I’m always learning from readers’ comments. Something I learned recently is that not all writers agree that reading Dickens is a good thing.
Dickens is not my favorite 19th century novelist–George Eliot is–but I think that modern writers can learn a lot about scene structure and the management of multiple characters and subplots from reading his works. Admittedly, his sentimentality is often cloying, and his attitudes towards women infuriating, but every writer’s work reflects the prejudices of his time and place. And Dickens is fun to read. I challenge anyone to read a few pages of The Pickwick Papers without laughing out loud.
A few years ago Slate Magazine polled 23 contemporary writers, editors, critics, and agents about the books that influenced them the most when they were in their late teens and early twenties. None of the 23 chose a book by Dickens, but two named novels by George Eliot: Middlemarch and The Mill on the Floss. Two others chose Homer’s Odyssey.
Being “influenced” by a book does not mean trying to copy it. Many of the books we read influence us in subtle ways that enrich our writing without defining it. Some of them influence us by opening a window in our minds that wasn’t there before.
How about you? Can you recall a book that you read in your twenties that caused you to think about things in a new way? For me it was Middlemarch. I still love it enough to re-read it every few years.