I’d like to hear about your favorite literature: what books inspired you to be a writer? What current authors do you enjoy reading?
I’m interested in biographies or autobiographies, have you read any particularly good ones recently?
— Submitted by ScubaSteveThePirate
As far as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to create and tell stories, initially through film (as an actor), then music (as a guitarist), then, eventually, through writing. And, to be honest, I think my initial attraction to writing was as much attention-seeking as a genuine interest in artistic storytelling. Basically, I wanted to be famous, despite how severely shy I was; and can still be. Perhaps the best way to put it: I had a self-revering Messiah complex — and mentally role-playing as Harry Potter, the “Chosen One,” or Link, the “Chosen Hero” from Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or especially as Luke Skywalker, the “Chosen Jedi,” only further stoked this sort of adolescent narcissism.
It wasn’t until my eighth grade Christmas, when I was gifted John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, and East of Eden, that I began to truly appreciate really good writing, and not simply as a pathway to fame. Each book stirred powerful, complex emotions, yet the strongest emotion that sticks with me today is the strange sadness I felt for East of Eden‘s Charles Trask. I don’t remember the story very well, but I do remember Charles Trask’s loneliness in the book’s early chapters; how his Cain-like resentment towards his brother Adam transformed into a lonely yearning for connection. (Holding the book now, I’ve found the line relating to Charles’ loneliness: “He missed his brother more than he missed his mother and father.” And then later in the chapter: “Charles waited for Adam, and Adam did not come.”) I remember reading East of Eden in math class, ignoring the teacher altogether, and feeling very, very sad; and yet I call it a “strange” sadness because Steinbeck articulated loneliness so well as to almost present it as a universal standard — i.e., I no longer felt singularly alone in my loneliness. In other words, I no longer felt personally persecuted by my own sadness and loneliness but rather took it as a sign that I’m a flesh-and-blood human; and once you get past that you soon realize the comical absurdity of the standard human experience. Not realizing this leaves you stuck in Charles’ Cain-like resentment that we find repeated in Salieri’s hatred for Mozart in the movie Amadeus and in the Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold’s diary rants against his classmates.
I learned that lesson, which I view as an incredibly important lesson, through literature; and with that I’d say East of Eden was the first book that made me take literature seriously, planting the seed for my later interests in writing.
Thinking through what I’d now list as my “favorite literature” …I have too many books on my mind to decide. However, a few important books (and one play) that further inspired me towards writing include:
- The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde (1890). With the beautiful, yet immoral, Dorian Gray, Wilde mocks the thin, fashionable superficiality of Victorian English moralism; a precursory glance at trendy “woke” capitalism in America.
- The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon (1966). Funny, psychedelic, paranoid fiction. Pynchon fits the religious experience on a belief spectrum between secular coincidence and occult conspiracy.
- Sexual Personae, Camille Paglia (1990). No Sexual Personae, no AMERICAN VULGARIA. Paglia shows that you don’t have to be a vapid, prudish, pretentious, neurotic, narcissistic, overpaid professor to enjoy and define good art.
- Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996). The first landmark step in post-postmodern territory in which DFW bravely reassured us that it’s okay not to be hip and too-cool-for-school, and that perhaps seeking honest, authentic connections with other lonely human beings might not only make our lives happier but (even better than happiness) more meaningful.
- The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector (1977). There are two types of metafiction: 1) metafiction that mocks and abuses its genre to seem superior and smarter than other works within the genre, despite contributing no original ideas, and 2) metafiction that observes its form in good faith and with genuine curiosity, revitalizing its genre with a new, outside-the-box perspective. With The Hour of the Star, Lispector applies the second type of metafiction to the process of creative writing itself. (Emphasis on creative.)
- What the Butler Saw, Joe Orton (1969). This play renders gender and identity as superficially swappable as clothing, subjecting the characters to “accidental” incest in that witty, subversive way that only great English comedy, and maybe Looney Tunes, could pull off. And I guess I think that’s just really funny.
This list barely scratches the surface and completely neglects many of the classics (e.g., Moby-Dick, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Ulysses). As far as current authors go, I’ve listed two of my favorites — David Foster Wallace and Camille Paglia — and one of them is dead. Frankly, I think most current “popular” authors are shit, as today’s lit. scene prioritizes authors’ racial, gender, and sexual identities over their competence as writers. Poorly written books featuring woe-is-me solipsists receive praise simply on the basis of having a good “message”; and if you’re a book reviewer, you justify the poorly written aspects without compromising your credibility by saying clever things like, “This brilliant coming-of-age story boldly redefines the rules of literature…” Having said that, a few contemporary authors worth checking out: Cheryl Strayed, author of the autobiographical Wild; Susanna Sonnenberg, author of the controversial memoir Her Last Death; and William Finnegan, author of the surfing memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life. Haruki Murakami puts out interesting fiction. Cormac McCarthy might still qualify as current, despite his age.
And if you start with Cormac McCarthy, start with Blood Meridian. It’s a very funny book.