Columns > Published on October 18th, 2012

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? 

About the author

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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