You hear it often enough, if you don’t read, how can you write? But what should you read? There’s an awful lot of junk out there and some of it is masquerading as classic fiction. Before you compile a reading must-do list, you do need to think about why you read. Are you reading for pleasure, to find out more about the particular genre you want to pursue, are you looking at structure, dialogue, setting, pace, characters?
A bit of research helps. If you want to write about vampires, then you do need to look at the original Dracula by Bram Stoker, then look to Ann Rice, before you even consider the Twilight stuff. Romance, then you should have a visit with Barbara Cartland and you have to read Nora Roberts as she is the current queen of best selling Romantic fiction. Fantasy writers must read Tolkein and CS Lewis. Crime writers, I refer you to The Telegraph’s 50 writers to read before you die and the CWA competition site-
But for a general reading must-do-list who would I recommend?
1. F Scott Fitzgerald. You simply can’t go past The Great Gatsby as the most perfect book. Beautiful people in beautiful places, doing not so beautiful things, but oh so perfectly written. Tender is the Night is also quite wonderful and his short stories are not to be missed – try A Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Fitzgerald’s own tragic story haunts his work and I think is the better for it.
2. Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things. This is the book to learn about structure and evocative descriptions – both of place, evil characters and evil deeds. This Booker winner will resonate with you for years.
3. Douglas Adams – all of the associated Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy books. These are such fun, clever, witty, pacey and wry sad characters.
4. John Irving – most of them but especially The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire and Last Night in Twisted River. Great big stories about decent people who get caught up in all sorts of stuff. SIlly things, tragic things, but stories of grandness and scope, about life and love, and an awful lot of death. I guess Irving is the modern but American version of Dickens.
5. Fay Weldon – as many as you can. Like Irving a teller of tales about the modern existence of normal people (very English) trying to make their ways in hostile worlds. Read her for her style, sparse, pared back, witty, caustic and insightful and her take on the particular insights and indignities of being female. Weldon and Irving were the writers who made me want to write.
6. Michael Ondaatje – The English Patient. Forget the film, this is the most beautiful poetic book I have ever read. It is magic from start to finish. If Weldon and Irving made me want to write, Ondaatje made me feel I was completely inadequate and utterly worthless. This is the book to read for the magic of language, how to describe and leave an impression that lasts forever.
7. Patrick Suskind – Perfume. This was his first book- devious, clever, intriguing, great characters. Clever- clever writing – excpet for the bit in the middle, still not sure about that.
8. Peter Carey – does need to be at least one Oz in the list. His earlier stuff is better. Bliss, Oscar and Lucinda, his short stories but most of all Illywhacker – about the 109 year old liar. Again, great sense of place, the feel of darkness in the Australian under-belly. Great story teller, takes you right in with incredible but credible characters and the most unlikely events, but you go with him – the journey to the end of each book is well worth it.
9. Some classic writers you need to experience. Dickens is one, and if you only read on of his let it be Great Expectations– the classic rags to riches story and how you can lose your integrity along the way, not to mention loving the wrong person. The Brontes can’t be over-looked either. Jane Eyre is fine but Wuthering Heights is the jewel. Yes, it’s confusing to start but go with it as it really is one of the best love stories of all time. A bit of Austen too – Pride and Prejudice for my money, but they all follow the same sort of idea – class, love, gossip, duty. You must read Edgar Allan Poe, the orginator of the short story. Some Steinbeck is also de rigueur – Of Mice & Men is the classic and the shortest, but don’t overlook The Grapes of Wrath. Orwell needs a look in – especially Animal Farm and of course, 1984. I’m also going to suggest EM Forster, any and all, but mostly Howard’s End and A Passage to India. Go to Russia, read Tolstoy – Anna Karenina and War and Peace. Read Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann.
10. Don’t forget the poets. Robert Frost, Mending Wall, Out Out, The Road not Taken. TS Eliot, The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock. Dylan Thomas, Under Millkwood. Lord Byron, all. Robert Browning – My Last Duchess, The Laboratory. Gwen Harwood, Les Murray, Bruce Dawe.
So, a list that could go forever and is by no means any sort of definitive list. But it’s a start. Read widely, read well, absorb what you read and you will be a better writer.