Three Authors Every Writer Should Read

I’m afraid I’m not going to give you the answer to that question. I’m asking it of you.

This is a selfish attempt to crowdsource wisdom before I begin a low-residency MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m suspecting I’m not sufficiently “well read” to take on this challenge.

College Hall on the Vermont College of Fine Arts campus, courtesy of their Facebook page.

My anxiety didn’t ease when the first two Vermont alums I spoke with after accepting admission told me they had been English Literature professors before starting the MFA program.

Ack!

So I’m looking to do some catch-up reading, and started by tweeting the question over the weekend. It prompted my friend Kate Arms-Roberts to write a post for her own blog on her recommendations, and generated lots of suggestions. Here’s a summary of what I heard:

  1. William Shakespeare. The runaway leader by a lot. Not really a surprise.
  2. Ernest Hemingway. He’s one of my favorite authors so I was pleased to see his stock high. Love his economy of words while conveying characters and setting brilliantly.
  3. Tie: Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. If the measure of literary achievement is number of movies made based on your books, these authors clearly are worthy of making the list. I’ve seen adaptions of their works on screen more than I’ve read them, I must confess.
  4. Tie: The Bible and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I hadn’t anticipated the Bible making the list, but it is full of dramatic stories and beautiful poetry. I have only read The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald but I did love it.
  5. Nathaniel Hawthorne. My apologies, but I was forced to read The Scarlet Letter in high school, and I didn’t really care for it that much.

Among the others receiving votes were Russians (Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy); Brits (Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Carroll); Classical Greeks (Aeschylus and Sophocles); Hemingway contemporaries (F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner); poets (Emily Dickinson, Hermann Hesse, Hart Crane and Langston Hughes); well-known 20th Century writers (Phillip K. Dick, Arthur Miller, John Irving, Larry McMurty, Lee Child and Jodi Picoult); contemporary authors (Gene Wolfe, Mary Sojourner, James Salter, Chris Galvin, Elizabeth Strout, and Brady Udall); and an author in a category all her own, Harper Lee

A confession — I hadn’t heard of a few of those writers before conducting this survey, and others I have heard of but have not read. My local bookstore is going to love me this month.

What three authors do you think are must-reads for any writer and why? Are they above? Do you have your own suggestions? I’d love to hear from you!

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

34 Responses to “Three Authors Every Writer Should Read”

  1. Kate Arms-Roberts Reply April 18, 2011 at 7:41 am

    Don’t let those professors scare you. Just remember that being able to deconstruct a text doesn’t equate to being able to construct a good one. And sometimes the technical understanding gets in the way of creativity.

    Kate

  2. My youngest daughter is named after Harper Lee. I love To Kill A Mockingbird so much that I wanted to name my youngest “Radley” but my husband thought I was taking it a bit too far. We settled on Hadley.
    I would add Truman Capote to the list as well as Marilynne Robinson and Anne Lamott. All startling writers, but also because of the genre of creative nonfiction you are studying. I think they show how to do this well.

    • Wow, that is dedication! My daughter just read To Kill a Mockingbird in school and loved it, and it’s one of my wife’s favorite books. Agree with your husband it’s best not to name your son after “Boo.”

      You know, over a vacation last week I finally read Capote’s In Cold Blood. I’ve been hearing for ages it’s the book that launched the modern creative nonfiction category. It was masterful, amazing, incredible. The description, the story structure, the characterization. I’m still abuzz over it.

  3. I agree. It’s such a fantastic book. Did you know that Truman Capote is “Dill” in To Kill A Mockingbird? I love that Harper Lee picked up on Dill’s need to find and tell a story despite how painful it may be for him to do so.

  4. Being Jewish, I can only speak for the original five books, but I agree that the Bible is a fascinating literary work – if you skim the begats and all that walking in the desert…

    For an interesting version that tries to get as close to the original Hebrew poetry (it was meant to be recited out loud, after all) check out Everett Fox’s “Five Books of Moses.”

    I would also add Checkov to your list of Russians.

    Keep us posted on your literary journey!

