A couple days ago, I mentioned on twitter that there was a new Kelly Link short story available. And there is! (It's part of a spectacular YA issue of Subterranean Online, edited by Gwenda Bond.) I said that anyone who hadn't read Link's short fiction really ought to do so.
This comment was apparently a stressful one, as I received a response from someone who said he was already struggling with Neil Gaiman's advice to read the entire field (SF, the respondent added, was a pretty big field) and here I was, adding someone else to the reading list. My response, I said, was too big to condense to 140 character bits, so I promised a blog.
So, if you're going to be a writer, do you need to read your entire field?
Well, here's the thing. Scholars like to argue about the date of Beowulf, but I believe that we're saying it's an eighth century poem right now. Which means the field of speculative fiction in English has existed for a little more than 1200 years. Even if, like the Cumaean Sibyl, you possessed as many years as grains of sand, you could never read the entire field. Because not only is it already full of 1200 years of literature, people keep writing in it! (Seriously. There were 430 Hugo-nominated short stories this year alone. That doesn't mean published. That means those were the ones people thought were good enough to put on a Hugo ballot. The field is growing.)
So no, you don't need to read your entire field. You will never write anything if you try. But I don't think that Neil meant read the entire field (or the version of this he told us at Clarion, which was "read everything!"). I think what he meant was pay attention to it. Educate yourself as to what the field looks like today - who is selling lots of copies, who is getting good reviews, who is included on best of lists and is long- and short-listed for awards. Read those things.
Know the history of your field - what were the major texts and authors? Which of those still have an impact? Read those as well. Then, read outside of your field (this is where "read everything" comes into play) because otherwise you'll get tunnel vision. Know the weaknesses in your own writing, and read to correct those. If you want to write a certain kind of book, or one that has specific elements in it, read to find out how other people have handled those elements - both well, and poorly (because it is useful not only to have goals that you are writing towards but ideas that you are writing against).
If this sounds like you will be reading constantly, well, you will. And you should, as a writer - you learn to write by writing, yes, but you also learn to write by reading and by thinking about what you have read, by pulling the skin off the stories to see how their skeletons articulate. Reading is part of your job. You will also probably read books that you dislike, and this is also good, because you will learn exactly what it is about those books that bothers you, and you will also learn that just because you dislike something does not mean it is a bad book.
And you will also learn to let go. There will be books you never read, names and titles that slide through your consciousness because time is finite, days when you are better served by rereading the book that made you want to be a writer in the first place than picking up the new LOLCatPunk! anthology. Because while you should read everything, you do not need to read everything.