Literary Fireworks

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Happy July 4th a day early, everyone! And to our Canadian friends, Happy Canada Day two days late! Camp NaNo has started up again (there are sessions in both April and July), and if you haven’t signed up and started your writing project, you should go do that right now! It’s good fun, and it’s a good way to keep yourself from getting lazy in the summer. I mean, come on—it’s hot outside. You know you were just going to stay inside in the air conditioning anyway. You might as well write a novel while you’re there.

Thinking of writing and Independence Day (the actual holiday, not the movie), we decided to come up with a list of our top ten favorite and most influential American literary works. These are the novels, nonfiction, short stories, and plays that we read over and over, and use as points of reference in our own discussions of how to write well.

Here they are, alphabetical by author, because it would just be cruel to expect us to rank them:

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Edward Albee
Snap went the dragons! We quote this one all the time. It’s probably one of the most enjoyably quotable plays ever written. It’s our reference point for snappy, well-timed dialog. Also, believe it or not, watching the movie version of this on VHS was our first date.

“Sonny’s Blues” James Baldwin
“For, while the tale of how we suffer, and how we are delighted, and how we may triumph is never new, it always must be heard. There isn’t any other tale to tell, it’s the only light we’ve got in all this darkness.” Baldwin’s masterful short story of jazz, addiction, loss, and family hasn’t lost a beat of its meaning. Even while feeling of its era, it has a timeless quality to strive for.

The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald
Poor Gatsby. His name has become a sort of shorthand for a certain kind of striving character who doesn’t realize that he’ll never quite fit in and who, invariably, has to die by the end. Stringer Bell from The Wire, for example, or a certain character from our Quartet who is far more morally admirable, but ultimately just as doomed.

A Farewell to Arms Ernest Hemingway
Love and war have rarely felt so real and visceral. Hemingway’s sparse prose isn’t up everyone’s alley (heck, it isn’t always up ours), but this novel couldn’t be written any other way. Propulsive and emotional, this novel is great for studying pace and structure.

A Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
As we’ve mentioned before, George R. R. Martin is an absolute master of POV. Even if you think a character is irredeemable, once you see the world from his perspective, you understand and sympathize with him.

Long Day’s Journey into Night Eugene O’Neill
Gun to head, if asked to name American’s greatest writer, I (S) would answer Eugene O’Neill. No family is a bigger, more compelling mess than the Tyrones, and while each character is amazing on their own, there are endless lessons to be learned in how people who know each other too well interact. On top of it all, every line sings. “Stammering is the native eloquence of us fog people.”

The Name of the Wind Patrick Rothfuss
Prose as beautiful as any literary novel and worldbuilding to stand with the absolute best in fantasy, the tale of Kvothe, in the frame story and the past, is a masterful mix of mystery, humor, and just damned good storytelling. Watching Rothfuss layer the present, history, and myth is precisely the sort of thing we strive for in our most epic books. Is it Day 3 yet?

The Killer Angels Michael Shaara
Reading this is how we learned how to write battle scenes, basically. Also, it’s an excellent lesson in how to create sympathy for characters on both sides of the conflict, and how to create tension and drama even when the reader knows darn well how it’s all going to end.

The Guns of August Barbara Tuchman
Again, as with The Killer Angels, the outcome is never in doubt. But it’s a fascinating, page-turning read about how that outcome came to be. We drew a lot from this book about the start of World War I when we were writing the start of the war in the first book of the Quartet.

House of Mirth Edith Wharton
Is Lily Bart the female precursor to the likes of Jay Gatsby and Clyde Griffiths? We think she is. An American Anna Karenina, her fate seems so depressingly certain from the beginning, yet it’s a challenge to maintain a dry eye at the end. A challenge we happily lose. It’s the sort of focused character study I (S) am trying to tackle right now in my first modern, non-fantasy novel.

Honorable Mentions
In Cold Blood Truman Capote
As readable as any novel, Capote’s nonfiction gem is a lesson in understanding human beings. Or at least trying to.

Death Comes for the Archbishop Willa Cather
Such a simple tale of a man literally with a mission, the writing is just gorgeous. It’s also a brilliant example of great archetypal storytelling, which I (S) would love to try some day.

An American Tragedy Theodore Dreiser
To be blunt, if it weren’t for how the story gets really bogged down late at the trial, this one might have merited more than just an honorable mention. Even with that pacing issue, Clyde Griffiths’s attempts to find a better life, to get a little bit of the American Dream, is a heartbreaking character study about how striving can go terribly wrong.

Billy Budd Herman Melville
When I (J) was in law school, I took a seminar on “Theories of Justice” where we read this book. It’s a fascinating study in character and motivation. Like The Guns of August on a much smaller scale, it shows people being driven toward a tragic end that virtually no one actually wanted. That sort of tragic inevitability is something we’ve tried to show in a number of our books, particularly the third book of the Quartet.

Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell
We’ve been rereading this one recently for S’s book club, so it’s been on our minds a lot. It’s hugely problematic for a variety of reasons, but it’s great for showing how to keep a romance going on the page when the couple are apart for most of the book. And it’s a masterclass in how to make a heroine sympathetic, even when she’s often not especially likable.

J and S

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