What literary fiction should I read?
May 18, 2008 5:23 PM   Subscribe

I'm going back to college next fall, to attend an undergraduate creative writing program. What literary fiction should I read this summer to get up to speed?

I am a voracious reader -- nonfiction, biography, genre fiction, young adult novels (which is what I write) -- but I don't read a lot of specifically literary fiction. I'd like to be conversant in current literary fiction, too.

I've got all summer. Where should I start? For example, I'm waiting to get Junot Diaz' The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao from the library.

Special bonus for stuff written by women and ethnicities and nationalities other than white American.
posted by sugarfish to Writing & Language (36 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Jean Rhys.
posted by fire&wings at 5:29 PM on May 18, 2008

The Bone People by Keri Hulme (she's a New Zealander of English, Scottish, and Maori descent) won the Booker in 1985.
posted by scody at 5:38 PM on May 18, 2008

Master and Commander, the first book in Patrick O'Brian's Aubreyad, is a ripping yarn, and contains everything a young writer should aspire to:

- wonderful, pitch-perfect narrator voice
- superb detail
- perfect pacing

Basically, O'Brian has it both ways: he has created a literary masterpiece that is also extremely commercial.

Sacred Games, by Vikram Chandra, specifically meets your criteria, although Vikram Chandra is a man and not a woman.

Sarah Canary, by Karen Jay Fowler, is also a great piece of literary fiction, but may be hard to find.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:45 PM on May 18, 2008

The Wasp Factory is one of the first 20th century novels from the UK to present a Scottish voice distinct from British literature. It's gruesome and intense, but therein lies its potency. Even if that's not normally to your tastes, it's worth the read. Great literature is supposed to challenge the reader, right?

Also, anything by Salman Rushdie, especially Midnight's Children.
posted by Nelsormensch at 5:47 PM on May 18, 2008

posted by SansPoint at 5:59 PM on May 18, 2008

The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead "was immediately hailed as the most original and provocative allegory of American race relations since Ralph Ellison's iconic Invisible Man."

Also, Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender is one of the best collections of short stories I have ever read.
posted by overglow at 6:01 PM on May 18, 2008

I think you'll probably want to read a little George Saunders and Haruki Murakami.
posted by salvia at 6:04 PM on May 18, 2008

Gabriel Garcia Marquez. "Chronicle of a Death Foretold" is a good short read. "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "Love in the Time of Cholera" are his more famous novels.
Graham Greene is great too, but not a non-white writer.
posted by blueskiesinside at 6:06 PM on May 18, 2008

In my undergrad CW experience, lo these nearly two decades ago, few of the students did much serious reading. You're already ahead of the game.

I hated Arundhati Roy's "The God of Small Things", but it's become, in only ten years, seminal and influential.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 6:09 PM on May 18, 2008

Also: Jhumpa Lahari's Interpreter of Maladies. One of my favorite short fiction collections of recent years.
posted by scody at 6:13 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

You should read Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman to disabuse yourself of the notion that you've ever had an original idea in your life. Worked for me. It's much easier to write comfortably once you're over that hump.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:14 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Dude you could read a hundred books and still be way behind (except for the fact that 95% of CW students are untalented turds who don't read literature so you've got a big head start).

I always pimp out Gary Lutz and Gordon Lish in these kind of threads and let me tell you that they're still worth it. Reading those guys is humbling. Recommended specifically: Stories in the Worst Way and Extravaganza. Also pick up a copy of the Bible at your local motel and sit yourself down with some Ecclesiastes, believe it or not. Read one of Pynchon's super-long books: Against the Day is fun as hell and should be pretty easy to get through in a couple days. Time is tight. The Saunders and Murakami suggestion is seconded. Martin Amis. White Teeth by Zadie Smith but not her other book which is pretty terrible. The Tin Drum. David Foster Wallace even though it's cool to hate him now. One of the fifty or so collections of Joyce Carol Oates short stories. Borges is fun and also smart as all get out.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 6:35 PM on May 18, 2008 [3 favorites]

Javier Marias, by all means. Natsuo Kirino. And if you can read French, Les Bienveillantes is a must read. If I can name another white American man besides Littell -- please forgive me -- I'd suggest you read David Markson, truly a giant.

