingly skeptical about the other featured writers’ claims to be reading Proust and Joyce for relaxation on their summer vacations.

  8. Andi

    Since I review, and I don’t keep everything I am sent, I am at the post office a lot. a LOT. Mary, Connie and Cheryl know me. Cheryl always asks me the same questions about my reading. I don’t know why – I guess she can’t believe or doesn’t like my answers but I always get “how many books do you read in a week?” and no matter if I tell her 5 or 20 she’ll ask again in a while. she knows I’m on disability and can’t work. “How do you decide to read a book, is it the cover?” was a recent question. I try to explain about getting review copies and trying everything (I really do, um, pretty much um almost) and how there’s no one thing. She asks “what did you read lately?” but she never recognizes a single name, not Rozan or Kozak or Hirahara or White or Dymmoch or Read or Lippman or Pawel or Muller or LaPierre (to name a FEW authors sitting in the review pile over there) and “Do you like the Lockridges?” and i try to explain that I pretty much only read current books and that yes on occasion, I’m sending off an older book, no, I don’t have any Lockridges. But she still keeps asking even though our reading seems to come from two different universes. She’s really very nice – Cheryl and I have become friends but I dread these questions because she doesn’t seem to like my answers and i don’t know what she really wants to know (probably wishes I read what she did so we could share it in conversation?)It feels a bit like that thing you authors get when someone asks that clueless “have i heard of you?” or “have you written anything I would have heard of?” which strikes me as SO RUDE and SO ODD – “I dunno, I’m not psychic” being the politest come-back I could think of (I know, I know)

  9. Jeff Cohen

    I hear you, Andi. I have to admit, though, when someone asks me “have you written anything I would have heard of,” I generally answer, “um… The Bible? You read that one? That’s one of mine.” I get a lot of strange looks, but I attribute that to my face, more than anything else.


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