MIND MELD: Influential Non-Genre Books
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Not long ago, we asked some folks about science fiction, fantasy and horror books they love to re-read. Damien G. Walter suggested that a good follow on question would be to ask about non-genre books. So we asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
I read a lot in my childhood: an obscure book by, I think, Kingsley, entitled Hereward the Wake; Pyle’s Robin Hood; the Oz books; Burroughs’ Tarzan: I wanted to run away for a year (not forever) and join the Zulu, when I was about 7; I read Sabatini; Costain; and at 7 I started reading the entire 1947 edition of The World Book Encyclopedia: I am well-versed on all topics through M. As an adult, the Iliad, by Homer; La Morte d’Arthur; and the Aeneid by P. Vergilius Maro. I rather liked Milton’s Paradise Lost; and I ate up Tacitus’ History.
Well, I’ve never thought of my work as belonging to a particular genre, because back when I began my first book there was no zombie lit. Zombies (specifically the intelligent ghouls in Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend) were just one of many things I was riffing on, along with Michael Crichton technothrillers, James Cain twisted noirs, and chick-lit classics like Jane Eyre and Nancy Drew.
Other influences were Huckleberry Finn, Candide, Heart of Darkness, True Grit, Perfume, I Claudius, On the Beach, Catch-22, Lord of the Flies, A Clockwork Orange, Lolita – a pretty random assortment, but all sharing a certain ironic sensibility. I’ve always aspired to write stories like those, whose characters manage to be simultaneously hapless and heroic, tragic and funny…and usually doomed.
At first I thought this would be a difficult question to answer, because most of my big, obvious influences are from within the genre–but no, there are quite a lot of non-genre books that have played a major part in my life and my writing. I’ll divide it into two groups: books that influenced my worldview, and books that influenced my writing in some direct way or another.
As probably surprises nobody, my biggest non-genre influences are feminist and queer books; theory, critical scholarship and essays alike. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas left lasting impressions on me as a young academic and woman writer. Her influence is strongest in my awareness of my space to write and struggling to lay claim to the right to write, the right to study, et cetera, in a world that still stifles women’s creative ambitions. Judith Butler’s books, Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter, explored issues of the limits of our popular categorizations of what sex, gender and sexuality really are and decimates essentialist notions of the subject. For a queer writer, exploring in my own work similar issues, reading these books–probably around late high school, I think–made a singular impression on me, combined as they were with the contemporary media representations of gender. There’s also Adrienne Rich’s On Lies, Secrets and Silence, which changed how I looked at literary criticism and the reading of writers like Emily Dickinson, as well as how I thought about language as a whole. (Joanna Russ, of course, is also a major influence, but I can’t argue that she’s not genre.)
Then there’s the stuff that was/is important to me as a writer on a much more specific scale. Raymond Chandler’s novels, like The Big Sleep, are like a punch in the jaw–that man knew how to write. His sentences are so perfect and so striking that it’s hard not to be influenced by them after reading them. The books are problematic as all hell, but the prose is phenomenal. Probably the influence that will seem most out of place is Hunter S. Thompson, but really, his whole oeuvre has made a drastic impact on me as a writer. I’ll narrow it down to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, for the sake of the question. His nonfiction was more surreal than a lot of SF; it influenced the way I describe things and how I look at the world around me. I’d also list a book that probably everyone mentions at some point, Stephen King’s On Writing–sure, King is a genre writer, but that book is a memoir/writing manual, so it doesn’t count. (Or at least I’m making that argument.) While I’ve since discarded much of the advice in the book after trying it on for size, On Writing was the first serious manual on the craft I ever read, and I still think it’s a damned good primer. It certainly influenced the way I look at the act of writing, as well as the business of it.
Finally, I’m a poetry reader. T. S. Eliot is pretty much as genre as poetry can get quite a lot of the time, but I don’t think it’s cheating to list him as an influence. Edna St. Vincent Millay, too, made quite the impression on me. They both influenced the ways in which I put images together and how I look at phrases on the page, or read them aloud. As for their books, The Complete Works of both will suffice.
