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The writers we read

Why is it, when I'm reading the interviews of other writers, and they're asked who are their favorite writers, too many of them start unscrolling a list of the Literary Greats (many of them dead)?

Okay, I have two favorites who have passed, Mark Twain and Georgette Heyer, but mostly my favorites aren't even classed as Literary (okay, Margaret Atwood): Maggie Stiefvater, Sarah Beth Durst, Barbara Hambly (who is also Barbara Hamilton), Bruce Coville (long before we became buddies), Robert McCammon, John Connolly, Guy Gavriel Kay, Jodi Picoult, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Logan, Lois McMaster Bujold, Jane Lindskold, Rachel Neumeier, N.K. Jemisin, Carrie Vaughn, Sarah Zettel, Holly Black, Terry Pratchett, Nancy Farmer, Esther Friesner, Susanne Hale .. . If you've seen my lists, you know the writers I go back to time after time.

The writers and books that inspired me as a young writer were swashbucklers (THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER, A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT, Edgar Rice Burroughs, THE THREE MUSKETEERS, TREASURE ISLAND), historical (Dorothy Dunnett's PAWN IN FRANKINCENSE), or fantasy and science fiction (Tolkein, Robert Howard's Conan, Michael Moorcock's Elric, Frank Herbert's DUNE, Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov).

So I'm begging the question: don't these writers who cite all these great dead literary writers ever read for fun? Don't they ever get inspired by just rollicking fun books? Or do they just feel they have to be inspired by "great literature" to be counted as a real writer?


( 53 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 3rd, 2014 05:01 pm (UTC)
I majored in English Lit. There are a few authors I've gone back and read now and enjoyed much more, now that I wasn't analysing and deconstructing: Dickens, Charlotte and Emily Bronte, and Twain, mostly.

The authors I loved as a kid and reread over and over? C.S. Lewis, Donald J. Sobol, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L'Engle, Lois Duncan, Judy Blume, Ellen Conford, Ruth M. Arthur, Barbara Corcoran, Jay Bennett, Gordon Korman, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Laura Ingalls Wilder... (I discovered your books as an adult. It must have been in 2000 or 2001, because Page was out and Squire either came out shortly after or was already out in hardback only. But I'm still rereading them!!! Just started Sandry's Book over a couple of days ago, actually.)

I'm not a published author myself, yet, so I can't speak for those who are. But I'm reminded of a provincial premier who was put on the spot and asked the name of the last book he read and replied "Mr. Silly." He'd read it to his son as a bedtime story. Of course, the press had a field day with it. I'd speculate that it's less a fear of not being counted as a 'real' writer and more a fear of not being taken seriously. Nobody gets mocked in the press for saying they've been inspired by Shakespeare or Milton.
Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:31 pm (UTC)
I'd rather cite authors I like, even if people think I'm silly or not "real". Besides, you can learn a lot about the abstract from seemingly silly books, like the rats in Terry Pratchett's THE AMAZING MAURICE AND HIS EDUCATED RODENTS. Their holy book that led them to transcend their natures was a silly children's picture book. And I wouldn't be who I am without Twain, Burroughs, or even Louisa May Alcott.
(no subject) - padparadscha - Feb. 5th, 2014 07:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 3rd, 2014 05:52 pm (UTC)
Honestly, I would feel like I was being very pretentious if I answered with all classic literary greats as my favorite authors. And I'd be lying. I have a lot of the same favorites as you, and then I would add Robin McKinley, Meredith Ann Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Julia Quinn and Eloisa James.

Of classic authors, I really only enjoy two so far, Jane Austen and Mark Twain.
Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:32 pm (UTC)
I have plenty of writers--like Lackey and McKinley--who have a couple of books I adore, and the rest, not so much. Quinn and James I don't know, and Pierce I never got.
(no subject) - thegreylioness - Feb. 3rd, 2014 09:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Feb. 3rd, 2014 06:49 pm (UTC)
In preparing myself to answer that question during interviews, I've learned that I have two types of favourite writers. There are the writers that made me into a reader as a child (Tolkien, Lewis, Bradley, McCaffrey, L'Engle, and Eddings), and there are the writers who made (and continue to make) me into a writer now that I am older. This second list is much more fluid and much longer, because I keep adding people to it as I "meet" (or actually meet) them.

