The books I’ve most enjoyed reading also happen to be the books that motivate and inspire me to write. These are the books that leave me feeling like I’ve experienced a great story: the main character has gone on a journey, there’s a certain playfulness in the writing, it’s believable (or comically absurd), the prose is alive, the plot makes sense (perhaps with unexpected turns), and the sentences flow smoothly. When I sit down to write, it’s these qualities that I hope to bring to my own work.
Looking back at these ten books it’s made me realise how they reaffirm, rather than challenge, my world view. There’s a notion that fiction should potentially challenge our outlook, redefine us even. I’m not sure that this is the case, or at least it isn’t for me.
For example, all my ten books are written by men and feature male protagonists. I enjoy stories that show the individual beating ‘the system’, that display a sense of justice: good triumphs over bad, good characters are rewarded, and bad characters are punished. What constitutes goodness is debatable (especially these days) but generally I’d characterize it as the common good.
My feeling is that stories express and reaffirm what we already know. Fiction echoes our values and beliefs – it gives shape to our world view. This is why publishers look for manuscripts to reflect the zeitgeist, because it’s what people want to explore. And contemporary trends are always changing, always new.
Why not write your own list?
Be honest, don’t choose a vanity list of ‘worthy’ titles, unless they truly reflect the books that you’ve most enjoyed.
Do your choices actually challenge your world view or confirm what you already believe?
What do these titles say about you as a writer?
I read Sharky’s Machine (1978, crime thriller) by William Diehl when I was a young adult. It was a second hand copy that had been discarded by the previous reader. It opened me up to a new world of danger and descriptions of adult behaviour. The writing is punchy and easy to read. In this quote, a mobster hitman is gradually unravelling as he becomes increasingly dependent on amphetamines to keep him functioning.
…he went to the bathroom and took the pill from his pocket, popped it in his mouth, and washed it down with a full glass of water. He was hardly out of the room when it hit him, a dazzling shot, like a bolt of lightning, that charged through his body, frazzling his skin. He felt as though he was growing inside his own shell, that his muscles and bones were stretching out. He became keenly aware of sounds, the hum of the elevator and the muffled roar of a vacuum cleaner behind a door somewhere. His entire body shuddered involuntarily as he waited for the elevator.
The Ipcress File
I was still at school when I read The Ipcress File (1962, spy thriller) by Len Deighton. I enjoyed the protagonist’s cheeky disdain for authority (which most pupils will identify with) and the brilliant social observation.
Ross was a regular officer; that is to say he didn’t drink gin after 7.30 P.M. or hit ladies without first removing his hat.
Here’s a paragraph that has a certain hard-boiled charisma to it, followed by the character’s shopping habits. He’s not ‘posh’, but he’s cultured. He doesn’t buy any old English butter – he buys an expensive French one.
I walked down Charlotte Street towards Soho. It was that sort of January morning that had enough sunshine to point up the dirt without raising the temperature … I bought two packets of Gauloises, sank a quick grappa with Mario and Franco at the Terrazza, bought a Statesman, some Normandy butter and garlic sausage.
And here’s a comic exchange between the protagonist and a manager. I especially like the way tying a shoe lace feels like it could be a hangman’s noose.
‘…I am loyal, diligent and will attempt every day to be worthy of the trust my paternal employer puts in me.
‘I’ll make the jokes,’ said Dalby.
‘Go ahead,’ I said. ‘I can use a laugh – my eyes have been operating at twenty-four frames a second for the last month.’
Dalby tightened his shoelace. ‘Think you can handle a tricky little special assignment?’
‘If it doesn’t demand a classical education I might be able to grope around it.’
Dalby said, ‘Surprise me, do it without complaint or sarcasm.’
‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ I said.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
During my A-levels I read, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981, short stories) by Raymond Carver. It was probably the first book I read that made me conscious of reading fiction as ‘writing’. Like a million other people, the minimalist prose fooled me into thinking that, one day, perhaps I too could write something a little like this. While the stories have intrigued me, I never felt like they completely worked for me. This is the opening of Gazebo (which, weirdly enough, could almost be the beginning of a Bukowski story):
That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.
Years later I discovered that the original drafts had been extensively modified in the editing process, and while it made the stories pithy, akin to prose poetry, it also lobotomised them somehow.
In my first term at university I read Steppenwolf (1927, literary fiction) by Herman Hesse, relishing the protagonist’s struggle with himself. Once again the scenario is faintly reminiscent of the Film Noir run-around. The symbolism and meaningful life-philosophy questions posed by the novel chimed with me.
The other major book I read in my first year at university was Women (1978, literary fiction) by Charles Bukowski. The opening is extremely direct. It hooks you in with its honesty. The language is simple and unpretentious.
I was 50 years old and hadn’t been to bed with a woman for four years. I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the streets or wherever I saw them, but I looked at them without yearning and with a sense of futility.
