Creating Your Literary Foundation

Countless authors, regardless of bestselling status; regardless of traditional or self-published success; regardless of education; regardless of class, race, sex, or politics; will boil down the best writing advice you'll ever receive to - read, write, repeat

Truly, to understand the art of fiction, essay and memoir at its core; to write well; you must have an intense relationship with prose. Reading must be your true love; writing, your love letter.  

Recently, I received this question from a LitReactor:

What books/essays/etc. do you recommend I should read to create a solid literary foundation? What authors do you feel are notable?

Truly, to understand the art of fiction, essay and memoir at its core; to write well; you must have an intense relationship with prose. Reading must be your true love; writing, your love letter.

I was thrilled to receive this question because I'm most often asked, "Which books about writing do you suggest I read?", and that list is very short (see Anne Lamott, John Garnder and Stephen King). What works of literature do you recommend I read to create a solid literary foundation? What a gloriously open place to start an education!

I asked several of LitReactor's esteemed instructors, many of whom are notable authors, all of whom have contributed brilliantly to the literary landscape, to share the top three works that have shaped their literary foundations. The decision making was nearly impossible, but they managed to candidly contribute a meaty list to help any earnest student get started creating their literary foundation. 

Holiday Reinhorn

The short, discomfiting, empathic essays of Michel de Montaigne written so long ago about uncomfortable topics. My favorite: "Of A Monstrous Child," where the author sees a terribly disfigured child held in a mother's arms in a city park. Only a couple of paragraphs long, it is like being hit in the stomach.

Franz Kafka's, The Hunger Artist. If you want to write or approach the literary life, read this. Then go to Prague and see the room in which it was written. Nothing will be more clear to you then about a writers' life or more inspiring.

Kathy Dobie's incredible essay, "The Only Girl in The Car," which later became a book length manuscript, has very brave, sharp teeth. Her writing about female sexuality and her promiscuity in high school is a must-read. I go back to it again and again.

Ed Sikov

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce. You get the best of Joyce’s style and sensibility without having to plod through Ulysses. It’s a relatively easy read, and to be personal for a second, it changed my life by turning a series of words into - yes - an epiphany.

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. It’s so finely written; even in translation readers get a chance to see exquisite style put to the service of a deeply psychological character portrait. It was Flaubert's first novel, damn him.

Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov. Nothing else in American literature compares to it in terms of literary style. It treads on extremely dangerous ground in terms of its subject. It’s a phenomenally daring book that makes the rest of us look like pikers.

Suzy Vitello Soule

I keep a copy of Charles Baxter’s collection, Through the Safety Net handy whenever I need a primer for designing a short story. What he does masterfully is depict the rhythm of everyday life into which is thrown a crazy curve ball. He’s a master at planting the “what if” inside of the “what about.”

In the same vein, for the developing writer, any collection by Flannery O’Connor. Stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and “Everything That Rises Must Converge” are timeless in the way they illuminate the spectrum of humanity. For dialogue and internal monologue, for organic development of an action sequence, O’Connor is a must have on the shelf.

For the YA writer (or anyone who wants a great model for voice and authority), I say, go immediately to Laurie Halse Anderson’s Wintergirls. It’s a terrific model for “you can’t put it down” writing, as well as demonstrating use of language that doesn’t speak down to teens, and has plenty of muscle and musicality for any audience.

Lidia Yuknavitch

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Everything there is to the immersion experience into language, the body, poetics, and subjectivity in an American-made field of "I" dreams.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. The plight and struggle and joy and terror of the artist and his/her creation. 

The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Changes your understanding of the relationship between language, the body and desire, forever. Shows you how you can both participate in a literary tradition and bust out of it without apology.

Bree Ogden

Nick Hornby, How To Be Good. Nick Hornby has a way of taking a slice of life and making it subtly extraordinary. How To Be Good not only displays fantastic storytelling, sharp dialogue, unique characters, and fascinating narrative, but it does so in a way that you don't even realize it until the novel is over. That's not to say you'll think it's terrible up until the end. It's to say that Hornby is so subtle in his philosophies, morals, craziness, and humor. While reading, all you know is: something really great is happening right now. When it's over, you realize what that great thing is.