    • You know, when I re-read the Bible a few years ago I read a modern translation, and what is called the “Old Testament” was much easier to follow and very engaging.

      Another good Russian!

  5. All excellent choices. Shakespeare, Dickens and the Bible are basic grounding for understanding much of the rest of literature. This list you’ve already compiled should keep you busy for the rest of your life.🙂

    Personally, I’d include the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy by Tolkien for his treatment of language, and Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for a little politics and history. Modern favs for me include anything by Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino (If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler).

    Also, if you’re ever wanting to branch out beyond Western lit, reading the Bhagavad Gita along with the Bible will give you some of that wonderful Middle Eastern imagery and contrast.

    Don’t worry about my list though…yours is long enough🙂.

    Best of luck with your grad school challenge. I hope to take that one on myself someday.

  6. Hi Patrick,

    I am going to admit none of these are “happy” reads but I am glad I read them.

    Hosseini, Khaled (The Kite Runner)

    Shriver, Lionel (We Need to Talk About Kevin)

    Gordimer, Nadine (The Conservationist)

    Seems like you are making your own GoodReads list here🙂 I know where to come when I need something new to read. Best wishes!

  7. I think there is some confusion with being a recommendable author and writing a good story (an author who *inspires* new writers) and being a writer from whom other writers can critically learn something.

    From Dickens you can learn about character development. The only other author on your list who is commonly called a “writer’s writer” (in English) is Gene Wolfe. And rightly so. From his stories, you can learn an awful lot about First Person narration (particularly “Peace” and “The Fifth Head of Cerberus”.) Also, about a love for words for their own sake and that not explaining everything can cause a story to be a constantly living thing (there are others who do this as well). Non-fictionally, any writer should seek out anything Wolfe says about the actual nuts-and-bolts *craft* of writing. He is the only living writer I’ve heard speak or I’ve read who seems to be able to left-brain analyze what he did to go from hobbyist to professional author.

    Going on, You are right that Hemmingway can teach an author the value of Less. From Mark Twain and C.S. Lewis you can learn the value of a natural tone in story-telling.

    Being familiar with the Bible is essential to understanding almost all literature and history in Western Civilization until the mid-19th century. It should covered in detail in high school. And I guess a poet should read the King James Version. Still I’m not sure you would learn to be a writer from it.

    The other authors and are the list are good writers and to be a good writer you have to see what the bar is set to. But, I’m not sure I can say why any of them are essential.

    • There’s some great advice here, James. I appreciate your time in sharing it.

      I think I will respectfully disagree with your premise that most writers, including good writers, don’t offer the opportunity for a writer to “critically learn something.”

      I try to take some sort of writing lesson away from everything I read. It might be noting a nice turn of phrase, or an interesting use of POV, or suspenseful pacing. Or it might be something NOT to do.

      I have not read Wolfe, and will look forward to learning from him!

  8. I forgot to mention Cormac McCarthy. I love Blood Meridian, and if wouldn’t surprise me if, a few years from now, it received wide acclaim as one of the twentieth century’s greatest books.

    Re: the Bible, apparently the Geneva Bible, which predates the King James version, has a much more contemporary flavor.

    James Stuart was a religious conservative who very much wanted an archaic-sounding translation of the Bible.

    I don’t know whether anybody mentioned Harold Bloom to you, but I recommend “How to Read and Why” and “The Western Canon.” They provide two of the best introductions to Western literature I know of. Also, Bloom is an extremely lucid critic. You get powerful insights from his books.

    • Kate Arms-Roberts Reply April 18, 2011 at 8:56 pm

      One of the interesting elements of the King James translation from a writerly perspective is that a conscious choice was made to use a limited vocabulary – only about 8,000 words.

      • I didn’t know that! It makes sense — a conservative king would want a tightly-controlled translation.

      • I agree with Bell, the limited vocabulary of the King James translation is fascinating and I didn’t know that. I wonder if another factor in that decision was that the English population at the time was not very literate. Perhaps limiting the choice of words made it more accessible, while giving educators the ability to teach a modest number of words that would then enable their students to read what was, in their society, the dominant “bestseller.”