When I was in high school, and my English teacher asked that question, he told me that my favourite authors didn't count because none of them wrote literature. I pointed out the prestigious history of Lord of the Rings, and he said that since it was Fantasy, it would never qualify. I needed to read real books where people had real problems, preferably ones without happy endings, and then I would be better equipped to answer.

Needless to say, I did not "improve" myself.

I would much rather be the sort of writer people choose to read, not the sort they have to. None of my favourite writers are those who were forced on me (sort of: my mother made me read A Wrinkle in Time, and of course I didn't like it. Thank goodness that I went back later! There was a great deal to fall in love with!). And, generally speaking, the writers who say "JD Salinger" or "Kurt Vonnegut" are the writers I don't pick off the shelf.

So I guess I don't really know why people give the "greats" as their answer. Maybe they think it's expected. Maybe they really do love them, and it's a handy pre-screening question when I got to the bookstore. I only know my own answer.

(I do not, however, know the answer to the dreaded "What is your favourite book?" My answer is almost always different. I had to pick three as part of my profile on my publisher's webpage, and I was almost late submitting the thing because every time I got to that question, I panicked. THREE BOOKS? That's like picking three of my fingers!)
Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:42 pm (UTC)
I got the same rap about fantasy, from my mother first, so I knew what I'd get in school. I just laugh as I swan my way past the literati on the way to the bank. Genre fiction--any genre--does better, and the much despised children's books last longer on the shelf. People remember the writers who remade their heads, and they will move heaven and earth to find those books for their kids.

I find new writers as an adult that keep the engine going, it's true, and many of them have something a lot of the old ones didn't (Burroughs being a notable exception), female warriors. As long as I have something, new or old, to read when I need it, I'll read it, and recommend it.
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Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:04 pm (UTC)
It could be a third factor. They could say the 'great literature' names because that's what they figure will be recognized.
Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:27 pm (UTC)
You're a better person than I am.
Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:45 pm (UTC)
I always wonder if the authors inspired by Literary Greats are inspired more by spite. Lord knows that reading The Taming of the Shrew and half of Henry James inspired a lot of stories about why they were wrong.
Feb. 3rd, 2014 08:52 pm (UTC)
I am certainly guilty of that!
Feb. 3rd, 2014 09:49 pm (UTC)
IDK, when/if I become a published author and people actually care who I read, I don't think any of the literary great will be on my list. My favorite reads are things like Dragonlance (please forgive the title drop; I'm having brain fog issues and I'm pretty sure Dragonlance isn't classed as high fantasy which is what wants to come out of my fingertips) and young adult fantasy, ala Vivian Van Velde, Elizabeth Wein, and... well... you. I just finished reading Emma and I was relieved when I did... same with Little Women.

The only author I have ever read that was a literary great and I actually enjoyed it was Tolkien, and I don't think many people would consider him a literary great (heathens that they are...).

Feb. 4th, 2014 04:45 pm (UTC)
The only book of Austen's I ever liked was PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, and I did love that one. I would have found LITTLE WOMEN a trial if I picked it up now, ditto the rest of Alcott's work for kids, but I read them before I was ten, because those were what we had, and didn't have any difficulties. (Literature in the 1960s was a bit slower going, but I was a big reader.)

Alcott became a hero of mine when I found out she made money as a thriller writer on the side!

Edited at 2014-02-04 04:46 pm (UTC)
Feb. 4th, 2014 02:33 am (UTC)
I have no idea how it worked before the internet, because i don't know that I would have tried to write on my own with out other people on expages and ITW forums and really aamzing frame page on netscape to encourage me to do so, but all the amazing teen lit and ya lit (you included) and fantasy and scifi authors who later formed my writing compare with pale grace to Brian Jacques. Without Redwall, I am not sure I would have ever picked up a pen, or dove so vicariously into reading. I would lay the blame for my words and my passion at Mr Jacques feet. I have the mil crates full of handwritten stories about hares and otters to back this theory up, too. So, if I ever wrote a biography panel, I am pretty sure he'd be what I listed, no matter how much I loved The Greats when I was in High School. My love for writing and reading was formed years before that :)

