It’s Thursday, I’m tired. I thought I’d go for a Thursday 13, featuring my favorite fiction authors, in no particular order (and without including Shakespeare, who is a given):
1. Virginia Woolf
2. Feodor Dostoevsky
3. Edith Wharton
4. Marcel Proust
5. Ernest Hemingway
6. William Faulkner
7. Jane Austen
8. F. Scott Fitzgerald
9. John Steinbeck
10. Charles Dickens
11. The Bronte sisters (sorry, couldn’t pick just one)
12. Mark Twain
13. Anton Chekhov
Now, I’m not branding this list as an absolute — I’m sure there are names I’m forgetting that will occur to me at some inconvenient time, like 3 in the morning, causing me much teeth-gnashing and hand-wringing. But “favorite authors” is a topic I’ve been mulling over lately. As a writer, I should pay attention to what I read and who I read. And it occurred to me that I don’t have a favorite or much-loved contemporary author. Why is that?
Part of the reason is that there are so many voices dinning in the void, one or two emerging from the few seems quite unreasonable. Is the mega-publishing world actually a negative, flooding the market with too much for a reader to choose from? Is that a negative for readers, for writers–or both?
Another reason I’m not as enamored of contemporary fiction is that we seem to be undergoing a trend that favors form and style over substance and content. Two recent examples: 1) Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, in which the author uses the physical book and text itself– footnotes, appendices, upside-down text and backwards-type– to tell the story. 2) Jonathan Safran Doer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which uses photographs, colored highlights and passages of illegibly overwritten text. Now, I have not read these books; I am not commenting on the writing or execution, and I applaud what seems to be a creative approach to writing. But this sort of thing feels gimicky to me.
When I review my list of favorite authors, what stands out is what I believe their writing has in common, clueing me in as to what appeals to me: language, nuance, depth, texture, humanity. I have a physical reaction–tremoring, excitement–when I read beautiful language. When that is combined with nuance of observation, such as I elicit from Woolf, Wharton and Proust, the result is a sublime reading experience. I also love authors who love their characters and who offer layers and layers to even the most minor of characters, and who never resort to stereotyping, glibness or cynicism.
Maybe I haven’t read enough contemporary fiction writers to be able to say I’ve experienced that with one of their works (I’m thinking of Toni Morrison here), and I am not particularly enamored even of the usual suspects everyone cites as “the best literary writers” in America (Updike, Roth, Bellow). Of living, working authors, the ones I tend to enjoy most these days are the non-American writers, such as Chatterjee, Pamuk, Minstry, Coetzee. Though even of these writers, I have only read one book each. Not enough, I would think, to name them as a favorite. I keep thinking I must be overlooking someone. While I’ve read several Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman and Stephen King books, I would not consider them “favorites.”
Perhaps it merely takes a while for a book to emerge as a classic, the old saw of “only time will tell”.
Other thoughts? Who are your favorite living, working authors and why?