And if I can give an unsolicited piece of friendly advice, I'd advise you to lose the "literary fiction" thing, genre vs literary fiction is an invention, the fruit of the unholy alliance of clueless schoolteachers and lazy booksellers. Just keep in mind that the cinematic equivalent of genre v literary is Hitchcock v Stanley Kramer, with the necessary superiority of Serious Stanley Kramer since Hitchcock was "just" a crime movie guy.
posted by matteo at 6:38 PM on May 18, 2008

You could just read a bunch of back issues of The Believer and pretend you've read the novels they're talking about. That's what most people do.
posted by staggernation at 6:43 PM on May 18, 2008

In the spirit of matteo's comment, may I recommend anything by Roald Dahl and Wallace Stegner. Of course, there's also Borges and Michael Chabon's "Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay."
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 6:46 PM on May 18, 2008

"House of Spirits" by Chilean author, Isabelle Allende, meets your criteria, with alternately beautiful and terrible characters.
posted by eirelander at 6:56 PM on May 18, 2008

My boyfriend keeps on top of this stuff and is a big fan of Nelson Algren (esp. Neon Wilderness) and Saul Bellow, and is an avid reader of Harper's Magazine and the New Yorker.
posted by phunniemee at 7:03 PM on May 18, 2008

I really enjoyed Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.

It's witty, absorbing and heartbreaking. It also gives an insight into the social and political climate of India 50-30 years ago, which is something that I had literally no idea about.

I'm suprised nobody's recommended VS Naipaul to you. He's an Trinidadian (is that a word?) author who spent a lot of time in England, so he has a slightly unusual viewpoint. A Bend In The River is usually the one recommended, and I'd additionally recommend A House For Mr Biswas and The Enigma Of Arrival.

Haruki Murakami is an obvious one, but definitely worth considering if you haven't previously investigated him. Norwegian Wood is very good and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is brilliant, one of my favourites.

You've probably read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but if not then One Hundred Years Of Solitude is essential.

Also, consider rolling back the years and mopping up some dead white guy classics that you've missed. How about some Dickens? It still surprises me how many literary folk haven't read any of his great works. Bleak House is superb, probably his best novel, and Great Expectations is very enjoyable. They're both quite a long way from the cartoonish song and dance that most people (unfairly) associate with Oliver Twist.

There's also Tess Of The D'Urbervilles and Jude The Obscure, both by Thomas Hardy. Widely read, for sure, but for a good reason.

Anyway, have fun come autumn, and I'm sure it'll be an enjoyable summer. I've got plenty more recommendations up my sleeve, so please feel free to ask for more!
posted by Magnakai at 7:29 PM on May 18, 2008

Anthony Burgess wrote a great book called Ninety Nine Novels in which he lists the greatest neglected novels of the 20th century. A colleague of mine (who is a creative writing professor) recommended it to me. You could try working your way through some of them!
posted by media_itoku at 8:26 PM on May 18, 2008

Things Fall Apart, Things Fall Apart, Things Fall Apart. Oh, and re-read To Kill a Mockingbird.
posted by General Malaise at 8:38 PM on May 18, 2008

Check out the winners of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
posted by metahawk at 8:44 PM on May 18, 2008

Robert Bolano was a Chilean writer whose major novel, The Savage Detectives, was translated into English last year. He is, justly, a current darling of the literary fiction circuit (and subject of FPPs 1, 2).

This is one of the best books I have ever read - funny, authentic, lyrical, sexy, touching.
posted by shothotbot at 8:46 PM on May 18, 2008

There are some really great books here, as well as some great pieces of advice (Optimus Chyme and matteo's comments are very pertinent). I went back to school and had quite a few CW courses and found that most people don't know all that much about literature in them. In fact most people in those classes are there to fulfill a requirement of some sort. It's been awhile since I've been out, but I can't imagine that it's changed much. Also, it all depends on who is going to be teaching and what you're going to be writing. Most classes will have you read books as well as write, so you're not going to be too far behind, really.

That said, good luck! I'm not trying to disparage you, just keep those things in mind.

As far as books, do as metahawk says. Since you're into YA, here's the ALA's list of Young Adult best of books since 1996.