Edited at 2014-02-04 02:39 am (UTC)
Feb. 4th, 2014 08:24 am (UTC)
Judging from the output of some of the Literati, they genuinely like the Great Names and would like to do more of same. This is not quite the same thing as Name writers touted as a political force by the New York Times Review of Books & etc etc. I do find it intriguing to listen to reviews of books which sound, upon public radio reviews, as if they are amazing feats of wordsmithing, but I frequently find myself bored by their choice of topic. Also, there's an emotional indifference in a lot of work which I find offputting, and they apparently think my concerns are "old-fashioned". I see a lot of "don't care if everybody in the plot is a Trek Red Shirt so long as there's enough explosions in the movie", and I say that although personally I *like* action flicks. I also wonder if there's a generational difference going on in how you show characters to be likable enough to keep reading, or to keep following in a movie, etc. Possibly my personal experience of jerks makes me impatient with antiheroes who really NOT heroic at all.
That's okay, lately I've been bored by genres I used to like quite a lot. Tastes change when your insight into things changes. Also, how much concentration you have left after work. My limited patience is shot with a lot of writers these days.
For right now, I'd put Terry Pratchett up against any of the Great Writers for insight, plus he'd make you remember it because it was funny, and he bloody well cares how people are doing, and he clearly knows how hard things can be for them.

Edited at 2014-02-04 08:25 am (UTC)
Feb. 4th, 2014 04:26 pm (UTC)
The greatest critique of second wave feminism I ever read was written by Pratchett: MONSTROUS REGIMENT.

It's the people who write genre who only mention Great Literature that leave me scratching my head and going "wha?"

You're right about tastes changing. I read Regency romances by the bucketful in my early 20s, but can only read Heyer now. It doesn't help that so many current writers insist on adding sex and atypical behavior. If you're going to do that, do fantasy, like Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede, or alternate history. A Regency is a very particular art form, like haiku.

Sir Terry won't get the appreciation he is due even in his own community, sadly, for a while yet. Comic writers don't. I'm convinced he'll join Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, and Rabelais, though, as one of our great satirists. And THE EDUCATED MAURICE, I'm convinced, is an allegory equal to PILGRIM'S PROGRESS, but so far I seem to be the only one who sees it that way.
(no subject) - nagasvoice - Feb. 6th, 2014 03:58 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 4th, 2014 08:31 am (UTC)
Thank you so much for writing this! I feel the exact same way, especially at university studying English Lit. Everyone reels off a long line of classics, especially Jane Austen and I'm like... yeah, fantasy/urban fantasy for me thanks.
Feb. 4th, 2014 02:12 pm (UTC)
A writing group I used to be a part of had a long chat about this. It turned out a fair few people had listed "greats" because they'd be so widely known that most of the group could talk about them at length, leading to some easy discussions. O'course, that sort of conversation mostly revealed that we'd all read them at school and not once since: it was like a communal vomiting of the curriculum.

By comparison, at a later meet I mentioned "The Reapers are the Angels" by Alden Bell, which was so much the opposite of the greats that the first five pages or so were used up by a long list of newspaper critic quotes rather than actual story. (Nice going, publisher! Not tacky and terrible at all.) No-one knew the story or the author, but we had a looong discussion about survival, character conviction and zombies, with all kinds of other titles being brought up to support. I got a huge book list to investigate out of that.

Maybe there's a fear of going out on a limb. With the greats you get the reliable chorus of "read that too!" and you can't necessarily count on that with other books. If it's fantasy or popular for "the wrong reasons" or just generally unknown, there's a great chance that someone might single you out to be snide. You're sort of waving your arms all "this is cool!" and hoping someone asks why so you can talk about it.
Feb. 4th, 2014 04:47 pm (UTC)
But when it's a writer talking in an interview, it's a chance to stick your finger in the eye of the whole snob thing.


I love your icon, btw. Ripley in ALIENS is a goddess to me.
Feb. 4th, 2014 04:13 pm (UTC)
Some writers might not cite living authors as influences because they'd feel awkward leaving out friends in the same field, or including some but not others. (You'd think that friends would understand, though.)

Thanks for the great list of authors, by the way! I'm scurrying off to look up the ones I haven't read.

