Friday, November 5, 2010

There Can Be Only One

The title of this post is a lie. There can be lots of ones. There can be an infinite number of ones. But I'm going to ask you to narrow things down to one each.

"One what, Scott?" Did I forget to mention that? I'll start over.

I was thinking this morning* about advice I'd give to beginning writers, and my best advice would probably be "read a lot, write a lot, read a lot more." And then I thought about Francine Prose's excellent book Reading Like A Writer, which has a list at the back called "Books to be Read Immediately." So I asked myself which one book of fiction, if I had to choose one, would I tell a beginning writer to read immediately.

The short answer is that I don't know. I discount the idea that there is a single book I read in my youth that triggered the dormant "writer gene" and pushed me onto the path of being a novelist. And I completely dismiss the idea that there is one novel or book of stories that stands head-and-shoulders above all others. And I have no clue at all what the "most influential" book on my writing has been. So the idea of "best" or "important" or whatever gets thrown out the window, too. And I certainly don't mean simply to point to my favorite book, either.

Which leaves me, I guess, with this: What's a pretty good book that I think a beginning writer could learn something useful from?

Again, I don't know. But I'll give it a shot:

Dubliners by James Joyce. Beautiful short stories that are perfect jewels and every one of them is worth reading over again and studying for technique. Deep characters, humor, sympathy and insight. All perfect, as I say. The collection includes "The Dead," one of the greatest short stories in the English language. Say, I'm really pleased by my choice. And here I thought I was going to come up with nothing but excuses.

Now it's your turn. Pretend that someone has told you they want to be a writer. You hand them one book and say, "Then read this; this is writing." What's that book? Say what's good about it in a couple of sentences. All genres allowed, but you only get one entry on the list. Books about writing are not allowed.

*and since I write this on Thursday, I was actually thinking yesterday morning. It's almost like time-travel, but not quite.


  1. I know which one that is, my friends.

    White Oleander by Janet Fitch.

    I read that as a young, confused, newbie college student and said, "That's it. I wanna be just like her."

    Nobody wrangles a sentence like Janet Fitch does in that particular book. So that's my hands down "one."

    Lisa Kilian

  2. I recall enjoying "Unto This Last" by John Ruskin. It's been a while since I read it, but at the time, it seemed full of deep concepts, rich vocabulary, oodles of semi-colons (yum!), etc.

  3. Shakespeare for dialogue. It's way cliche, but I've never read anyone quite as witty.

    Vladimir Nabokov for characterization and plotting.

    I really liked White Oleander too, Ip3000's suggestion.

  4. Ohhh, excellent choice, Scott. Excellent choice. That was one of my favorite books in college. I have it on my shelf and I need to re-read it. "The Dead" is one of my favorite pieces, yes.

    This is really difficult to choose just one book...

    I think Genie cheated...can I do that?

    Okay, I'll choose just one...

    I'd have to say "The Great Gatsby." I love that book. The structure, the dialogue, the descriptions, the characters, the symbolism, the themes - it all comes together in the most delicious, splendid ways. I never get tired of reading that book.

  5. The Illustrated Man. I thought I had read some pretty good science fiction/fantasy before I read this but afterwards I knew that all that had gone before was just pulp.


    I think it's important to start early. I already loved to read when I got to this book (I was actually in fourth grade), but it ushered in the transition from heavily-illustrated chapter books to longer works with deeper characterization.

    Yesterday I read the final 10 pages of my book RUDY TOOT-TOOT to my son's third-grade class. Two kids gave me stories I inspired them to a wholly original story about zombie pumpkins (from a non-reader / non-writer, even!), and the other a Captain Underpants fan-fiction piece. It was a good day.

  7. One? Really? Is that even possible?

    Fine...I'll throw a short story in. I'd recommend "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe. It's a masterpiece of pacing, movement, tension and setting - a well-rounded example of how to draw the reader in and pull them forward through the story.

  8. I also think Jeannie cheated!

    The book I had in mind is Tolstoy's novella The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. It's not my favorite book, but I think for a beginning writer, it works really well to show off the fundamental parts of storytelling. It's a clean, straight-forward story, no gimmicks, with great characterization, insight, and focus.

    Having said that, Great Gatsby is also an excellent choice for much of the same reasons.

  9. Vonnegut: Slaughter-House Five. For learning everything, really - character development, complex plotting, creating a sense of place, creating resonance. Also, how to write something which can be both serious and funny at the same time, because I think it's important for new writers to learn that showing the light is what gives the dark its punch.

  10. Oh, hell. That's a toss-up between Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Both are brilliant, compressed stories with a major arc and some great action. Conrad's has lush prose and startling detail. Hemingway's has the trademark lean style.

    I suppose the nod goes to Conrad for his use of words and imagery. Yes, Heart of Darkness it is.

  11. Gah, it's so difficult to choose ...

    I'd probably have to go with William Gibson's Neuromancer. The characters are flat as day-old crêpes, but it fired me with the beauty of its language and its exotic settings.

  12. Some crepes can be quite satisfying.

  13. Oh, I was going to say The Heart of Darkness, but I read the comments first. I agree with Simon, though I haven't read The Old Man and the Sea. The Heart of Darkness is my favorite book ever. Symbolism is flawless, and the character development is great. Story arc and details, like he said, are wonderfully written.

  14. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray.

    Genius. Fun. Deep. Unforgettable.

    Dickens couldn't hold a candle, in my opinion!

  15. I love this post, just because you've admitted (like I've always thought) that there is not one novel that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest. To me, every novel has always served a unique purpose, distinct from all others.

    Lovely post.

  16. That's a great question! It's too easy to answer The Lord of the Rings. So let me see... since I can't choose just one I'll say, anything by Diana Gabaldon, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, In The Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje and Friends and Lovers by Helen MacInnes.


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