Having taught in an American university writing program for a dozen years, I am convinced that what my students need more than anything is to read more, and to read differently. Many of them do read a lot, but they are reading American writers and very little else. Recently I discovered that two of my most gifted graduate students had not read Graham Greene, which flabbergasted me. And this is not their fault–it’s the fault of the professors who keep feeding them the same predictable stuff. The obvious weakness of the contemporary fiction scene in the US (and of “Program Fiction”) is its homogeneity and its insularity. Even when students are familiar with writers of ethnicities different from their own, with few exceptions these writers are US citizens or residents who have MFAs from American programs and teach in the same programs. Is it any wonder that American novels are so similar in voice and content, and that so few of them show any awareness of what’s happening beyond these shores?
With this in mind, I have been trying belatedly in my own courses (I was guilty too) to introduce students to writers from other countries and backgrounds. Some of my students have asked me to help them fill in the gaps. This essay is an attempt to do that. Like all such lists, it is incomplete. I have not read everything, and there will be brilliant books I have neglected because of my ignorance, because I fail to appreciate their qualities, or for some other reason. (They might just have slipped my mind!) You may think I have missed books that unquestionably belong on any student’s reading list, but at least, I hope, you will agree that few or none of the ones I have included do not belong here. All of them are works of the highest merit or at least works that students can learn a great deal from. My criteria have been, roughly in this order: literary excellence; originality and influence on other writers; reading pleasure. This is not a list of my favourite books, although a lot of those will be found here. I have not included some books that I love, such as Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War, if they were not of sufficient quality to serve as useful models. On the other hand I have included books that I have not much enjoyed, such as Love in the Time of Cholera, and even books that I neither enjoyed nor consider of great merit, such as Ulysses, if they have been seminal and are essential to an understanding of modern fiction. I have completely omitted American authors, not because there aren’t any great ones—no one could deny that there are—but because I assume that American students are familiar with them already. Here then is my personal list of books essential for a fiction writer to read, grouped very loosely by country/culture. Where a books is particularly recommended, because I consider it not only of the highest quality, but also highly enjoyable, I have added an asterisk. You might start with these.
*Cervantes, Don Quixote. Not only the first real novel, but an amazingly (post-)modern one, too.
Eça de Queirós. The Crime of Father Amaro. The greatest Portuguese novelist before…
José Saramago. Memorial of the Convent. Like him or loathe him, he’s brilliant.
García Márquez. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, One Hundred Years of Solitude, No One Writers to the Colonel, Love in the Time of Cholera, Innocent Eréndira, etc.
*Jorge Luís Borges. All the stories. Start with Ficciones, The Aleph, or the anthology Labyrinths.
Julio Cortázar. Hopscotch—a novel I’ve been unable to finish so far—and his stories, which are brilliant.
Carlos Fuentes. Aura, The Death of Artémio Cruz, etc.
Clarice Lispector should be on here, I’m sure, but I know only a few of her stories.
Probably the most unjustly neglected in the Anglo-Saxon world, no doubt because they happened to be our enemies in two world wars. In the twentieth century, however, no culture contributed greater fiction writers, with the possible exception of the Latin Americans.
*Kafka. In my view the most important of twentieth century novelists, if only for his influence. The Trial. The Castle. Most of the stories.
*Gustav Meyrinck. The Golem. Complements Kafka: set in Prague too, and equally insane.
*Robert Musil. The Man Without Qualities. ‘Difficult’ and too long—but a work of genius.
*Hermann Broch. The Sleepwalkers. Changed the modern novel.
*Thomas Mann. Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, Doctor Faustus.
*Hermann Hesse. Hard for me to be objective, since he is one of my favourites, but a much better novelist than is generally realized. Steppenwolf. Siddhartha. Narziss and Goldmund. Demian. Klingsor’s Last Summer.
Stefan Zweig. The Post Office Girl. Confusion. Chess Story. The stories.
Gunter Grass. The Tin Drum. The Flounder.
Other Central Europeans
Gombrowicz. Pornografia. Ferdydurke.
*Milan Kundera. In my view the greatest European novelist of the second half of the twentieth century. The Joke. The Farewell Party. Life is Elsewhere. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Laughable Loves. The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The greatest of all:
*Tolstoy. War and Peace. Anna Karenina. The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
*Dostoyevsky. The Idiot. Crime and Punishment. The Brothers Karamazov.
*Chekhov. All the stories, pretty much.
Turgenev. Fathers and Sons.
Gogol. Dead Souls.
Flaubert. Madame Bovary. Not a book I love, but indispensable for the craft.
Guy de Maupassant. The stories.
Marcel Proust. In Search of Lost Time. I still haven’t got through this, but will one day…
Albert Camus. The Stranger. The Plague.
Jean-Paul Sartre, unlike Camus, was not a real novelist: his novels were pretexts for his philosophy.
*Marguerite Duras. The Lover.
*Knut Hamsun. Hunger. Mysteries. Early Modernist triumphs.
*Isak Dinesen. Gothic Tales, Winters’ Tales.
Orhan Pamuk. My Name is Red. Snow. Probably all his novels, in fact. One of the greatest writers working today.
Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart. Everyone knows this, but it’s superb all the same.
Ben Okri. Famished Road.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Half of a Yellow Sun.
Naguib Mahfouz. The Cairo Trilogy.
Abdelrahman Munif. Cities of Salt.