Edited at 2014-02-04 04:14 pm (UTC)
Feb. 4th, 2014 07:09 pm (UTC)
Having studied English literature, Anglo-Irish Literature, Classical Literature, Classical Philosophy (read in literary *and* philosophical terms for two different courses), Old English literature and a minor in French literature in the French language, I can genuinely say I loved *some* of the authors I covered, like James Joyce, Plato, Homer, and Chaucer, but a lot of what I studied was just one of those "1,000 books to read before you die" lists. And I remember the biggest laugh in the year I left school was the video made by the English class of taking a lighter to a copy of Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye and watching it burn, because it was forced down our throats and we all hated it. And yet, I find The Handmaid's Tale is one of those "literary" novels that I can read and reread as often as I like - because I like it.

But, I suppose these authors list the high literature as their favourites because everyone's heard of them. (Gods know onw of my professors was like that. He taught Catullus and read Tom Holt and had big, involved discussions about Neil Gaiman and Frank Herbert, but when the department head came around he'd start talking about the "literary merits" of ... I forget who, but one of these "literary giants".

I suspect that were I ever to be asked to list *my* favourite authors, it would be the ones that made me laugh. The people who can make me laugh are the ones that stay with me. Yourself, Julia Quinn and Plato being the three I'd probably choose.
Feb. 4th, 2014 08:44 pm (UTC)
I loved Homer and Chaucer, but I read them because they were on my parents' bookshelves and no one said I couldn't. The Arabian Nights ditto. My folks never said something was too old for me, and eventually, nothing was. I read Robert Graves' translation of the Greek myths in 5th grade--it was very illuminating. Edith Hamilton, in 7th grade, left a lot of things out that my teacher wouldn't let me mention. And I read Moby Dick in 6th grade, giving my librarian a week's rest from finding me something new. The Bronte sisters and Jane Austen in high school were things I chose to read.

Handmaid I can't re-read--I had the weeping hysterics in chapter 5. Much too close to home! But I just finished the Oryx and Crake trilogy, and I've read some of her other books as well. Not bad for a literary writer, though her Penelopiad gave me the pip. If her women don't have something to fight, they seem to go all droopy and mopey.

I like books generally written by women, who seem to have a better grasp on character as a whole, female and male. I do have some favorite male writers who are good at character, but most of my shelves are filled with female writers, except for thriller titles. I got tired of women-in-peril and women-seeking-the-dead/stolen-child/partner scenario really quickly in thrillers. I also like characters with a sense of humor, otherwise the drama gets old.
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Angela Goudman
Feb. 4th, 2014 08:41 pm (UTC)
Personally, I do not understand why some adults feel it's "essential" for children to read the classics. I was homeschooled growing up, and my mom used a LA curriculum that was based on the use of literature (classic and otherwise) to teach concepts such as grammar. She made a rule that if she could find the book the particular passage was from, we had to read at least a little bit of it. Consequently I read a little bit out of some of the classics, including Moby Dick, Captains Courageous, and David Copperfield - but I didn't really get into all of them. Personally, I don't make my stepdaughter read "classics", although I have read a couple of classics TO her - we're almost done with "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" and we finished "What Katy Did" awhile back. She likes to read BSC, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Geronimo Stilton - and I'm okay with that. I've developed a greater appreciation for the classics as an adult - especially the mashup genre that takes classic literature and adds a modern (typically horror/thriller) twist!
Feb. 7th, 2014 01:24 am (UTC)
Most of my appreciation for having read a lot of the classics (yay taking 5 English classes in HS and doing an English Major in college) is that I get the references back to them in my favorite genre fiction (either reading or tv). I like getting the little references. It makes me happy. That said, most of those books I read once and wouldn't read again.
(no subject) - tammypierce - Feb. 7th, 2014 03:11 pm (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 5th, 2014 07:05 pm (UTC)
Let's see ... for me, there are a few "literary classics" that really ARE damn good books. But the Venn diagram of "literary classic" and "damn good read" rarely overlaps for me.