I'm not really sure what you want to read or what sort of genres you're into (I'm more of a metafiction/magic realism/southern gothic person myself), but I really liked Saramago's Blindness and Myla Goldberg's Bee Season as far as relatively contemporary fiction goes.

Good luck in everything.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:27 PM on May 18, 2008

Here are some essays on writing that would be good for a creative-writing student to read.

Robertson Davies, The Merry Heart: Reflections on Reading, Writing, and the World of Books.

John Gardner, On Writers and Writing.

Richard Lanham, Style: An Anti-Textbook.
posted by jayder at 9:34 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have you considered getting a 'best short stories of the 20th century'-type anthology? I've got one of American short stories. Good for a writer to be exposed to a dozen different voices and styles in quick succession, and increases the chances of you finding a writer you really dig on your own terms. It was through one of those that I found Flannery O'Conor, whose Wise Blood kicked my ass.
posted by Cantdosleepy at 4:26 AM on May 19, 2008

Amazing recent novel by a Mexican author - The Hummingbird's Daughter. The New Yorker called it epic, and goddamn, is it.

Seconding Jhumpa Lahiri and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
posted by tatiana wishbone at 6:45 AM on May 19, 2008

Zadie Smith, Kazuo Ishiguro, Margaret Atwood.
posted by lampoil at 7:06 AM on May 19, 2008

Do you want contemporary literary fiction or classics?

For the first, one of the great standards (of course) is Toni Morrison. Start with Beloved. In undergrad I took a course on Faulkner and Morrison, so if you want a classic, read Faulkner, too—my favorite was Light in August.

Another author I think of as a "contemporary literary fiction standard" is Margaret Atwood. Handmaid’s Tale may be her most famous, and it’s very good.

Very contemporary: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (I’ve mentioned it here before because it’s just so good). Also Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides.

If you want classics, I’d recommend Jane Austen and Willa Cather (the most famous are My Antonia and O Pioneers!, but I’d also recommend A Lost Lady). Two very different American women writing about very different subjects, but both worth reading to study how they do it.

Good luck! This is an ambitious project!
posted by CiaoMela at 7:09 AM on May 19, 2008

Perhaps you could go to the Masters who made the big developments in prose? They'll help you understand what the writers who followed them are playing at. A good combo that would be educative is Flaubert and Joyce; try Madame Bovary and then Dubliners (which is an actually readable work by Joyce). They're both absolutely wonderful to read and (even with Flaubert in translation) you can see the delicacy and precision of their writing. Reading these carefully will turn you into a better reader and through that almost certainly a better writer.
posted by squishles at 7:38 AM on May 19, 2008

It falls to me, again, to recommend one of the great English-language novels of our time: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Get the edition with Punch on the cover, which has useful and exciting additional material in the back (but don't read the additional material unless you're (a) finished or (b) well and truly stuck on the meanings of the words). It's a brisk book once you get the swing of it, compact add spare, not a word wasted. The narrative voice is truly unique, the characters instantly recognizable, and the story is both creepy as hell and spiritually moving. (Hoban went back and started on Page One fourteen times; he got it right but not at first.) It's set in post-apocalyptic England ('Inland') and it is one of the finest books I've read, and I promise you that if you see it through you'll feel the same.

The text looks like this:
Lorna said to me, 'You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.'

I said, 'What thing is that?'

She said, 'Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don't even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.'

I said, 'If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.'

Lorna said, 'Wel there is a millying and mor.'

I said, 'Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?'

She said, 'Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part.'
It's necessary to wrestle with Pynchon (our master) but if you're learning to write novels - particularly short ones for YA readers - then you want to focus on clear structure, stylistic seriousness, and moral integrity. Pynchon has the last two but his structure can be hard to discern and anyhow works of lofty genius aren't good examples for students. The Wasp Factory will ruin your dinner for weeks if you're not careful (it's not a gentle book, though it is hilarious). It's an excellent object-lesson in concision and style, with a knockout ending.

