I’ve always said that if you want to write, you’ve gotta read–a lot. And I’ve learned a lot from my favorite authors.
If I wanted to show off, I’d say they were Henry James, Proust, E.M. Forster, Alice Walker, and so on. But that would be a lie. Serious Mainstream Literature–phooey. But without further ado, here are my favorites (in no particular order).
1. Agatha Christie. Never mind the whole mystery aspect of her work, which is justly famed. I read Dame Agatha for her wonderful and pithy insights into character. Nobody understood human nature better. And she can say so much about a character in so few words, deftly employing dialogue. Not like Stephen King, say, who beats you over the head with the character’s whole life story.
2. Edgar Rice Burroughs. The creator of Tarzan has two things going for him. First, nobody, but nobody, ever did a better job of juggling a complicated plot. When it comes to interweaving a bunch of subplots and keeping the action going, he’s up there with Charles Dickens. And second, Burroughs was one of those rare writers who let his imagination rip. I mean, he came up with some very wild stuff! And he knew how to make you believe in it. His Mars/Barsoom novels are his finest work.
3. J.R.R. Tolkien. My all-time favorite fantasy writer–another one who had the gift of making the reader believe in the most fantastic things. When I read Tolkien, I can see those characters and places. And he accomplished it, as it were, with deft little brush-strokes–he didn’t have to go into endless descriptive passages. No one ever knew better how to team up with his readers’ own imaginations.
4. C.S. Lewis. I make a point of reading his Narnia books once a year. I am in awe of his ability to speak volumes in just a few lines or a single paragraph. To see what I mean, consult the first page of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and see what he says about Eustace’s parents. Anyone else would have needed several pages to say what Lewis said in just one brief paragraph. I’m also extremely partial to That Hideous Strength, the third book of his Space Trilogy. I know of no better collection of insights into the academic subculture and, more importantly, the poisonous pretensions of doctrinaire humanism.
5. Arthur Upfield. See my earlier essay on this blog, “Fading into Obscurity.” Upfield was a genius, in my opinion. In his mystery novels he turns the Australian Outback itself into a powerful and often menacing secondary character. It is a crime that his books are being allowed to go out of print.
I resort to these authors all the time, because they more than others teach me how to write. They are my mentors.
Finally, honorable mentions to two of my favorite books.
The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… Doyle is best remembered for Sherlock Holmes, which is only just. But in The Lost World he wrote one of the very best science fiction adventures of all time. He casts the story with a set of very memorable characters, too–not always sci-fi’s strongest suit.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne. Surely Verne’s Captain Nemo is one of the most intriguing central characters ever to dominate a compelling story. This is one of those books that you want to go on and on, and not come to an end. Its psychological insights are always a delight.
Of course there are many more that I could name, but then I’d wind up having to write another book. This is only a little essay, after all.
Dear reader (as they used to say in the 19th century), who are your favorite authors?