You know, people may not know this about me, but I actually read quite a bit of non-genre literature. I’m particularly fond of works of immersive journalism and popular science, and both of these genres help me, strangely enough, to see just how “fantastic” our own world can be. One book that had a really intense effect on me was a college student was Desmond Morris’ The Naked Ape, a kind of layman’s take on evolutionary psychology. Morris posits that we’re not all that far from our primate ancestors, and that many of our supposedly sophisticated human behaviors can be explained in terms of primate society. Interesting read. It got me thinking about the human animal’s place in the universe and how the case for human exceptionalism is probably a pretty weak one. While some people might find this disconcerting, I found it to be a source of great comfort. I like the idea that we’re still grounded in nature, and the fraternity with all living things that this by necessity implies.
Raymond Chandler is a huge influence. I have no naive illusions that I’ll ever be able to write half as well as he does, but the sheer brilliance with which he uses language is a source of envy and a high water mark to which I reckon most writers have, at some time, aspired. His plots are frequently unintelligible, but no one can beat Chandler for sheer, style, atmosphere, wit and use of language.
I also love George Orwell, especially Homage to Catalonia, for the way in which he manages to conjure incredible feelings with deceptively simple language and storytelling, not to mention that the actual events he saw and took part in are fascinating.
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker
This is actually a “how to reduce your chances of getting raped or murdered” sort of book, but wow, it’s been golden to me as a writer. This baby added major dimension to my understanding of instinct, intuition and the way predators and victims operate. Every book I’ve written since reading The Gift of Fear owes something to it.
Christmas Holiday by Somerset Maugham
Maugham has so many fabulous fiction moves. One of my favorite Maugham moves is that he’ll set up a kind of touchstone in his novels and stories, and all the characters relate to that touchstone in different ways, creating an awesome, character-illuminating effect. I so cherish Christmas Holiday. It has influenced me in ways I can’t describe, but some I can, and this touchstone thing is one of them. (In this case, art as a touchstone.) And naturally I attempt to use the touchstone trick myself. For example, in the city where my trilogy is set, there is this mammoth, weird mothership of a traffic turnpike/interchange, and each of my characters has a very specific and different relationship to it.
Brighton Rock by Graham Greene
I’m so in awe of Greene’s passionate, highly focused (at times obsessive) characters. And the way he blasts those characters’ personal realities into every possible corner of a chapter, and really, into the world of a book. I’m thinking especially here of this character Pinkie-’who he is’ and ‘where he came from’ drive the big things, of course, but his outlook saturates even most insignificant descriptions, even the language in his POV chapters (this is 3rd person POV). Nothing’s wasted. The author’s nowhere. It’s gorgeously claustrophobic. Is all this influential to me? Lord knows I sure hope it is.
Jane Austen influenced me with her expertise on plotting. She’s just magnificent in getting you interested in the resolution of an important plot point and then bursting in with something you’d half-forgotten about because of the escalating action in the main plot. My favorite example is in Pride and Prejudice, when just when it seems the relationship between Elizabeth and Darcy is to reach a happy understanding, the letter from Jane arrives with news of the youngest sister Lydia’s disappearance in the midnight carriage of scoundrel George Wickham.
I’ve also taken inspiration from Louis L’Amour. In his Westerns, the land shapes the characters so much, in their adaption to survive the characters seem just as much a part of the topography as a New Mexico cactus. They are stories of survival in a harsh land. His heroes and heroines expend a good deal of intelligent effort trying to avoid conflict, but events still manage to overtake them and eventually they must turn on their enemies like a cornered mountain lion.
The third sort of book I seem to return to are memoirs written by fighting men. They taught me about the mindset of heroes. The men who are scared to death and still manage to saddle up always speak admiringly of the men who shrug at danger or are fatalistic about their chances and don’t seem to know fear. On the other hand, those brave souls think, in return, that the true heroes are the ones who terrified every minute of action but still manage to do their jobs. Interesting contrast.
