Fiction for Dummies
October 5, 2009 4:47 PM   Subscribe

I am a non-fiction writer but have not read a fiction book since high school. What great fiction books will improve my writing?

I am a researcher and write more than 4000 word a week for work. People often comment that I write well.

I read around 50 non-fiction books a year (plus hundreds of journal articles) but I have not read fiction in twenty years.

People tell me fiction has some of the most moving and beautiful prose. I am interested in reading some great works of fiction to help push my own writing to the next level.

Have any suggestions? Assume I have not read any fiction.

Bonus points for audiobooks I can listen to while I run.
posted by Spurious to Work & Money (34 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Lolita. Never look back.
posted by zoomorphic at 4:52 PM on October 5, 2009 [3 favorites]

L'Assomoir (Zola)
Nana (Zola)
Of Mice and Men (Steinbeck)
Wind up Bird Chronicle (Murakami)
Zazie Dans Le Metro (Queneau)
Blindness (Saramago)
The Recognitions (Gaddis)
The Man Without Qualities (Musil)
Wonder Boys (Chabon)
Platform (Houellebecq)
Good Morning, Midnight (Rhys)
Ring of Bright Water (Maxwell)
posted by fire&wings at 5:01 PM on October 5, 2009

If you're interested in short stories as well as novels, I cannot recommend James Joyce's Dubliners highly enough. Do not let Joyce's rather complex reputation for being unreadable dissuade you; his prose in Dubliners is as spare and clear as it is elegant and moving. "The Dead" is widely considered among the very greatest short stories in English for good reason, as the final three paragraphs alone will attest.

Also, Joseph Conrad's novella Heart of Darkness is extraordinary, particularly when you consider that English was actually Conrad's third language.
posted by scody at 5:13 PM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian is a tour de force, but Post Captain is one of the wittiest (and funniest) books I have ever read.

O'Brian is an amazing prose stylist, but it's also amazing how much information he leaves out of the narrative, allowing the reader him or herself work it out (thus saving a lot of space).

Ernest Hemingway is also the master prose stylist of the 20th Century, and is a must-read for any writer.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:18 PM on October 5, 2009

Life and Times of Michael K (Koetze)
posted by kylej at 5:26 PM on October 5, 2009

Ernest Hemingway is also the master prose stylist of the 20th Century, and is a must-read for any writer.

Totally disagree, unless you're talking about journalist syntax, but I am not wildly fond of Hemingway, who is arguably the anti-Nabokov and far more concise and dry rather than lyrical, "beautiful and moving." Walking home alone in the rain after watching ants walk into the fire is, uhm, cinematic, I suppose, but the actual prose is very plain and forthright.

I digress. Other beautiful and moving material:

God of Small Things
Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Midnight's Children
Autobiography of Red
Ada or Ardor
posted by zoomorphic at 5:44 PM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

Interpreter of Maladies = exquisite short fiction written within the last ten years. She writes with an effortless precision that will leave you in both in awe and inspired.
posted by alms at 5:47 PM on October 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

The answers so far run the gamut. The Heart of Darkness is filled with impressive imagery, but I found it unreadable. Hemingway's writing is amazingly plain and easy to read but somehow rises above that seeming simplicity and makes for incredible storytelling. Most people who like one, don't enjoy the other.

My suggestions would be The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. They are very different, but both are amazing books.
posted by thekiltedwonder at 5:54 PM on October 5, 2009

There are many ways in which writing can be good, even within fiction or nonfiction. For example, of those suggested here, Nabokov and Coetzee are both great stylists, but in completely different ways--they're both good at what they do, but they're not doing the same thing. If you're reading to improve your writing, you should look for writers who are effective at the kind of writing you want to do. (Obviously, if you write academic papers, don't use what you learned from Lolita or Heart of Darkness!)

What kind of writing do you want to do? Are you looking for fiction that will help you improve your nonfiction writing? If you want to write better nonfiction, maybe some literary nonfiction would help you more--there are definitely nonfiction writers of all kinds with "moving and beautiful prose". Or maybe you want to learn fiction writing, in which case well-written fiction makes sense. (If you just want to start reading fiction, that's another matter; you could just read what you enjoy.)

I think you're in for another Favorite Books Filter unless you can be more specific. (But maybe that's actually what you want; it's hard to tell.)
posted by k. at 6:06 PM on October 5, 2009

One of my favorite authors is Tom Robbins, who has an interesting approach to fiction writing : he writes one sentence at a time, sometimes sticking with it for days, and once he moves on to a new sentence, he will not go back and change the previous one.

Another interesting choice is David Foster Wallace, who throws in all sorts of odd abbreviations, footnotes, and other flourishes. He's also got a few collections of essays and non-fic articles published, so it is possible you've read something from him.
posted by mannequito at 6:28 PM on October 5, 2009

God of Small Things
Midnight's Children

I'll second these and add Michael Ondaatje's poetry and his The English Patient (the book, not the movie). Also check out George Orwell's fiction.
posted by neuron at 6:47 PM on October 5, 2009

Well, an obvious nth for Nabokov.

