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Our Reading Lives

I’m Going on a Fiction Fast

Dana Staves

Staff Writer

Going through life with an apron tied on and a pen in her hand, Dana Staves writes about books and food. She also writes a little fiction. She lives in Maryland with her wife, their son, and their cat.

I’ve heard authors say it time and again: when they’re writing in their particular genre, they avoid reading contemporary work in that genre because they want to avoid influence. They put themselves on what is essentially a genre fast, a period of abstinence. I started out thinking of it as a diet, but that seemed wrong. A fast has a religious implication, one of cleansing and devotion and concentration. A diverted sense of communion.

For the next few months, as I work on my own novel, I’ll be cleansing – I’ll be diverting my sense of communion, depriving myself the reading of fiction in order to give myself more fully to the writing of it.

It’s been a grand summer, one full of novels – romances, quirky stories, supernatural ones, even the occasional raw, challenging one. But I began to notice a trend: after each novel I read, I would find myself questioning all of my writing. My vulnerability to influence was getting worse and worse, and I needed a change.

I needed a fast from fiction, so that’s precisely what I’m resorting to. I asked my fellow Rioters about this, and I’m not the only one, though the reasons for a genre fast are myriad and not always related to the writing life. Rebecca mentioned that sometimes, after a truly amazing novel, she’ll take a genre break so the next novel she reads won’t pale in comparison. Peter recounted the years he took away from science fiction after reading himself into corners of the genre, corners he grew tired of. Jess goes on genre fasts to give attention to the genres she’s been neglecting. And Amanda will fast from a genre after a string of mediocre books to cleanse her palate.

Whatever our reasons, it sometimes becomes necessary to read something else for a time, to cleanse our minds and hearts. I need to walk away from fiction – temporarily.

I started by making a goal for myself. Was I committing to a number of months? A number of books? Both of those numbers seemed arbitrary. What seems to be the most feasible is to say that I’m fasting from fiction for the duration of my next manuscript, however long that may take.

Gulp. No fiction for the duration of a manuscript? The grim reality of my decision to fast began to settle over me. As I planned this endeavor, I looked longingly at the novels awaiting me on my bookshelf. I was really going to abstain from them indefinitely?

But the way to make reality look a little brighter is to plan a reading list. If I’m taking a break from fiction, then that means anything else is open to me:  comics (hey, hey Panels), biography, history, memoir, and poetry. And the best part of working at Book Riot is that there is no shortage of suggestions on what to read.

A genre fast becomes a bit more pleasant – dare I say joyful? – when you start considering the benefits:  catching up on neglected genres, devoting yourself more fully to something, whether that be reading or writing. The horizons of mind and heart expand.

I find myself looking forward to it. My focus has shifted and I keep my eyes peeled for recommendations of great nonfiction or poetry to read. I shuffled the fiction out of my bedside to-be-read pile, supplanting with nonfiction. It felt like a special occasion, the way it feels to lay out an outfit for the first day of school.