    • Thanks, Bell. No, no one has mentioned Howard Bloom, I welcome the suggestion. For years I have felt I was missing out by not having read Cormac McCarthy, because I have several friends who love his writing. I’ll check out Blood Meridian.

      • Blood Meridian is a very rewarding book. I reread large parts of it every now and then, because so much blood, sweat and tears went into it… You can tell. It is a work of mind-boggling detail and Spartan discipline.

  9. Hi Patrick. Just wanted to ease your mind a little bit about not being “well-read.” I came to VCFA’s program as a sociology/anthropology major – who also minored in dance! A long way from being a literature major, shall we say.

    The advisors were more than willing to help me construct meaningful reading lists that filled in gaps, but more importantly, helped me with particular craft issues with which I struggled. The books that have stayed with me the most have actually been recent ones, to tell the truth. All contemporary fiction. Nothing against the classics (and thankfully I *have* read some of those, too!), but we can learn from a much wider range. Looking forward to meeting you this summer.

    • Hi Sion! It means so much to me that you have shared this, and it is very encouraging. I was an international relations major. I’ve read a ton of political biographies, which I think will be helpful in my creative nonfiction writing, but I’m pleased (yet not surprised) to hear the VCFA’s advisors are so helpful in tailoring reading lists to each student’s need.

      I look forward to meeting you too. Only a little over two months now!

  10. Zora Neale Hurston, the Bronte sisters, e.e. cummings, V.S. Naipaul.

    I also agree with your friend’s husband that it wasn’t a good idea to name her son “Boo.” I wanted to name my daughter Zora but couldn’t win my husband over with that. We chose Mimi instead, which in Japanese means (well, in her case with the characters I chose for her, Beautiful Ocean). We did have a cat named Victor Hugo.

    Hey, good luck with school. When do you go back? Very exciting to read about your new adventures.

    • Hi Mari, thanks for those contributions. Have not read Hurston or Naipaul. Good fun!

      My father always told me that if I was a girl, he was going to name me after his favorite literary character, Cindy Lou, as in the “Who who was no more than two” from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

      It’s a low-res program, in late June I’m in VT for a ten-day residency, then a few months of remote work, then repeat a few times. I finish the summer of 2013. I’m very excited!

  11. Interesting, and I must agree with most of the books on the list, but like you I have not heard of some either!

  12. Hi Patrick! 🙂 I can’t say I am learned enough on this topic to make suggestions that I can back up. I can say that for classics, I think Homer (The Odyssy and the Illiad, particularly the latter) are very good.

    Mainly, I wanted to say … just remember that the fact that you were accepted into the MFA program means that YOU DESERVE TO BE THERE. They would have selected someone else if you weren’t qualified to do well. You’ll be great! 🙂

    • Amy, you’re the best. Thanks for that! I read both Homer works in high school, and I actually liked The Odyssey better than the Iliad. With the latter, I was just too impatient for the war to end.

      If you haven’t seen it, you should check out the Coen Brothers’ film “O Brother Where Art Thou?” which is a creative take on the Odyssey.

  13. Yes, Amy hit the nail. Patrick, you deserve that MFA program! I’m happy for you

    None of us can read everything.

    As for books burning stories into readers minds, I have a few to add. Dostoyevsky’s “Notes from Underground” at a 90 pages offers an unforgettable character and insight to the universal battle to understand one’s self. Then read “Timbuktu: A Novel” by Paul Auster inspired by Dostoyevsky.

    If you haven’t had the pleasure of Isabel Allende’s “Eva Luna” Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” or Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked…” I invite you to tuck them near for witty, masterful story telling. Lock yourself up with one that grabs you and read for the love of it.

    • Great suggestions. I was moved by “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I’ve wanted to read “Wicked” since seeing the play on Broadway and loving it (the music was so-so but that’s not relevant to the book, obviously). I have not read the others, but have heard great things about “Eva Luna” and like the length of “Notes From Underground.”

      And thanks for the encouragement on starting the MFA. As to your point that none of us can read everything, I reluctantly agree, but I’ll always wish I could!

  14. I bookmarked this page as a source to return and reread. Thanks Patrick!

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