Yesterday Cornelia Dolian (@cldolian) asked “which 5 – 10 works of fiction would you cite as necessary reading for writers?” What a delicious question!
I love this question because there’s really no wrong answer, and it is like a Rorschach test for writers. What you see in the question depends on you– what you like to read, what you like to write, what you aspire to do with your writing. I’m currently writing a middle-grade novel and I find that shapes my answer.
When I read the question I immediately thought of formative books from my childhood– the books that made me want to be a writer because they jump-started my imagination and made me feel like there were amazing worlds out there to be discovered and experienced in books. I could probably come up with a long list, but these four books are the first ones that came to mind– the first and the truest, maybe.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (1963) – Because I could imagine being Meg Murray; because one of the trio of women (like the Fates!) who visit Meg turns out to have been a star; because the thing that heals and saves these characters is love.
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950) – A door to another world at the back of a wardrobe full of boring old coats– who could resist?
The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937) – Even though there weren’t really any female characters, I was along for the ride; Tolkien’s world was so big, so full of unexpected creatures and events that I just invented a character for myself.
Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964) – Harriet is nosy and says mean things about people in her notebook. She’s almost an anti-hero. But I loved her for her curiosity, for her writing zeal, and for her bravery. Even when the worst happens, she doesn’t quit writing.
Then there are the books that I read over and over when I got a bit older; they’re not for children. Something about them– the story, the characters, the imagined world– obsessed me and I could not leave them alone. These books scared me and changed me, and I keep going back to them.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) – For me, the pull of this book was as much about the characters as it was about the world. Our world turned wrong. I read an interview with Margaret Atwood where she said that everything in the book was something that had happened somewhere, at some moment in history. Do you have chills down your spine yet?
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (1992) – On the very first page you know there’s a murder, and you know who did it. Then you have to know why. When you find out why, you are stunned and fascinated.
Even though I’m writing for children, I’d like to carry some of that strangeness and darkness into my work.
So that’s my list. I’m not sure that this list will help anybody be a better writer, except me. Maybe the key is just to keep looking for the books that delight or obsess you, and then figure out what you can learn from them.