Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Books That Shaped How We Saw Fiction

A serious man visiting the Folger Library, via Library of Congress

A couple weeks ago I asked you what books changed the way you saw fiction, and particularly how those books changed it for you. Nineteen writers and readers answered the call, reflecting on fiction from multiple continents and a broad range of genres. It's a fascinating array. 

Here are their words, followed by a few of my own.

Karen Wojcik Berner: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice
"Pride and Prejudice" changed my life. I had never identified with a fictional character before. Most were fighting mythical monsters, wars or governments, or having larger than life adventures that to me, at age 15, were not plausible. Elizabeth Bennet was witty and sassy, and her cat-and-mouse game with Mr. Darcy captivated my teenage heart. This felt real, whether it took place in the eighteenth or twentieth century.

Janet Aldrich: Agatha Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
"The Murder of Roger Ackroyd" by Agatha Christie. It was the first time I really understood that writers could be magicians and completely misdirect the reader. I will NEVER forget how completely gobsmacked I was by the ending the first time I read it (and Edward Wilson, you can take your snarky little response elsewhere, fold it and -- (ahem, sorry for the digression)). I've read mysteries for years, and was accustomed to the _detective_ keeping things from the reader, but never this. I've never taken anything completely for granted since.

Monica Marier: Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!
For me Terry Pratchett's "Guards! Guards!" changed the way I saw Fantasy genre. I loved Fantasy, but I couldn't figure out why Fantasy genre was getting so stale to me and it was only when after reading Terry Pratchett's work that I realized all those other authors were always telling the same story: a prophecy, some pointy ears, a wise mentor, maybe a dragon, slap in a generic everyman "chosen one" who tries to fight his destiny, and Bam! Done! Pratchett's books especially those featuring the crime-drama stylings of Sam Vimes, taught me that fantasy could be so much more. The Elves and Wizards and Dragons are just a backdrop, a medium, for telling real stories about real people that readers care about. You lose sight of your characters and make them shoddy copies of Tolkien characters and it ceases to have a heart.

Robert Cole: James Joyce's Ulysses
It may seem a cliche now, but James Joyce's ULYSSES did it for me. In the process of finishing my second degree, I did a course in literary theory. The entire second half of the course was ULYSSES. We were assigned the Bloomsday companion, but I actually was assisted by an unabridged recording of the book by a Joyce scholar. It had the effect on me in the way it did so many others-- I was startled and I knew I'd never read the same again. In the end, I felt like a better human being because Joyce managed to fill the pages with not just the stuff that usually makes up our stories, but the mundane, the boring even. I didn't feel in charge, it wasn't all filtered through me. The book existed without me. Having spent so much time with it, I cried when it was over. I think the last few pages are the most beautiful words put together in text. I felt like the whole thing was a call to every other writer to think in new ways. Sadly, I think the only person to answer the call was Joyce himself, in FINNEGAN'S WAKE.

Katherine Hajer: Albert Camus's L'Etranger
I'd have to pick L'Etranger by Albert Camus. The spare storytelling was a revelation -- up until then, I'd always been taught the more educated and intelligent you were, the more complex and verbose your sentences should be. The story itself is more like a thought experiment -- the "what if?" aspect is always very close to the surface, yet it's never cloying or pious. The subtlety of Meursault's transformation was a revelation too. To this day I sometimes use that book as a kind of litmus test. Whether a person remembers the withdrawn, disaffected Meursault from the beginning or the passionate Meursault from the end often tells a lot about them, I find. In the same way, L'Etranger has turned into a yardstick for both prose and character arcs (not so much plot). I've tossed aside a lot of highly-acclaimed books because their pretty, pretty text just reads like self-serving wankery after L'Etranger.

Ross Dillon: The Short Fiction of Jorge Luis Borges
Borges’s short fiction. He creates, for me, unparalleled depth with a minimum of language. His short stories stand out as some of the absolute best, creating incredible worlds and atmosphere, and yet they're usually only a few pages. I don't know of anyone who does it as well, or really who approaches that skill.

Carrie Clevenger: Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. It was my first reveal into multicultural fiction and didn't include fairies or dragons. It was just a simple story whose characters opened my eyes to a whole new literary world. My teacher in 7th grade (if I remember correctly) loaned it to me out of her in-class library and ended up letting me keep the copy when not only did I take so long returning it, but brought it back obviously well-read.

Jai Joshi: William Shakespeare's The Tempest
I think probably The Tempest by William Shakespeare had one of the most profound effects on me. I studied it while at high school. It made me realise that every character, even those who are considered not important or powerful, must have a voice and a soul. Caliban is a savage and Ariel is a spirit and yet they both long for freedom. It stays with me to this day.

Angie Capozello: Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land
Stranger in a strange land is the first book that really peeled my mind open and made me rethink how i look at things. Had mostly read fantasy up till then, that got me hooked into sci-fi. You could actually see the shift on my bookshelves, from stuff like Magic Kingdom for Sale to books like Dune :) Now of course it's all a mish-mosh, i read all sorts of things but that was the first big shift in my reading tastes.

Sean: Joe Haldeman's Forever War
Forever War by Joe Haldeman is some hard, sociological science-fiction that uses war as a backdrop and interplanetary travel to really examine how we humans treat one another. It was my first encounter with some real profanity in a book. I probably shouldn't have been reading this when I was twelve.

T.S. Bazelli: Guy Gavriel Kay's The Fionovar Tapestry
The Fionovar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay - It was the first book that made me cry. I never realized before that point in time, just how much a book could make you feel, or how good writing could make characters feel like real people rather than caricatures. It was also a lesson in writing satisfying endings. I think it changed my world view too, that and his later writing, how I thought about love, relationships, and mortality.