Here's a twist: cleanse your palate with the first of Stephen King's 'Dark Tower' books, The Gunslinger. It's written in a different tone from the other six in the series, and is the shortest of the lot (shorter by a mile than his usual backbreaker novels). In terms of value to the student-writer it's the best of the bunch: a compelling central relationship, an iconic but human central character, evocative setting, marvelous spare prose (King isn't a stylist but he's an underappreciated writer with real gifts and awesome discipline), and a cracking good climax and weird, eerie coda.

Also: Grendel by John Gardner, another master (of a very different sort). Short, nutty, heartbreaking. Not 'contemporary' now but it's strong medicine when you're surrounded by nauseating novelist-wannabes peddling their indistinguishable 'moment of revelation' short stories.

Best of luck!
posted by waxbanks at 9:08 AM on May 19, 2008

Oh yeah.

Mark Danielewski's House of Leaves is one of the grand recent fictional achievements, as is the same author's Only Revolutions. But both are formal experiments, however accessible, and House is a roaring horror novel atop its impressive formal achievements. But neither will help you develop good habits.

Actually, you want some badass contemporary fiction? Read Bret Easton Ellis. Any of his books will do for a start, and you won't have to read all of them. Glamorama is great in its way but is a hell of a lot less affecting than Less Than Zero or the scathingly funny American Psycho. He's a real stylist, not a realist, and his novels are nasty polemics. You can do Less Than Zero in a night; he wrote it as a college student and it still stands up. Psycho is a world better but once you get the joke and the critique it's not clear you'll need to keep pressing on to the end.

Fight Club is a marvelous modern novel, though I don't flip for Palahniuk in general. Read the book and watch the movie; they're important above and beyond their entertainment value.
posted by waxbanks at 9:17 AM on May 19, 2008

Sherman Alexie. Leslie Marmon Silko. N. Scott Momaday. Louise Erdrich.
posted by rtha at 4:36 AM on May 19 [1 favorite -] Favorite added! [!]

I'd like to second, third and fourth this comment. More specifically:

"Reservation Blues", "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" and "Indian Killer" by Alexie (the latter is interesting because he's now taken to renouncing it in public because of its overt violence and general anger, but I found it breathtaking), "Ceremony" by Silko, "House Made of Dawn" by Momaday (my favorite novel of all-time second only to "Lolita") and "Love Medicine" by Erdrich.

Yeah, it turns out I dig Native American lit.
posted by nonmerci at 10:53 AM on May 19, 2008

I'm going to have to say that I find "Lullaby" about a thousand times more interesting and better-written than "Fight Club", which I find banal and incomplete.

Irvine Welsh is a real master, in my opinion, and I would also cite him as inspiration for Palahniuk. My favorites of his would have to be "Trainspotting" and "Ecstasy: Three Tales of Chemical Romance". He's often unforgiving and can be extremely difficult to get through, as far as his realism and the subjects he treats in his novels.

Barbara Kingsolver is a great novelist, though her Indian pretenses (American Indian that is; I say this because apparently some Indians disdain the term 'Native American') are often viewed negatively by actual AmerIndian authors.

Anne Carson is one to check out, specifically her 'Autobiography of Red', which I found rather magnificent, incredibly creative and more poetic than your average 'novel'. It's a hard book to describe.

I'm reading "Blood Meridian" right now by Cormac McCarthy to see what all the fuss is about and...I get it. He's a brilliant author and a master of language--his prose is so rich and dense, it is at times challenging to get through. But he has a freshness and an originality while at the same time writing in a specific dialect and period style--I admire his writing immensely, though it too can be extremely violent and difficult to read at times.
posted by nonmerci at 11:01 AM on May 19, 2008

Glamorama is great in its way but is a hell of a lot less affecting than Less Than Zero or the scathingly funny American Psycho.

I have long been saying that American Psycho is as close to a classic as anything written in the last twenty years has a claim to be. It is astonishingly brilliant. I have not seen a recent writer "inhabit" a character's voice as fully as Ellis does in that novel. The comedy in that book is terrific.
posted by jayder at 11:17 AM on May 19, 2008

Wow, thank you SO MUCH everyone! My library hold list is maxed out. I am gratified to see mention of some books I have on my shelves already -- maybe I'm not as out of the loop as I'd thought.

Thanks, too, to the people who gave general advice.
posted by sugarfish at 2:52 PM on May 19, 2008

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