I think everything we read tends to seep in and color our work. I’m assuming for the purposes of discussion here that we’re talking specifically about fiction, because if I started getting into the nonfiction that’s inspired me in some way…
I read an awful lot of 19th/early 20th-century adventure fiction as a young person–Jack London, Walter Farley, Westerns, that sort of thing. Also an awful lot of mystery novels. I was a complete addict when it came to Nancy Drew and so forth. I still like a good mystery or thriller–some of my favorites include John D. MacDonald, Walter Mosely, Daniel Silva, and Val McDermid, who I am just getting into. She’s nicely filling the gap in my recreational reading left by not enjoying Patricia Cornwell or Elizabeth George’s recent books as much as I did their older stuff.)
I think both those things–the adventure and the mystery–inform my fiction. I tend to write mystery or thriller-type plots, with the science fiction and fantasy interwoven through that armature. A thriller plot is a great engine to pot in a book. It gives you something to write about while doing all your nifty worldbuilding and characterization and thematic development.
I think Keri Hulme’s The Bone People was one of the books that really showed me how to manage theme, and likewise Anthony Burgess’ A Dead Man in Deptford. Those are both brilliant books, nuanced and complicated with complicated characters.
I have a friend who’s one of those people with whom you have nothing in common, but you get along famously anyway. She’s a huge reader, but not specifically a genre fan. Once, when we were talking about cooking, she recommended Tender at the Bone by Ruth Reichl, Gourmet magazine’s editor in chief, and I reluctantly gave it a try. I doubted that a non-genre book, not to mention nonfiction book, would hold my attention (yes, I was a bit myopic), but I was completely entranced with her writing style, the life she’s led, and most of all, the way she writes about food. It made me appreciate the details surrounding much of what we gloss over in science fiction, mainly the glory of food.
(For the record, if I can delve into SF territory for a moment, the genre book that’s rivaled Reichl’s food writing is Robin McKinley’s Sunshine. You think it’s about vampires, but it’s not. It’s about baking.)
I eagerly read Reichl’s follow up books, Comfort Me with Apples and Garlic and Sapphires. Her narrative and description are better than a lot of the fiction or genre books I’ve read, and she keeps my mouth watering. (I’m not being metaphorical here- I was preparing for an expensive, unsatisfying dinner at a hotel once and was reading a chapter in Garlic and Sapphires about her first sushi experience in New York. My mouth watered and then I thought of the bland dinner I was about to have. I wanted to cry.) I am planning a genre book that focuses on food and credit Reichl as a major influence. (I just discovered she had a new book in 2009 that I missed, Not Becoming My Mother, and it’s now at the top of my wishlist.)
I’ve got to admit, I don’t read as much non-genre as I should. When I do, it’s largely encyclopedic stuff. Wait, that counts, right? In actuality, that does comprise a lot of my non-genre reading. I’m an engineer’s kid, so I’m fascinated with what makes things stick together (although, if you interviewed my friends, they’d probably tell you I prefer things to go ‘boom’…).
I don’t have access to my library (yay moving?) right now, but the non-genre authors that influenced me the most were probably Sir Walter Scott and Tennyson. I had most of Scott’s books and still have a 100 year old copy of Tennyson’s works. In a weird way, those two probably opened me up to genre more than any other authors, even the Christian authors like Dekker and Peretti. The use of mythology, human interaction and history was fantastic and the language was more beautiful than most of the stuff I had access to.
I’m reading–slowly–a book called A Story As Sharp As A Knife, an exploration of the Haida storytellers and their culture. I’ve had the opportunity to interview one of the Blackfeet storytellers, and the spirituality and view of the world often affects the stories I tell, too. Another excellent semi-biographical book is Warrior Woman. I can’t speak to the authenticity of it, but it’s about a N’de warrior woman and shaman who helped Geronimo’s resistance efforts, and it is a powerful story of a woman’s role in a male-dominated society.
As far as non-genre fiction, well…heh. There isn’t much that I could say here that won’t get me in trouble…but suffice to say: I plan and run fetish performance events, and I get a lot of inspiration and ideas from certain religious books, and from religious history. Religious themes in horror call to me a lot, too. It’s a powerful, basic and controversial theme, and I love to see them being utilized well.