Danielle La Paglia: Kelley Armstrong's Bitten
Bitten by Kelley Armstrong. The depth of her characters (even minor ones) and the backstory she wove into the narrative (without info dumps) made me really stop and think about my writing. But what I struggle with most is narrative voice. I tend to describe things from a distance and I've been working this last year to infuse the natural voice of the character into my writing. The book that made me realize that was A Brush of Darkness by Allison Pang. Her first paragraph hit me in the gut and shouted "That's what you're missing!" That's the book that made me rewrite my entire YA ms from 3rd to 1st person POV. To study this more, I went back to Kelley Armstrong's books. Because her series is written by several narrators, the series itself has is a lesson in voice. I can recognize the distinct narrative voice of each character and that's impressive (to me at least) since she has stories written by over a dozen different characters.

Max Cantor: C.S. Friedman's Black Sun Rising
Black Sun Rising, by C. S. Friedman, and its two sequels which comprise The Coldfire Trilogy. In these books, Friedman's characters play with the foundations of so-called "magic", altering the very physics of their world as they go along, and as a reader I felt like I was playing with the foundations of so-called "fantasy"... Friedman's books were my catalyst for realizing that "nothing new under the sun" is bunk. You can trace every single element in The Coldfire Trilogy to something else, just like you can with most fiction, but the juxtaposition is what makes it unique and compelling. They also gave me a healthy appreciation for believable villains, which has sadly done more to detract from my enjoyment of other work than anything else!

Randall Nichols: Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy
Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. There aren't many books that so significantly changed the way I looked and thought about the world around me, and the world in general. And as a writer, I don't think you can have anything that sticks with you that much, and shifts your perception of the world around you, without changing the way you look at fiction. Especially for me, where so much about my own writing and what I'm interested in is about folks interacting, and I think Shandy perfectly captures the limitations and hangups we have when dealing with people other than ourselves.

Eric Krause: Clive Barker's The Damnation Game
Clive Barker's The Damnation Game showed me what a true horror story could be. I haven't read it in years, so I have no idea how it holds up today, but to my tween-young teen mind, that made me appreciate horror fiction as well as all the other speculative genres.

Amanda Nazarian: Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun
The Book of the New Sun and The Wizard Knight both literally changed the way I saw fiction: I saw the stories so vividly in my mind that I often confuse those reading memories with actual events or scenes from movies, and they expanded the colors and landscapes of my dreams.

Tom Gillespie: Alasdair Gray's Lanark
I first read the novel in 1981, and it completely transformed my world view of what the novel can and should achieve. Lanark defies description. It combines magic and hyper realism with science fiction, mysticism and elements of fantasy. … The book is beautifully illustrated by the author throughout, which serves to intensify Gray’s assault on our rationality and our imagination. For me, Alasdair Gray’s magnificent book re-defined the city of Glasgow in much the same way as James Joyce altered our view of Dublin and Ireland. He is a revolutionary writer who tackles big themes and expansive ideas, and like William Blake before him, he is often misunderstood and under-valued. And his visionary masterpiece continues to inspire me to take risks in my own writing and remind me of the labyrinthian possibilities of language and the human mind.

Joshuo Londero: Albert Facey's A Fortunate Life
It was only originally written as a memoir by a man with little education. I think his daughter found it and had it published after his death. It's remarkable to me, not only for the fact that a man who suffered incredible hardship still considered his life fortunate, but that his simplistic and even flawed writing style could reach the hearts of nearly every Australian who read it. I am tempted to call it Australia's Grapes of Wrath, but it is so much more than that.

Sonia Lal: Lois Lowry's The Giver
I may have written an alternate ending to The Giver. Something about the boy and small child living by themselves in the woods, like in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George (another Newbery award winner book). Years later, in high school, I remembered the book and took it out again. By this time, I was writing my own stories and trying to figure out why they sucked. This time I positively amazed at the way Lois Lowry showed how the characters only saw in black and white. One character sees a red apple and can’t figure out what the color red is. How Lois shows that, how she ends it and hints at frostbite, I was just blown away. It did a lot to clarify the whole show-not-tell thing for me.

And last, John Wiswell: Douglas Adams's Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
It was the first book where I never put up with anything to get to the good part. It was all good parts, which I didn't know was possible or allowed. The dialogue was snappy, the exposition was funny, the plot never got boring, the characters were varied and entertaining for their varying dosages, the tangents were amusing in variety rather than preachy or cloying, and even when he stepped back to examine life his opinions were always unusual. Every book I'd ever read before, and most I've read since, had some inevitable clunky element that I had to put with to get to the worthwhile material, whether it was a superfluous romance, or arcane social commentary, or clunky backstory that was supposed to justify something later but that I usually skimmed. After this novel, the onus was suddenly on me (and everyone else I read) to similarly not drag ass. It’s just about impossible.


  1. Good post. I especially liked your summing up of Hitchhikers. Very true.

    Moody Writing

    1. Thanks Moody! It only really hit me on my fourth reading. What a piece of work.

  2. These are fascinating, John. Great idea.

  3. Wow. So many different entries. It is just me or are most of these books on the older side?

    1. I'm not entirely surprised. Some of the works (Tempest, Lanark, Pride & Prejudice) are classics, a demo that's almost never new work. But also most of us were influenced when we were younger; I read Adams in my teens. It couldn't be a recent book, because of the time that's passed since then. The same would go for anyone who remembers back to early books that influenced them.

  4. Great collection of books here, and I've read some of those books, so its interesting to see how the affected other people in different ways than they did me.

  5. A nice mix of titles up there ^_^

    Terry Pratchett's novels certainly changed the way I looked at fantasy, one of my recent flashes Once upon a time, was influenced by this author. ^_^


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