*Ghassan Kanafani. Return to Haifa. Political fiction at its best.
Fadia Faqir. Pillars of Salt.
I am aware that more writers should be in this section, but here’s my stab at it:
*Yasunari Kawabata. Snow Country. The Lake. The House of the Sleeping Beauties.
Junichiro Tanizaki. The Makioka Sisters. Naomi. Seven Japanese Tales.
Yukio Mishima. Confessions of a Mask. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. The Golden Pavilion.
*Lampedusa. The Leopard.
*Umberto Eco. The Name of the Rose.
Antonio Tabucchi. Pereira Declares.
Italo Calvino, like him or not: Invisible Cities, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller…
As for Gabriele D’Annunzio…even though my latest novel is about him, I can’t bring myself to recommend his novels, although they were pioneering in their frank treatment of sexuality at the time. Still, he wrote good drama (Iorio’s Daughter), creative nonfiction (Notturno) and poetry.
*Nikos Kazantzakis. Zorba the Greek. The Last Temptation of Christ.
*Salman Rushdie: the colossus of the subcontinent. With Pamuk, probably the greatest of living novelists. Midnight’s Children and The Satanic Verses are essential. The rest too, probably.
Britain (including some Commonwealth countries–Trinidad, Australia, South Africa, and even Ireland—forgive me, if any Irish people are reading this). I realize the damned Limeys are over-represented in comparison to some other groups (e.g. the Russians, Latin Americans, Germans). Still, you should know them if you don’t…
Jane Austen. You do know all her novels, of course. Still funny and sharp, in spite of the silly film adaptations.
Likewise the Brontes, Charlotte and Emily (they’re less funny but still very good)
*George Eliot. Middlemarch, the great English novel.
*Dickens. Great Expectations, David Copperfield. Tale of Two Cities.
*Thomas Hardy. The earlier novels: Far From the Madding Crowd, Tess of the Durbervilles.
*Joseph Conrad. A Pole, but he wrote in English and called himself an Englishman. Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, Nostromo. Almost always sublime.
*Rudyard Kipling. Unjustly neglected and misunderstood. Kim. The Man Who Would be King.
DH Lawrence. Sons and Lovers, Women in Love, The Rainbow. No one describes nature better.
Virginia Woolf. To the Lighthouse. Orlando. Mrs. Dalloway.
James Joyce. Dubliners. Ulysses. I don’t like much of his writing but can’t omit him.
*EM Forster. Passage to India. Room with a View. Out of fashion but a brilliant craftsman.
Ford Madox Ford. The Good Soldier. One of the great novels of the early twentieth century.
*Jean Rhys. Wide Sargasso Sea.
*Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet. Also unfashionable, but stunningly good.
*Graham Greene. Perhaps not a real heavyweight, but one of the very best craftsmen. It’s hard to imagine a more useful model for a novelist as he does everything so well: plotting, character development, dialogue, setting, incisive, concise style. One of the masters. The Heart of the Matter. The Quiet American. The End of the Affair. The Honorary Consul. The Power and the Glory. The Human Factor.
*Evelyn Waugh. Brideshead Revisited. Decline and Fall. Etc.
*Rebecca West. Return of the Soldier.
*Kingsley Amis. Lucky Jim. One of the first, and best, campus novels. And his son…
*Martin Amis. One of the greatest stylists alive and one of the funniest novelists. Money. London Fields. The Information.
VS Naipaul. Another terrific stylist and funny too. A House for Mr. Biswas. A Bend in the River.
*Graham Swift. Waterland. Last Orders.
Ian McEwan. I don’t enjoy his work, but neither do I deny its quality. Atonement.
Kazuo Ishiguro. The Remains of the Day.
*AS Byatt. Possession. Almost incredibly clever. And much better than her more famous sister.
*Penelope Fitzgerald. The Blue Flower. A stunning historical novel about Novalis.
Muriel Spark. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
*John Fowles. The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The Ebony Tower. The Collector. The Magus—I’ve never been able to make up my mind if the latter is a work of genius or pretentious rot, but have included it to be on the safe side.
William Golding. Lord of the Flies. The Scorpion God, superlative historical fiction.
*John Berger. Shamefully little known in this country. G, a masterpiece. To the Wedding.
*Sebastian Faulks. Hardly an innovator, but Birdsong is close to perfect.
*Louis de Bernières. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Also wonderful, apart from the ending.
Tom McCarthy. Remainder. C. This guy really is an innovator, as is…
JM Coetzee. Disgrace. And…
*David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas.
Hilary Mantel. Wolf Hall.
And Zadie Smith, even though I think White Teeth is awful (and so does she: she refers to her early work as ‘hysterical realism’)
It’s hard to know who to leave out when you have a generation of novelist as brilliant as the so-called Golden Generation in Britain—the greatest in Britain’s history, and possibly anywhere. Julian Barnes, Jeannette Winterson, Will Self, Edna O’Brien, Anthony Powell, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Beryl Bainbridge, Anthony Burgess, Angus Wilson, Anita Brookner…even the B list has real stature.
I hope at any rate that this list of mine will stimulate you to make one of your own, and to read at least some of these if you haven’t already. If you want to be the best writer you possibly can be, it’s essential to see what people are doing in other parts of the world. The US played a leading role in world literature in the first part of the twentieth century; it no longer does so. It’s not for lack of talent. The problem is the insularity of the culture, much of it fostered by timid, conformist professors. We can do better!