Chuck Klosterman, Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. A Low Culture Manifesto. It's my firm opinion (most likely because I have my masters in journalism) that you cannot and will not become a well-rounded writer if you do not read non-fiction, especially non-fiction essays in the vein of Klosterman, David Sedaris, and David Foster Wallace. Specifically with Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, I believe it's important to understand how the real human mind functions, not the fictional mind. To read Klosterman is to snuggle up inside the mind of an average journalist who writes about his average, albeit terrifyingly hilarious, musings. A writer needs this type of grasp on real humanity to write fiction.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince. Antoine is a philosophical bulldozer. Every one of his works will make you think for months and months after you've read. But Le Petit Prince is a must read for anyone aspiring to write for children. All the time, we hear editors and agents saying "don't talk down to children!" ...well, Antoine must have coined that phrase. On the surface, it's a lovely story about an alien prince who discovers/teaches others the meaning of life and love. Below the surface... I don't even have enough ink to write down all the lessons one can learn. This is a prime example of bringing important theme's into children's lives without overwhelming them with morals.


What about you? What works have created your literary foundation? 

Image of A Hunger Artist
Author: Franz Kafka
Price: $8.01
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 24 pages
Image of Madame Bovary (Penguin Classics)
Author: Gustave Flaubert
Price: $10.99
Publisher: Penguin Classics (2002)
Binding: Paperback, 384 pages
Image of Wintergirls
Author: Laurie Halse Anderson
Price: $5.72
Publisher: Speak (2010)
Binding: Paperback, 288 pages
Image of The Lover
Author: Marguerite Duras
Price: $11.06
Publisher: Pantheon (1998)
Binding: Paperback, 128 pages
Image of Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto
Author: Chuck Klosterman
Price: $11.18
Publisher: Scribner (2004)
Binding: Paperback, 272 pages
Erin Reel

Column by Erin Reel

Erin Reel is a Los Angeles based publishing and editorial consultant, writing coach, columnist, blog host of The Lit Coach's Guide to The Writer's Life and outspoken advocate for writers. A former literary agent with nearly 10 years in the industry, Erin has worked with a wide array of writers worldwide. She has contributed to Making The Perfect Pitch: How to Catch a Literary Agent's Eye (Sands, Watson-Guptil, 2004); and Author 101: Bestselling Secrets from Top Agents (Frishman & Spizman, Adams Media, 2005).

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Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading 'Echo Lake' by Letitia Trent October 18, 2012 - 5:09pm

Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov, by Dostoevsky. They've taught me that feelings of jealousy, anger, self-loathing, and insecurity are universal; that it's okay to plumb the depths of the worst aspects of ourselves in order to discover a kind of enlightenment and even transcendence. Of course Shakespeare does this as well, but not quite with the same howling nakedness about it.

Melville's Moby Dick, and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. I've said this before on a previous post (may have been the same one referenced above), but nothing gave me more confidence and permission to be both god and devil in the same work--that there are no limits to exploration, and that in fact, you have an obligation as a writer to gnaw off that umbilicus and look at the world both from above and below.

Dino Parenti's picture
Dino Parenti from Los Angeles is reading 'Echo Lake' by Letitia Trent October 18, 2012 - 5:11pm

Thank you, Erin, for compiling this list. There are certainly some books there I've never read and will now delve into Amazon to buy:)

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide October 18, 2012 - 5:27pm
  1. Edgar Allan Poe:  Anything and everything.  He is a masterful storyteller with a gift for making the macabre and grotesque sound beautiful and sublime.
  2. Bram Stoker: Dracula.
  3. Herman Melville: Moby Dick.
Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 18, 2012 - 5:37pm

Thanks for your worthy picks, Dino. I feel both overwhelmed and inspired by the mountain of reading I have in front of me. 

