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Joyce Carol Oates on the Importance of Reading for Writers

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 4 min read

“Reading is the springboard to writing.” - Joyce Carol Oates

If you’re a writer, think of reading as an apprenticeship. Reading allows you to study other writers in order to shape your own style. Joyce Carol Oates is one of the most prolific American writers. Her career spans six decades and her novels, novellas, and short stories cover numerous literary genres. She has written New York Times bestsellers and penned suspense novels under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. Joyce has also been an avid reader since she was growing up in Lockport, New York. Even today, as one of the most accomplished writers in the United States, Joyce Carol Oates is a firm believer that reading other writers can inform and elevate one’s own work.



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How Can Reading Help You Become a Better Writer?

Ask any writers for advice, and it’s all but guaranteed they’ll tell you to read voraciously. It’s essential, though, to read with a purpose. Study the ways different writers tackle different subjects. How they craft their sentences and story structures? How they handle dialogue?

Writers are shaped by other writers. The books we read as children influence our tastes and impact on our writing style as adults. The writers who shape us are like unofficial mentors; by reading widely and closely, young writers can learn at the feet of history’s most famous and beloved authors.

In sports, competing against an opponent who is more skilled than forces you to rise to a higher level of competency. Similarly, reading the writing of authors who have shaped the canon as well as lesser-known authors whose work you admire, will challenge you to up your game.

If you read Ulysses by James Joyce, for example, chances are your vocabulary will improve. Your work won’t necessarily come out sounding like his, but you use words will be informed by his style. Other authors can teach you different lessons in craft: J.K. Rowling can teach you how to build fictional worlds; Nicole Krauss can teach you how to layer multiple narrators and perspectives; Rebecca Curtis can teach you how to use patterns and repetition for humor. All you have to do is study their work.

The Two Different Types of Reading

Joyce notes that there are two distinct kinds of reading, each important in its own right:

  1. Spontaneous reading is when someone finds a book by chance—perhaps they notice its cover in a bookstore or are intrigued by a review online—and reads it purely out of interest. In spontaneous reading, readers are plunged into a world they didn’t plan to explore, and the outcome is often a personal emotional reaction. Spontaneous reading is similar to pleasure reading; it’s about the books that we read for curiosity and fun rather than pointed lessons or information.
  2. Systematic reading is the result of thoughtfully choosing your reading material. You could, for example, tell yourself you plan on reading 25 early short stories by Ernest Hemingway in an effort to learn about brevity and dialogue. Systematic reading often involves the kind of material and reading schedule that one might find on a syllabus.

There is a time and place for both types of reading, but don’t restrict yourself to the systematic type—even if you’re on a mission to learn. You can draw inspiration from the books you read spontaneously, too. If you love, hate, or find yourself fascinated by a particular book, ask yourself why. While wandering through the American history section at the library, Joyce stumbled on a book that featured an early photograph of Marilyn Monroe. This spontaneous reading experience eventually motivated Joyce to write a historical novel titled Blonde, based on, she says, “the accident of seeing that snapshot."

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Reading the Work of Joyce Carol Oates

As an aspiring writer, add works by Joyce Carol Oates to your reading list. Here are some of her books to read as you develop your own storytelling craft.

  • We Were the Mulvaneys
  • Hazards of Time Travel
  • Bellefleur
  • A Book of American Martyrs
  • Wonderland
  • A Widow's Story
  • You Must Remember This
  • Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart
  • Solstice
  • The Falls
  • Black Water
  • Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been

Joyce Carol Oates is a National Book Award winner, five-time Pulitzer Prize finalist, and the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Professor of the Humanities at Princeton University. She was valedictorian at Syracuse University, then received her M.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She was teaching at the University of Detroit when she released her first novel, With Shuddering Fall. She then moved to the University of Windsor, in Canada, for ten years before finally settling at Princeton University in New Jersey, where she has been teaching since 1978.


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Want to Become a Better Writer?

Whether you’re creating a story as an artistic exercise or trying to get the attention of publishing houses, mastering the art of fiction writing takes time and patience. No one knows this better than Joyce Carol Oates, the author of some 58 novels and thousands of short stories, essays, and articles. In Joyce Carol Oates’s MasterClass on the art of the short story, the award-winning author and Princeton University creative writing professor reveals how to extract ideas from your own experiences and perceptions, experiment with structure, and improve your craft one sentence at a time.

Want to become a better writer? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons on plot, character development, creating suspense, and more, all taught by literary masters, including Joyce Carol Oates, Judy Blume, Neil Gaiman, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, David Baldacci, and more.