First come the Romantics. In this case, I don’t simply mean the poetry. For although the poems are remarkable-I think particularly of first reading Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, for example, or Coleridge’s “Christabel” — I also found great inspiration from Keats’s letters, as well as the history and correspondences of the other men (and scarce few women) alive during that time. Through the poetry I learned about the magic of words (I still hold that reading Keats aloud almost tastes good), and fell in love with the natural landscapes so cherished by the movement. Through the letters and histories, I discovered the joy and madness of creative genius. Not to mention I encountered philosophy, including thoughts on the Sublime. And particularly with Coleridge and Keats, I gained quite an appreciation for the Gothic. Nothing says creepy like Keats’s take on “Isabella and the Pot of Basil”.
Considering I spent the bulk of graduate school ensconced in the library, poring over volumes in various Middle English dialects, this next section is not particularly surprising. Middle English romances, be they Arthurian or Carolingian, had a huge impact on me. There is of course Mallory’s great Morte D’Arthur (I always liked Vinaver’s translation) and dozens upon dozens of romances by lesser known writers. But the influence here, I have realized, doesn’t necessarily manifest itself in a love of epic fantasy – although that is certainly part the reason I’ve always been drawn to it. I am now convinced that years of reading such violent and exciting tales have led to my appreciation of pulp. Mallory never turned down a chance to bash in the head of a knight, and various tellings of the “Song of Roland” spare no details in the way of brains and blood. I’d say it’s done quite a bit to enhance my tendency to write weird westerns.
To move into the 20th century and beyond, there’s Nick Hornby — particularly his books High Fidelity and About a Boy — who taught me quite a bit about tight dialogue and characterization. And fun, since that’s important, too. In contrast, Elie Wiesel’s Night broke my heart in a necessary way, demonstrating just how heavy a slim volume could be.
But more than any of these other works – literary or mainstream – there is one book that is my literary starting point. When I read S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders at the age of 12, I didn’t just fall in love with the characters, I fell in love with the idea of being a writer. More than anything I wanted to create the way she had created. I wanted to tell stories that made people cry, that made people laugh, that moved people. After finishing the book, I picked up a pen and notebook and wrote a knock-off version, with my own troop of handsome young greasers. In spite of the fact that it bordered on plagiarism, I took writing that novel very, very seriously. I skipped recess to write, spent hours in my room scribbling away, and immersed myself in the telling. At that time, I believed myself to be a novelist.
That delusion persisted long enough to become reality.
Many non-genre books have influenced me over the years – among my favorites are Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner, Beloved by Toni Morrison, and Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez. It’s probably no coincidence that most of those novels have a touch of magic realism or the fantastic in them. As Popeye once said, “I yam what I yam!”
However, three specific non-genre books have heavily influenced my writing above and beyond those listed above. They are:
Blood Meridian is one of the most revealing novels ever written about the violence, racism, and purest ignorance interwoven with the exploration and settlement of the Western United States. However, what truly makes this story a masterpiece is McCarthy’s creation of Judge Holden, a character who is both evil and sympathetic, who both deeply understands the world around him and doesn’t care a bit about the hurt he gives to other. When I first read Blood Meridian, I told myself I wanted to create a character like the Judge, who is not only visibly memorable – standing 7 feet tall without a bit of hair on his body – but also gifted with amazing lines and actions. When I write stories, the Judge is always in the back of my mind as my own personal archetype of what a great character should be.
I first read Gloria Naylor’s powerful love story when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer serving in Thailand. At that time, Peace Corps headquarters in Bangkok contained a small lending library for volunteers, so whenever I visited for inoculations or trainings I returned to my assigned village with an armful of books. One of these books was Mama Day. Alternating between New York City and a barrier island in the South, the novel examines the lives of its characters through both the traditions and histories of their African-American background. This was the first novel I ever read which made me cry. I remember so clearly sitting in my wooden teacher’s house, the annual flood waters lapping against the pilings beneath my bedroom floor as I cried and cried over this book. I knew then that if I could cry like that because of something an author wrote, I could find a way to bring that same emotional response to my own stories.