My top three picks are:

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer - Yes, it's OLD and hard to read but the bawdiness, form and symbolism are all so delicious. For any writer writing in the English language, this should be required reading. 

The Yellow Wallpaper, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - The ultimate seamless slip into madness...or is it. 

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie - Alexie is such a masterful storyteller. This guy makes you laugh, cry and fall in love in one sentence. Genius writer. 

Erin's picture
Erin from Omaha is reading manuscripts... October 18, 2012 - 5:40pm

Good picks, Christopher! 

EmLathrop's picture
EmLathrop from Iowa City, IA is reading Finnegans Wake October 18, 2012 - 6:58pm

Atonement- Ian McEwan- McEwan is a masterful writer and the characters, especially Briony, are some of the most memorable that I've encountered.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare- I received my first collection of Shakespeare's works as a Christmas present when I was seven years old and I haven't really stopped reading him since.

The Harry Potter Series--  The first book came out when I was six, it'd be foolish to say it hasn't influenced my literary foundation and life in general.

Wuthering Heights- Emily Bronte

 

 

kward's picture
kward from Alberta is reading Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn October 18, 2012 - 7:10pm

A total and complete NON-EXPERT's book recommendations for aspiring writers:

Nabokov's Lolita & McCarthy's The Road - For language.

Wallace's Infinite Jest - For imagination & rule-breaking.

DeLillo's White Noise - For writing that lives and breathes.

Palahnuik's Fight Club & Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea - For tough, terse, minimalist writing.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words October 18, 2012 - 8:50pm

had a thread about the "canon" a while back - not precisely the same thing, but nevertheless, an interesting discussion of influential and important works

 

Pearl Griffin_2's picture
Pearl Griffin_2 from Portland, Oregon is reading Les Miserables October 18, 2012 - 10:20pm

The Iliad and The Odyssy (as well as other works of Greek Lit): for heroic literary traditions, archetypes

Hamlet (and the rest of Shakespeare): for universal themes still permeating our culture today

Pride and Prejudice: for subtle satire, characters

Les Miserables: for grief and redemption

The Sparrow (by Mary Doria Russell): for alternate plot structure, characters

The Harry Potter series: for cultural influences on literacy, plot progression, and character development

The Enchantress of Florence (by Salman Rushdie): for some of the most beautiful language ever written

Tom1960's picture
Tom1960 from Athens, Georgia is reading 11/22/63 By Stephen King October 19, 2012 - 9:25am

Off the top of my head the works that comprise the cornerstones of my literary foundation are:

 

Wise Blood by Flannery O'connor.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Underworld by Don Delillo

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

 

Flybywrite's picture
Flybywrite from Rocky Point, Long Island is reading The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, by Stephen Crane October 19, 2012 - 11:09am

Thank you for this idea of creating your own literary foundation, Erin, and for gathering it together here.  It's sent me right back into a review class for a top three, and then there's the sense of all the other possible top threes hovering around.  Including the longer of my two booklists one's I haven't read yet, including a couple described above

So I've got to go with my first three impressions, and then struggle to be succinct in describing why they are three of my favorite books.

Light in August,  by William Faulkner came to mind.  It moves through real time, maybe (?) a little faster than a lot of his stuff.  The story is a shadow-world all through, though,a frightening dreamscape end to end, like a dark, dark thing with tentacles all over the place.  It's protagonist is a black man with a "dangerous looking streak" of the non-conformity about him, and enough so that right there smack in the middle of good-old-boy-ville he becomes involved with the elderly widow who is his plantation owner.  So then I won't ruin it, but there is this relentless sheriff who begins a pursuit that ends in one of the scariest scenes I've ever read, It made me want to just cross my legs and hide down a hole, and was such a crazily well-written scene, as I recall it anyway, with all the previous situations inner workings gathered around the horror and implied or described to boot.  So yeah, Light in August: go get it.   

