I’m going to be teaching a literature class at Johns Hopkins this semester, so I’ve had the pleasure of putting together what I think is an excellent reading list. The class is called "Voice in Modern Fiction," and it’s as much of a writing class as a literature class, as the assignments are creative responses rather than papers.
All the books are supposed to have been published (roughly) within the last thirty years, so that was one parameter. Of course I wanted to include books that I believe in, even if they may be flawed (imagine having to come up with a list of “perfect” books!). And of course I wanted to offer a breadth and depth to the authors, even in such a small sample (5-10 total were expected for the course).
And then there was the idea of voice: how to show what “voice” is when that single word can be used to illustrate the attraction of Henry James and Ernest Hemingway, united in that single word just as they’re separated by about everything else possible? What books can illustrate the various components of “voice”?
Here’s what I came up with:
Bright Lights, Big City by Jay McInerney
Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
White Teeth by Zadie Smith
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Best American Short Stories 2009, edited by Alice Sebold: selected stories
I’ve also recently spent some time working with the Converse College Low-Residency MFA program students, helping them put together their reading lists for the semester. Again, that’s a useful exercise for me and for them: what books should they read that will be similar to the work they want to achieve? What books are so different that they will offer a stretch, a possibly jarring but eye-opening experience? What books simply should be read because every writer should read that book (in my opinion)?
When I started researching my historical novel, I came up with a list of books to read, including Sister Carrie, The Jungle, Devil in the White City, and the speeches of Frederick Jackson Turner ("The Frontier in American History"). It was helpful to have that guidance and to feel that though I wasn’t actually writing at that time, I was still “accomplishing” something. (Is anything more delightful than checking something off a list?)
Though my reading for this semester is mostly outlined above—the joy of assigning a reading list is getting to revisit all those books!—I do think that before summer rolls around, I need my very own reading list. First book on it: Moby-Dick, which I have shamefully missed for all these years, even though it seems to me that every writer should read it.