I was eighteen when I read the story of Henry Chinaski’s ‘barfly’ lifestyle. My life couldn’t have been more different. His world was as much of a journey into a strange world as any fantasy novel with blue people, trolls and talking unicorns. It’s a grimly picaresque adventure that symbolised my teenage anger and rebelliousness. I wasn’t looking for bar fights, alcohol abuse, or dysfunctional relationships, but (like many a teenager) I identified with a protagonist who felt misunderstood.
It’s not a book I would want to re-read. I do still admire the simplicity of the prose. A teenager might view Henry Chinaski’s disdain for mainstream society, his apparent freedom from caring about anything or anyone as liberating, but now it strikes me as something of a lie (like the legendary ‘rock and roll lifestyle’). He’s a troubled character, imprisoned within his problems, suffering from alcoholism, an adult acting like a child, mistreating others, and believing that he’s better than everyone else.
I read Alex Garland’s, The Beach (1996, literary fiction) one summer, after it had come out in paperback. Everything was right when I read it. It was during a hot summer. The sun was out, and I was lying on a cool green lawn, drinking cold beer. Like Women it was one of those novels that was very easy to read. The narrative was playful, with in-jokes about popular culture. The novel referenced computer games and reading it felt like being in a kind of game, but it also had a Graham Green-like literary sensibility to it, a detached coolness – the protagonist as a camera. You never really got to know the narrator.
I was working in a bookshop when I picked up a copy of Norwegian Wood (1987, literary fiction) by Hariku Murakami. I picked it up a number of times half-interested but never convinced. The combination of the opening, the twist at the end of the first chapter and the ending finally made me read it. (I always read the first and last paragraphs of a book before buying/reading it. If the end doesn’t work for me why go through the frustration of reading an entire novel, only to be disappointed?)
Norwegian Wood is another story where the hero goes through the Film Noir run-around. The first chapter describes a strange but powerful attraction the protagonist has to a female character, and we discover at the end of the chapter that his feelings were not reciprocated. How can you not want to read on?
The thought fills me with almost unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me.
I’ve written a lot of very short fiction, and as usually happens when writing a manuscript, you invariably find yourself investigating published work that shares similarities to your own. This hopefully ensures that you’re not rewriting their book. Anthropology (2000, very short stories, flash fiction) by Dan Rhodes seemed to me to tick all the very short fiction or flash fiction boxes. The stories are variations on comically surreal jokes about relationship woes, written in a quirky tone and incorporating off-beat endings.
After writing hundreds of very short stories, I became interested in formatting short stories as if they were micro-novels. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for me, another writer (as usual) had already achieved this. This was Alessandro Baricco’s Silk (1996, novella). It could be described as a Japanese novella written by a European writer. Here’s the whole of chapter 49:
Only silence, along the road. The body of a boy, on the ground. A man kneeling. Until the last light of day.
I read Lee Child’s Killing Floor (1997, crime thriller) while on an MA in Creative Writing. It was a sort of investigation into commercial fiction, and somewhat unexpectedly, I really enjoyed it. It’s brought me back full circle as it were to Sharky’s Machine and the desire to write fiction that has wider appeal. It’s a hope and a goal, at least.
Again, there’s a game going on in this novel between the writer and reader. The reader thinks he or she is smart reading between the lines, but all the clues have been put there by the author. There’s a lot to be said for an easy read, especially today when time is precious and there are films and the internet and a million other things to do. It’s good to know that the writer has done all the hard work for us and all the reader has to do is enjoy reading it. Killing Floor is one of those books that might not get you thinking about the meaning of life (or maybe it will) but it’s an entertaining and addictive read. This is the opening paragraph:
I was arrested in Eno’s diner. At twelve o’clock. I was eating eggs and drinking coffee. A late breakfast, not lunch. I was wet and tired after a long walk in heavy rain. All the way from the highway to the edge of town.
Jack Reacher is completely different to Henry Chinaski (they would almost certainly dislike one another) but Jack Reacher is also a kind of Romantic loner hero, an outsider who is immersed in Americana and yet anti-materialistic, driven by his own values, living without attachments.
Here’s a summary of my book choices:
(Book title: point of view, tense, literary fiction / genre.)
- Sharky’s Machine: 3rd, past, crime thriller genre.
- The Ipcress File: 1st, past, spy genre.
- What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: 1st and 3rd, past, lit fic.
- Steppenwolf: 1st, past, lit fic.
- Women: 1st, past, lit fic.
- The Beach: 1st, past, lit fic.
- Norwegian Wood: 1st, past, lit fic.
- Anthropology: 1st, past, lit fic.
- Silk: 3rd, past, lit fic.
- Killing Floor: 1st, past, crime thriller genre.
From this information, a composite of the elements would produce a story with a male protagonist, that’s written in the first person and the past tense. The story would feature a character based personal journey, and it would include reference to past relationships, and have a crime thriller element. It would be written in an accessible style, a fusion of genre and literary fiction.