The Diary of the Seducer by Soren Kierkegaard  is as frightening, I think, but in a much different way.  Just the fact that seducer and diary are in the title, suggests that those extremes of objectivity that cause a man to look at a woman like she's a box full of toys, are in play.  And are they ever.  The seducer's name is Johannes.  Johannes's diary has been discovered and publicly illuminated by a great admirer of its thought, known simply as A, shorthand for -aesthetically driven. The poetry in the book, by which Johannes describes women, and the various permutations of his obsessive studying of them as a subject, as he scrutinizes and closes in on his particular target, (Cordelia) is truly astounding. He sees her as merely the latest embodiment of the exciting and worthy subject under his epicurean microscope, and plays her to her like a bow across his fiddle, So, a work that acknowledged the chameleon version of a primal evil or spiritual mistake, to understand the other sex as an object to be conquered, taken from, and then disposed of, was a brand new thing then.  It was the only long novella or short novel or novel like thing that Kierkegaard wrote.  But because he was primarily, there's a consensus of thought one of the most brillinat philosophers that ever lived, it was brand new and much different in another way, too. As an elaborate, philosophical/spiritual diagnosis of the rampaging disease, in men primarily in this book, but women alike, of situational and aesthetically driven, "romantic" conquerings, usages and disposals.

   I consider Johannes to be a precursor to charmingly sophisticated romantics such as Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter.  I never cease to be intrigued by Valdimir Nabakov's sharing that he got the seed for Lolita by staring at an aged gorilla in a cage.  And then the next thing you know there's James Mason trapped in that house with Shelly Winters and Sue Lyon, until she gets nailed by that car after reading about what a stupid cow she is and the gorilla is sprung.  Anyway, I do go on too long.

So, yeah, Diary of the Seducer to be found imbedded in Soren Kierkegaard's first major philosophical collection Either/Or: so throw on some itching powder, sprint to a bookstore, and purchase it.

 

Last but not least I'm going to cheat.  There's this trilogy used to be out, but who knows if its gone or still in print, that includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Robert Louis Steph(sp?)enson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  There's just all these whackily wild things between good and evil and especially as it pertains to sexuality coming to life in the world for the first time, and these are all written around the same time of a few decades later as the above mentioned Johannes.

So yeah, they're all such entertaining as well as powerful expressions of this newborn subject, that why not take the day off and scream right into a bookstore feeling sexually horrified, and see if this particular trilogy is still for sale?  

Thank you for this format and the above reading suggestions.  It was fun.  Rx, Flyby

Flybywrite's picture
Flybywrite from Rocky Point, Long Island is reading The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky, by Stephen Crane October 19, 2012 - 11:09am

Thank you for this idea of creating your own literary foundation, Erin, and for gathering it together here.  It's sent me right back into a review class for a top three, and then there's the sense of all the other possible top threes hovering around.  Including the longer of my two booklists one's I haven't read yet, including a couple described above

So I've got to go with my first three impressions, and then struggle to be succinct in describing why they are three of my favorite books.

Light in August,  by William Faulkner came to mind.  It moves through real time, maybe (?) a little faster than a lot of his stuff.  The story is a shadow-world all through, though,a frightening dreamscape end to end, like a dark, dark thing with tentacles all over the place.  It's protagonist is a black man with a "dangerous looking streak" of the non-conformity about him, and enough so that right there smack in the middle of good-old-boy-ville he becomes involved with the elderly widow who is his plantation owner.  So then I won't ruin it, but there is this relentless sheriff who begins a pursuit that ends in one of the scariest scenes I've ever read, It made me want to just cross my legs and hide down a hole, and was such a crazily well-written scene, as I recall it anyway, with all the previous situations inner workings gathered around the horror and implied or described to boot.  So yeah, Light in August: go get it.   

