There’s an extensive reading list of novels, plays, and poems in How to Read Literature Like a Professor, and a list of important books and essays about the novel form in How to Read Novels Like a Professor, not to mention a list of more than twenty-five in Twenty-five Books that Shaped America, so I won’t reprise those here. I thought, however, you might enjoy some thoughts on what I’ve been reading and what I’m thinking about novels and poetry these days. Here’s a list of writers and books that have been on my mind recently.
David Markson, The Last Novel (2007). This late writer is one of the hidden national treasures, and maybe the only American practitioner of the French New Novel. From Wittgenstein’s Mistress through Reader’s Block forward, he’s written these beautiful and sometimes alarming novels made of little pieces, sometimes just a paragraph or two, sometimes as much as a few pages. He doesn’t so much plot novels as allow a pattern to emerge, and the process is fascinating, mostly because he’s so wonderful with language. He was never going to be the flavor of the month, but he deserves a wider audience.
Louise Erdrich—pick a novel. There have been a lot of terrific Native American novelists in the last thirty years or so—N. Scott Momaday, James Welch, Leslie Marmon Silko, the always strange Gerald Vizenour, Michael Dorris—but perhaps none has had more success than Erdrich. Starting with Love Medicine (1984), she has commanded a national audience, quickly finding her way onto bestseller lists and academic syllabi, especially for her Kashpaw-Nanapush cycle. Her novels are typically composed of short stories linked by subject matter, theme, or time-frame, but they hold together as unified works. She’s probably more like William Faulkner than any recent writer. My favorites, in addition to that first one, are Tracks (1988) and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little-No-Horse (2001), although I admit some of my fondness may be just for the title. I’m always looking forward to her next novel.
Julian Barnes—I thought I knew all of Barnes’s tricks, until I read Arthur and George (2005), about a real-life incident when Arthur Conan Doyle turned detective to right an injustice. This novel convinced me that his irony, metafictional turns, and blending of tragedy and comedy have much greater range and potential than I had seen in his earlier novels, which I had liked a lot in any case.
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (2004). How a comparatively slight novel (256 pages) set on the prairie in 1956 can capture so much of the American experience, or how a work with so much religious content can attract such a wide secular audience, I don’t know. Take them as miracles of the novel.
Jane Smiley—Ten Days in the Hills (2006). So who knew you could update Boccaccio’s Decameron? Smiley has taken the concept—ten people, ten days and nights, lots of opportunities for telling stories, lots of sex—and moved it from medieval Florence during an outbreak of plague to contemporary Hollywood during the first days of the invasion of Iraq. Profound, silly, sexy, touching, comic, interesting. And if it causes one person to go encounter the original, that would be great. Quite a departure from her reworking of King Lear in her 1992 Pulitzer-winning A Thousand Acres.
Roddy Doyle—I’ve been a fan since the first of the Barrytown Trilogy, The Commitments (1987). Who could resist the idea of a Dublin soul band? The four novels about the large and erratic Rabbitte clan are hilarious and touching, mostly because they family members are. Doyle invents fabulous characters, and my personal favorite is Henry Smart, the starring attraction of A Star Called Henry (1999), Oh, Play That Thing! (2004), and The Dead Republic (2010). A brilliant creation with a wonderful narrative voice, Henry allows Doyle to explore both Irish history, especially the birth pains of the creation of the Free State, and Irish-American history, when the character is forced to cross the water in order to save his life.
Edward P. Jones—The Known World (2003) won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for its depiction of the complexities of slavery, including but not limited to the phenomenon of slave-owning free blacks. It’s a powerful and harrowing book, worthy of every accolade it received.
Seamus Heaney—District and Circle (2006). Hang around me for a while and you’ll probably get sick of hearing about Heaney. Forty years after his first book of poetry, he continued right up until his death to grow and change and yet stay remarkably consistent. No one ever wrote better English lines.
Some New(er) Voices
I really admire the great modernist and postmodernist writers whom I studied and taught for many years. I’ll never stop reading Joyce and Faulkner and Woolf and Wolfe and Fowles and Murdoch and Hemingway and Yeats and Frost and all the rest. In fact, I just recently started reading the newer translations of Proust’s masterpiece (which is going to take a bit to get through all seven books). I hope you’ll read them, too. Or reread them, which is where the real joy comes in. But I’ve been branching out, so I wanted to share a few younger (read, still breathing) writers with you.
Helen Oyeyemi—I sort of stumbled across her work with Mr. Fox (2012) and then Boy, Snow, Bird (2015). She mixes realism and the fantastic, the novel and the fairytale brilliantly and has many more really accomplished novels than is fair in one still so young. There’s an element in her, for all her outward differences, that makes me think of the early John Fowles. Plus, I really love saying her name.
Adam Foulds—I didn’t even know I cared about peasant poet John Clare until reading The Quickening Maze (2010). Foulds captures the minds and speech-patterns of a kaleidoscopic cast ranging from Gypsies to a young Alfred Tennyson. His recent In the Wolf’s Mouth (2014), about the Allied push through North Africa and Sicily in WWII, has received much praise. Not bad for someone born almost fifty years after the last battle. I’ve not seen it yet, but it’s high up on the list.
Jess Walter—Beautiful Ruins (2013) is a hilarious satire of Hollywood in its heyday and a heartbreaking tale of emotional loss. Nice work if you can get it. His depiction of people on the fringes of the train-wreck that was Cleopatra is all by itself worth the price of admission. Walter has a number of novels, with The Financial Lives of the Poets (2010) perhaps best known.
Amanda Coplin—yes, The Orchardist (2013) really is as good as you’ve heard. A powerful evocation of a time and a way of life long gone, it also captures the timelessness of interpersonal difficulties and the struggle to be good.
More, More, More These are not all the great younger writers out there, of course, but they stand as examples of what you can find if you get beyond the standard syllabus writers.