I always hated it when I'd tell people that I was planning to be an author, and they'd respond, "So, you're gonna write the Great American Novel?" I always wanted to respond, "No, I'm gonna write FUN things!" Things I liked to read! So I'm not sure if other writers read for fun, but me, that's most of why I read.
Feb. 7th, 2014 03:16 pm (UTC)
I don't think there is such a thing as a Great American Novel. The country is too wide and too varied. How can a single novel embrace the experience of immigrants, Native Americans, African Americans, Mormons--to name a few? Each part of the country has its own story, different from all of the other parts. I just don't get this "Great American Novel" thing.
(no subject) - padparadscha - Feb. 8th, 2014 12:01 am (UTC) - Expand
Feb. 6th, 2014 03:15 am (UTC)
I wonder about that as well. I have been much more inspired by my contemporaries in multimedia than I have by my long-dead counterparts (that goes for authors, composers, performers and visual artists).
Feb. 6th, 2014 10:17 pm (UTC)
Most of the "literary greats"? I HATE. Because they're depressing, and if I want to be depressed, I can just turn on the news! I read them in school because I had to, and haven't touched them since. When I read, I want to be taken somewhere new, shown something fascinating, dragged along for an adventure. My bookshelves are stocked with roughly 70% fantasy, 12% children's books, 10% sci-fi, and 8% literary. And there are books I go back to time and time again, obsessively rereading, trying to absorb them through my palms. Lois McMcaster Bujold, P.N. Elrod, Guy Gavriel Kay, Diane Duane, Ursula K. LeGuin, Louis Slobodkin, Katherine Blake, Terry Pratchett, and (of course) Tamora Pierce. Books and authors who shaped my worlds, inner and outer.

The thought of having to deal with literary writing expectations is what's kept me from getting my MFA in Creative Writing. Because life is too short to deal with people who don't enjoy alternate worlds, and I can work on my books just as well in a less formal setting.
Feb. 7th, 2014 03:18 pm (UTC)
I've always felt that you learn more about writing by being out in the world and writing. What you learn about writing in academia is academia. It's good if you want to teach, but what you really need is real world experience, seeing how different people live and think, and well, just writing. The more you do, the better you get, so the more you do.
Feb. 8th, 2014 12:12 am (UTC)
I wasn't going to comment but I feel I should at least attempt a defence of what may be called "classics". I could read before I started nursery and was already a member of my local library. Also my uncle who lived in the family home was an eclectic reader with a passion for Dickens and the Russian greats (we're of Lithuanian descent so there is a certain kindred). I read what I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. I read everything. By 12 I had read all of Austens novels, most Dickens (I'm not a fan BTW), I loved the Shakespearean comedies, I thought Chaucer was hilarious, the Iliad and Odyessey fantastic, and had earnestly (boy, I was a weird-ass kid) started my own personal translation of The Pearl (I can't recall why I chose Pearl over Gawain). Thanks to a lone UK copy of Alanna The First Knight in my library I was also an established devotee of SF&F (I blame my lifelong affliction on Tamora Pierce - I read Pierce before Pratchett & Bujold & Moon & Weber & Lackey....you see where I'm going, so where does the blame lie?). At a secondary school interview they were astonished I'd been rereading Watership Down regularly since 9yrs old. Then we had Jane Eyre, which I hadn't read before, as our upper third English study. I hate Jane Eyre to this day. Ditto Wuthering Heights. I'm okay with Pride & Prejudice as I'd already read it but it did end up lower than Emma in my Austen selections. A Midsummer Night's Dream also edged under Twelfth Night following it's traumatic deconstruction. Steinbeck & Miller are banned from my shelves. I say don't blame the classics, they never did anything wrong, blame the curriculum and the fact that not enough people let children read as they will. No-one ever told me not to read something or censored my tastes. So these days I still love reading, whether it's a so-called classic, or a "Young Adult" fantasy, or romantic twaddle, I'll own it and enjoy it and be damned to everyone else.
Feb. 8th, 2014 06:51 am (UTC)
I will confess to doing this (listing dead authors who were arguably great) when trying to impress lol.

But mostly, I have a very small list of favourite authors and you just happen to be on that list :)

Often I have favourite books instead - and many of those I have found from reading your journal :) Example: Hunger Games (before they were movies), Rampant (killer unicorns is still a freaky idea hehe), and the books by Cassandra Clare :)

My point - I can see why people would do it :)

PS: when any book has a sucky ending, I compare it to the ending of Will of the Empress which imo is the best ending to any book of all time. Ever.
Key Largo
Jan. 23rd, 2015 03:56 pm (UTC)
I don't have a favorite
I choose not to name any favorite authors, because all books are important. Without books we can not learn how to read or understand anything. This is why all books are important to me.
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