Friday, November 14, 2014

On the Importance of Reading Modern Fiction

In my creative writing class, we've been workshopping everyone's final projects. One classmate's work in particular prompted me to write this post.

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He's a good poet. He's smart. He's my friend.

But his prose leaves much to be desired.

As a self-professed reader of only books from 100+ years ago, he writes in a stilted, overdone way. His sentences are long and cumbersome. He uses too many ... shall I say grandiose? ... words all together. It feels like he's trying so hard to sound like Dickens. Or Wilde. Or Proust. Or, god help us, Sir Walter Scott.

Basically, his writing is stunted.

As a writer, it's important to read everything. Classics. Contemporaries. Fiction. Nonfiction. You should read everything you can get your hands on. If you purposefully cut yourself off from a section of writings (especially one as large as the body of work produced in the last 100 years!) you are doing yourself a disservice. Your writing will suffer.

So I've decided to get him a few new(ish) books for his upcoming birthday. These are examples of fiction written within the last hundred years that I feel every writer (and reader) should experience.

1. Catch-22

"He was going to live forever or die in the attempt."

Catch-22, published in 1961, is a work of satirical genius by Joseph Heller. Taking place during WWII, Catch-22 captures the insanity, the desperation, the rage, the inevitability of war. Written in non-chronological 3rd person, it follows Air Force captain, Yossarian, who hates war. Yossarian's central conundrum is that if he is crazy, he'll be discharged. But he has to apply for said discharge and applying for said discharge demonstrates that he is not insane, thereby no longer qualifying for the discharge. For him, there is no way out of war. 

The narrative itself is circular and reflects the nature of the "Catch 22" conundrum. It's a great study in the devolution of a character into insanity. Heller's language is clear and powerful. His characters are unforgettable. It's hard to explain Catch-22 to someone who has not read it because it is so singular - so completely different from anything else that I've read.

2. Slaughterhouse-Five

"Nothing intelligent can be said about a massacre."

In keeping with my first suggestion, here is another experimental, WWII, and entirely singular book - Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, published 1969. I've reviewed this book before (you can read my review here). Like Catch-22, Slaugherhouse-Five is shockingly revolutionary and completely different from Heller's opus. Again, it's hard to explain Vonnegut's most famous work. Actually it's pretty hard to explain any of Vonnegut. He writes a little left of reality and Slaughterhouse-five is no different. Jumping between the fantastical and the devastating, Vonnegut captures the essence of surrealism without dissolving into the abstract or the detached. Billy Pilgrim is the quintessential unreliable narrator and the book forces the reader to question reality at every turn. What is real? What is delusion? Is there actually a difference? Vonnegut's writing is gorgeous - sometimes whimsical, sometimes bare and raw. Strange. Startling. Disturbing. This book is definitely worth the read. 

3. The Cider House Rules

"People only ask questions when they're ready to hear the answers."

John Irving is by far one of the most skilled writers working today. The Cider House Rules, published in 1985, is astounding. It follows Homer Wells, an orphan who never gets adopted. Instead he begins to learn the business of medicine as instructed by Dr. Wilbur Larch, head of the orphanage and the only doctor around who is willing to perform abortions. As my mother is fond of saying, all of Irving's books are about sex and perversion, and The Cider House Rules is no different. But instead of coming off as sensationalist or cheap, Irving writes about the difficulty of living. The difficulty of being human. It is the most honest look at one of the most controversial topics of our time. In the guise of empathetic characters and beautiful language, Irving forces you to examine your own beliefs - your own choices. An orphan or an abortion?

4. The Poisonwood Bible

"God doesn't need to punish us. He just grants us a long enough life to punish ourselves." 

The Poisonwood Bible is easily my favorite work of contemporary fiction (again, here's my full review). Published in 1998, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver is the story of five women and the missionary husband/father/abuser they follow. Travelling half a world away, from Georgia to the Belgian Congo in the 1960s, the Price family women each get their own POV. All five parts are written in first person and all five are incredibly distinctive. There's never any confusion over who's who and the shear technical ability Kingsolver displays here is worth the read. The fact that Kingsolver's technical talent is alloyed with a spectacularly compelling story makes this a rare find and a necessary addition to any personal library. The Poisonwood Bible is an astounding work woven of technical ability, social consciousness, and the intimacy of a family struggling to survive the ravages of the Congo and of their father.

5. 1Q84

"But pure, unadulterated feelings are dangerous in their own way. It is no easy feat for a flesh-and-blood human being to go on living with such feelings."

Published as three separate novels in Japan over 2009 and 2010, 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is an excellent example of where modern fiction can go. In a way, it follows in the surrealist footsteps of Vonnegut and presents a world that is just slightly left of reality. The book uses the term "1Q84" to show the slight difference of this new world the characters stumbled into from the one they left, back in the normal 1984. Again, even that is a nod to previous work - this time George Orwell's infamous dystopia. In my previous review, I introduced the book by calling it an asymmetrical fairy tale. Murakami successfully captures the juxtaposition of a pre-mobile phone world and post-modern philospophy in his unique poetic style. While the book is definitely complex (and crammed together into a gigantic volume when it was translated to English), it's definitely worth the read.

It's very very difficult to pick only five books from the last 100 years and there are so many more that are worth your time. 
The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker. The Lord of the Rings (1937-1949) by J.R.R. Tolkien. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. The Handmaid's Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. Ender's Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card. Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury. The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) by Norman Juster.
And on and on an on and on, ad infinitum. As a writer, it's so important to read everything. Just read. Read every moment you can. 

Perhaps Stephen King said it best. If you don't have the time to read, you don't have the time nor tools to write.


  1. This is very well done and spot on. I have not yet read Murakami, but it's definitely on my horizon. Even if we don't write, reading lets us explore other people's realities, share their experiences, and live our own lives as human beings in a world not designed for human beings. Somehow the irrational seems more understandable and the harshest trials more survivable.

  2. Grace, you and your mom exhibit some of the best writing I have ever read! You paint a picture. Create an emotion. Plan a desire. You make me want to read more!

  3. I've read the first two books on your list, but not the last three. Thanks for sharing your recommendations :) Right now, I'm reading a collection of fantasy short stories and the second volume of "A Discovery of Witches."