When I was in high school, my English teacher handed out one of those Norton poetry anthologies from which an appreciation of literature was supposed to ooze into us students as if by magic. I don’t remember any of the poems my teacher taught us – instead, I remember being incredibly bored as he babbled about meter and rhyme. So I began to flip through the poetry anthology on my own. That’s when I discovered Gary Snyder, whose poem “The Dead by the Side of the Road” was collected within.
The opening stanza instantly grabbed me:
How did a great Red-tailed Hawk
come to lie – all stiff and dry -
on the shoulder of
Her wings for dance fans
Wow! I remember thinking that this was true poetry. This was the power that simple description could create when it was combined with a deeper understanding of life.
When I was older, I tracked down Snyder’s collected volume of verse No Nature and read it from cover to cover. Snyder’s descriptive abilities heavily influenced how I wanted to write. I wanted the descriptive phrases in my stories to carry both the stark imagery and deeper understandings of Snyder’s poetry. While I’m still a ways from accomplishing that, it is something I aim for with each sentence I write.
I’m fascinated to see this issue discussed at the moment. If I was to place one major criticism at the door of Speculative Fiction, it would be the way it continues to segregate itself from the rest of literature. And this is caused in great part by the misapprehension of SF as ‘genre’. Genre is part of Speculative Fiction, just as it is part of all literature, and just as all literature draws in some way from one genre or another. Some SF is overtly ‘generic’ (which generally makes it uninteresting to me), much other SF uses genre creatively (much more interesting) and the best Speculative Fiction is no more attached to genre than any good writing. Genre is something that good writers make use of, but don’t let themselves be trapped by. Similarly, SF presents writers with a set of tools. Like any specialised toolkit it fulfills certain functions. Skillful writers pick up the right tools for the right job, rather than limiting themselves to only the tools they are familiar with.
My own reading has always mixed SF with all other kinds of literature from as early as I can remember, so these books that have influenced me are drawn from across the whole history of my reading:
- Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto – as a teenager this short story collection was one of my first glimpses of how fiction can deliver insight in to very normal, everyday existence. I read it at least a dozen times in the space of a year or so. Yoshimoto claims it was written whilst listening to Nirvana, which was pretty much the soundtrack of my teenage years.
- East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck wants you to know that the events of ordinary life are the very stuff of drama. And that it is filled with both pain and unexpected kinds of healing. His theme is how the archetypal patterns of our oldest stories, in this case the biblical Caine and Abel, repeat through the generations in the lives of us all. Read simply as fiction it is a powerful story, but it becomes something more when you start to look at how these dramatic archetypes repeat in your own life.
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare – The British state education system has ruined the greatest English language writer for most of his latter day countrymen. I studied Hamlet three times at school, but it was only when I started reading Shakespeare myself as a young writer that I really began to see why his work has endured. Hamlet is about the worst of human existence, the structures of power and control, ego and ambition, that make it impossible for people to love or trust one another. There is no hero in Hamlet, all the characters are equally corrupt, and in the end everyone dies. The perfect tragedy, that plays out day in and day out in the places of power around the world.
- Underworld by Don Delilo – most of this generation of Great White Male novelists, British and American, are to my mind chronically overrated. Amis, McEwan, Roth, Updike. The only way I can rationalise the acclaim these authors and their peers receive is to believe that at some point literary readers fell in to a kind of self-hate, and like abused spouses are unable to escape the bilious behaviour poured on them by these writers. Delilo is this generation of writers saving grace. Underworld is his masterpiece. I’m not going to bother describing it…go and read it and White Noise and a few others by DeLilo, and put McEwan et. al. in the rubbish and forget about them.
- Runaway by Alice Munro – I discovered Munro this year, and read this entire collection in two days. By the end I felt like the top of my head had been taken off and my brain rewired by someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Munro’s writing is extremely cruel, because it continually returns to the ways people fail themselves, and act as the unconscious villains in their own lives. It’s very difficult to read her without noticing the hundreds of ways, large and small, we do these things to ourselves.
Filed under: Mind Meld
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