But I really cannot recommend DAVID FOSTER WALLACE ENOUGH. I try to avoid superlatives, but it really is my opinion that he is, er, was (sadly), the greatest writer of our time. Start with Infinite Jest. Oh, and he is an incredible non-fiction essayist as well.
posted by Lutoslawski at 7:00 PM on October 5, 2009

Check out Isak Dinesen (pen name of Karen Blixen)--very lovely, haunting prose. Wrote "Seven Gothic Tales", "Winter's Tales", "Out of Africa"

Also, for beautiful prose, I don't think you can beat John Crowley ("Little, Big") and Mark Helprin ("Winter's Tale", and "A Soldier of the Great War"
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:13 PM on October 5, 2009

Nthing David Foster Wallace also. Infinite Jest is incredible.
posted by pushing paper and bottoming chairs at 7:14 PM on October 5, 2009

Raymond Chandler! Farewell My Lovely or The Big Sleep. Lyrical! Awesome.
posted by xmutex at 7:18 PM on October 5, 2009

If a novel sounds daunting, there's a lot of great recommendations in this short story thread. In fact, go read The Swimmer right now.
posted by oinopaponton at 7:27 PM on October 5, 2009

Some fiction recommendations:

East of Eden, John Steinbeck
For Whom The Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway
All The Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon
The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
The World According to Garp, John Irving
A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry
The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood

And really, if you haven't read any fiction at all, ever:
To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger

Seconding Midnight's Children, The English Patient, Isek Dinesen and really, any Hemingway or Steinbeck. And Michael Chabon is my favorite among modern writers. Some more details would help, though. Are you looking for examples of beautiful prose or of great stories? Or authors known for creativity and interesting characters?
posted by emd3737 at 7:58 PM on October 5, 2009

The late, great Arthur C. Clarke wrote prose that reads like poetry. I'm always amazed by how he used the language simply yet made it flow. The Songs of Distant Earth is perhaps his finest work in these terms.
posted by bryon at 8:18 PM on October 5, 2009

read anything Jim Crace has ever written. Period. Start with Quarantine.

If you still want to write, you will at least know the highest bar attainable in printed form.

It's good to have goals.
posted by Lipstick Thespian at 8:45 PM on October 5, 2009

Seconding Catcher In The Rye.
Adding in The Secret History by Donna Tartt.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:52 PM on October 5, 2009

Second, triple, quadruple the Lolita suggestion. Beautiful writing.

Also second The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
posted by problemcat at 9:58 PM on October 5, 2009

Personally I couldn't finish Lolita, I got so bored about halfway through. Different strokes...

White Noise by Don Delillo is my idea of amazing. I've read it about 4 times. Everyone I know who's read it loved it too...

I just read The Secret History by Donna Tartt and found it RIVETING!

Also JANE AUSTEN! Pride and Prejudice, Emma or Mansfield Park.

for free audiobook downloads, go to - they have nearly everything that's past copyright.
posted by beccyjoe at 10:22 PM on October 5, 2009

Nthing Midnight's Children, Infinite Jest and White Noise. Also, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, and The Plague by Albert Camus.
posted by torquemaniac at 11:03 PM on October 5, 2009

I'm with scody. Dubliners contains some of the sparest, most beautiful and unshowy English prose ever written. What you will encounter there is a genius in full control of his materials.

And it won't look anything like you expected.
posted by Wolof at 11:06 PM on October 5, 2009

If you've never read fiction before I would want to know more about you before recommending anything. Since I don't, I'll suggested fiveseven disparate, good books. The last two are not as 'easy' to read as the first five and Faulkner might not work at all as an audio book. I'd be interested to in an update, to know what of all the suggestions you've received, you liked.

Beloved Toni Morrison

The Big Sleep Raymond Chandler

Breakfast at Tiffany's Truman Capote

Villette Charlotte Bronte

The Great Man Kate Cristensen

The Sound and The Fury William Faulkner

To the Lighthouse Virginia Woolf
posted by From Bklyn at 11:41 PM on October 5, 2009

If you are writing non-fiction and want to improve your style, I highly, highly recommend Dorothy Dunnett's The Lymond Chronicles. Her stories are swashbuckling high-fiction-in-its-finest-form, but the amount of research she did renders them a history lesson as well.

Her writing is an excellent example of how you can combine sheer joy in the pleasure of words with the imparting of important information.
posted by WidgetAlley at 2:15 AM on October 6, 2009

Anything by Anton Chekhov.
posted by homuncula at 7:13 AM on October 6, 2009

You could also try cherry-picking your way through the University of Chicago's Great Books curriculum (I believe it has been reimagined as "Great Ideas") but they have a fairly comprehensive list of what is (or was) considered to be the best of Western Civilization.
posted by nax at 7:13 AM on October 6, 2009

Raymond Carver wrote incredible short fiction. I think a Collected Fiction book was just released.

Paul Theroux (who also writes a lot of travel non-fiction) is a master of describing setting.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:32 AM on October 6, 2009

Chekov and Carver will help your writing.
posted by KokuRyu at 9:12 AM on October 6, 2009

I was pretty taken with A. S. Byatt's Possession.
posted by kristi at 5:02 PM on October 6, 2009

Wow, I feel uncultured after reading all of these responses. I'm a genre fiction reader.

Tad Williams writes incredibly flowery prose that you get sick of after a few hundred pages.

George R. R. Martin is an ex-editor, and it shows. Love his writing. Hate his stories.
posted by heatherfl at 10:05 AM on October 7, 2009

Two absolutely, stunningly brilliant works jump into my head immediately: "Ada, or Ardor" by Vladimir Nabokov (yes, I'm third-ing him at this point) and "The Enormous Room" by ee cummings. Another author, whom I somehow feel that a journal reader might find congenial, is Tom Wolfe. Check out "Bonfire of the Vanities" for an example of dead-on social commentary incorporated into fiction. Best of luck and I hope this helps!
posted by lucky25 at 9:30 PM on October 13, 2009

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