words, words, words, words
February 21, 2011 7:36 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to read some sharp, simple fiction writing to improve my academic essays -- what would I like?

I tend to gravitate towards reading fiction that is dreamy and tinged with the surreal (some of my favorites include Murakami, Borges, Calvino, Eco, Marilynne Robinson). But these types of books often share an ornate, dreamy prose style and I find my academic writing getting too flowery and loose. I'd like to read some novels that feature very sharp and direct language (especially sentence structure), on the hopes that it will trickle down to my own writing. What writers have the best simple but powerful prose?

I'm pretty open to anything, though I prefer capital-L Literature to airport novels, regular fiction to genre, and don't go in too much for the super-macho (though I know Hemingway is often suggested in cases like this, and he's on my list to try). Kindle downloads would be ideal.
posted by EmilyFlew to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I've always loved Raymond Carver. He may be a bit macho on the surface, but he's always struck me as tender at his core.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 7:40 PM on February 21, 2011

Hemingway is an obvious choice.
posted by smithsmith at 7:49 PM on February 21, 2011

Woops, apologies, missed that recommendation in your question. But while I'm reposting Franz Kafka is incredibly economical with his prose.
posted by smithsmith at 7:51 PM on February 21, 2011

George Orwell, EB White.
posted by availablelight at 7:53 PM on February 21, 2011

Rather than fiction, I'd suggest Joseph Mitchell and Joh McPhee as masters of the plain style.
posted by Ideefixe at 8:05 PM on February 21, 2011

Anything by Robert Coover. I tend to prefer his short stories, but he's amazing. "The Babysitter" is probably the only short story that I've read annually for a decade or two.
posted by cjorgensen at 8:18 PM on February 21, 2011

Joan Didion. She has the benefit of writing in sharp, economical language in both fiction and non-fiction, so you get a nice sense of how it works in both forms. My personal favorite novel of hers is The Last Thing He Wanted, but Play It As It Lays is the "classic." Taken as a whole, her most astonishing book (for me) is Salvador.
posted by mykescipark at 8:22 PM on February 21, 2011

Carver and Hemingway
posted by backwards guitar at 8:25 PM on February 21, 2011

I'm going to suggest a book that I really like that I think meets your parameters: Futures from Nature, 100 speculative fictions.

Why? These are a collection of short stories that were published in the science journal Nature, and authors include journalists, scientists, and a few well-known scifi authors (e.g. Greg Bear, Arthur C Clarke). They are short so they don't go on and on for no point (i.e. direct language), most of the stories that I've read are not out there in terms of the material (some scifi authors forget the "science" part of science fiction ,and I can't stand that but that is my parameter, not yours), and I think the ones that I've read are very well written. You have a collection fo stories to pick from and it is also available in a kindle version.

Definitely not an airport novel, although it does hit a genre.
posted by Wolfster at 8:34 PM on February 21, 2011

J.M. Coetzee - never wastes any words.

Anne Carson - mainly a poet, but her essays make academic precision sound beautiful in a surprising way. For short samples, check out the prefaces to Autobiography of Red (a novel) and Grief Lessons (a translation of Euripides) -- but those are not quite academic, especially the latter.
posted by Chicken Boolean at 8:59 PM on February 21, 2011

Kurt Vonnegut, definitely. I think Elmore Leonard is known for this sort of prose style as well, but I've never read him, so I can't be totally sure.
posted by mellifluous at 9:00 PM on February 21, 2011

maybe Cormac McCarthy?
posted by gnutron at 9:36 PM on February 21, 2011

Seconding Didion, Mitchell, and Orwell. Didion's non-fiction pieces might be the best of these for your purposes. Orwell and E.B. White for writing on style itself.

I'm not sure Ray Carver fits the bill. He can get pretty lyrical in his sparseness.

But you'd probably be better off reading non-literary non-fiction if you're trying to make your academic writing less literary.
posted by pynchonesque at 10:09 PM on February 21, 2011

Bukowski. Twain. Sedaris. Sturgeon. And, yes, Vonnegut, definitely.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:26 AM on February 22, 2011

*Bukowski is a bit on the super-macho side. Super-duper, even. But still!
posted by Sys Rq at 12:28 AM on February 22, 2011

n'thing Orwell. Real name Eric Blair.
posted by evil_esto at 3:17 AM on February 22, 2011

Whenever I find Too Loud A Solitude on the shelf at the bookstore I buy it and then give it away. It's fabulous, and with only 112 pages it doesn't seem like a huge commitment.
posted by cometwendy at 3:26 AM on February 22, 2011

Graham Greene - as sharp prose I've ever read. Try Brighton Rock or a Gun for Sale
posted by the noob at 3:57 AM on February 22, 2011

Alice Munro and Ray Bradbury come to mind when I think of sharp and simple. They also write best in the short story format which I think is more relevant to your academic writing.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:11 AM on February 22, 2011

Flannery O'Connor, Tobias Wolfe. I will also throw in votes for Vonnegut, Carver and Bradbury. The five of them are some of my favorite authors.

Also, I know it's not reading per say, but check out the New Yorker fiction podcast. It's updated once a month and you will find short stories of many of the authors listed here in previous episodes.
posted by godshomemovies at 4:47 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Conrad for sure.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:30 AM on February 22, 2011

If you will forgive me, I think you are approaching the problem the wrong way: if you want clarity in your writing, read "The Elements of Style" by Strunk. It is a tiny book but if you follow his ideas, your writing will improve immensely. Trust me: I have seen it happen with a number of people.
posted by PickeringPete at 7:27 AM on February 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks so much, everyone. These are all fantastic suggestions. My kindle is well-stocked now and I plan to become one hell of a concise art historian!
posted by EmilyFlew at 10:31 AM on February 22, 2011

James Salter---one of the finest, I find, living prose writers. Beauty, extreme clarity, extreme economy of words. 'Last Night' is ten near perfect short stories, 'A Sport and A Pastime' is a sort of delirium of sex, and deep urges, 'The Hunters' is an extremely gripping story of fighter pilots and the micropolitics of war. 'Light Years' is a gorgeously detailed story of the disintegration of a marriage.

Highly recommended.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:50 AM on February 22, 2011

Nthing Hemingway (whom you mention) and McCarthy. I'd add Shirley Jackson, Wright Morris, Terry Southern, and Paul Bowles too.
posted by Rykey at 1:01 PM on February 22, 2011

Ted Chiang. Love his clean prose. All his short stories have a very logical momentum and sense of building towards a satisfying ending piece by piece.
posted by Arch_Stanton at 8:48 PM on February 22, 2011

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