The Diary of the Seducer by Soren Kierkegaard  is as frightening, I think, but in a much different way.  Just the fact that seducer and diary are in the title, suggests that those extremes of objectivity that cause a man to look at a woman like she's a box full of toys, are in play.  And are they ever.  The seducer's name is Johannes.  Johannes's diary has been discovered and publicly illuminated by a great admirer of its thought, known simply as A, shorthand for -aesthetically driven. The poetry in the book, by which Johannes describes women, and the various permutations of his obsessive studying of them as a subject, as he scrutinizes and closes in on his particular target, (Cordelia) is truly astounding. He sees her as merely the latest embodiment of the exciting and worthy subject under his epicurean microscope, and plays her to her like a bow across his fiddle, So, a work that acknowledged the chameleon version of a primal evil or spiritual mistake, to understand the other sex as an object to be conquered, taken from, and then disposed of, was a brand new thing then.  It was the only long novella or short novel or novel like thing that Kierkegaard wrote.  But because he was primarily, there's a consensus of thought one of the most brillinat philosophers that ever lived, it was brand new and much different in another way, too. As an elaborate, philosophical/spiritual diagnosis of the rampaging disease, in men primarily in this book, but women alike, of situational and aesthetically driven, "romantic" conquerings, usages and disposals.

   I consider Johannes to be a precursor to charmingly sophisticated romantics such as Humbert Humbert and Hannibal Lecter.  I never cease to be intrigued by Valdimir Nabakov's sharing that he got the seed for Lolita by staring at an aged gorilla in a cage.  And then the next thing you know there's James Mason trapped in that house with Shelly Winters and Sue Lyon, until she gets nailed by that car after reading about what a stupid cow she is and the gorilla is sprung.  Anyway, I do go on too long.

So, yeah, Diary of the Seducer to be found imbedded in Soren Kierkegaard's first major philosophical collection Either/Or: so throw on some itching powder, sprint to a bookstore, and purchase it.

 

Last but not least I'm going to cheat.  There's this trilogy used to be out, but who knows if its gone or still in print, that includes Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, and Robert Louis Steph(sp?)enson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  There's just all these whackily wild things between good and evil and especially as it pertains to sexuality coming to life in the world for the first time, and these are all written around the same time of a few decades later as the above mentioned Johannes.

So yeah, they're all such entertaining as well as powerful expressions of this newborn subject, that why not take the day off and scream right into a bookstore feeling sexually horrified, and see if this particular trilogy is still for sale?  

Thank you for this format and the above reading suggestions.  It was fun.  Rx, Flyby

Christopher Provost's picture
Christopher Provost from Nashua, New Hampshire is reading The Zombie Survival Guide October 19, 2012 - 12:23pm

I love these lists because I always get new recommendations that I haven't read yet.  That being said, they are really an exercise in mental masturbation.  There is no true "canon" as postpomo alluded to.  Absolutely, Shakespeare, Homer, and Chaucer should be read in my opinion, but so should Vonnegut, Ellison, Faulkner, and many others that weren't even mentioned (Hemingway anyone?).  And what about a tome that almost all authors from Milton to Meyers have probably read (or at least perused) - Bullfinch's Mythology?  It's about finding what's good and what works by trial and error.  Obviously there are some time-honored standouts, but there will always be fresh and original things written as long as people write.

Shea's picture
Shea from Ontario, Canada is reading The Eagle of the Ninth October 20, 2012 - 12:22pm

Great lists!

Two short works that stand out in my mind are:

Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" because I admire his "sneak attack" approach to satire.

and Sinclair Ross' "The Lamp at Noon" for the vivid imagery, symbolism, and powerful setting. 

I have to agree with Christopher, Poe and Hemmingway, surely deserve a spot on the list.

eirikodin's picture
eirikodin from Auburn, NY is reading Mediterranean Caper by Clive Cussler October 21, 2012 - 10:34pm

I'd say a few that stand out to me are:

Chasm City by Alastair Reynolds.  A good definition of a determined character.

Keep The Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell.  For showing us how to fully flush your life down the toilet and how hard it is to accomplish a dream.

Kurt Vonnegut for writing so casually and making everyday life into a comically unexpected misadventure.  

Other notable mentions for me would be Stephen King, Mark Twain, Mark Danielewski.  Many more I'd like to list, but I'll leave it at that.