Ah, lists. I love ‘em and periodically I feel the urge to produce another one. Here’s a list of the authors I’ve read (and probably own) nearly everything by, with some brief thoughts on each of them.
She’s written six novels – I own and have read all six. My favourites are Queenpin and The End of Everything, but I like them all. I first encountered this author less than two years ago when I picked up a copy of her The Song Is You on a discount pile. I love discount piles.
J. G. Ballard
He wrote an awful lot, novels and stories, and I own and have read virtually all of it. Ballard had a profound impact on me at a crucial age (19-20), probably second only to Philip K. Dick in this regard. Ballard has definitely seeped his way into my writing subconscious. His essays are also extremely interesting – the man was nearly a genius. I recently read Extreme Metaphors: Interviews with J. G. Ballard 1967-2008 and was duly blown away.
William S. Burroughs
Burroughs published a number of little chapbooks and other ephemera, so I can’t claim to have read everything he wrote, but I have at least 20-25 of his books and I’ve read numerous biographies and both volumes of his letters. I’ve even read Here to Go, his collaboration with Brion Gysin. I must have read Naked Lunch 5-6 times by now.
I’m fairly new to Barker, only having discovered her in the past 3-4 years. I very much enjoyed her Regeneration Trilogy and was especially enamoured with the recent Toby’s Room. She’s an outstanding writer and there are 2-3 of her books that I’m still yet to read. I tend not to like her contemporary stuff as much as those books set in WWI.
In fact I hadn’t read a word of him until earlier this year, so it didn’t take me long to read all his short story collections (except for some posthumous stuff) and a biography to boot. Terrible person, amazing writer.
Without Chandler I might still shy away from crime fiction. I was enraptured by novels like The Big Sleep, Farewell My Lovely and The Long Goodbye, and I’ve read some of his novels multiple times. I never really got into his short stories. I’ve also read numerous biographies and a book of his letters.
J. M. Coetzee
Coetzee only barely makes this list, simply because there are 5-6 of his books that I haven’t read as yet. But I’ve read at least 10 of them and enjoyed them for the most part. I especially liked Disgrace and his trilogy of memoirs. Coetzee can be dry at times, but at his best he has no peer and he is the spiritual successor to Samuel Beckett.
Most of the writers on this list are pretty famous, but Crews decidedly isn’t, not anymore. Dead and more or less out of print, Crews is nevertheless on a par with the likes of Cormac McCarthy and William Gay, in my humble opinion. I’ve never read a fiercer book than his dark masterpiece A Feast of Snakes.
Philip K. Dick
What can I say about him that I haven’t said already? I’ve published a 40,000 word long article on his work in Bruce Gillespie’s SF Commentary 83 and I dedicated years to reading everything he wrote and everything wrote about him. That adds up to a hell of a lot and takes up about two shelves in my study. PKD is my number one influence as a writer, by far.
The best prose stylist of the twentieth century, bar none. There, I’ve said it.
Barry N. Malzberg
Another mostly out-of-print writer, Malzberg was one of my favourite SF writers a decade or so ago. I had a fairly extensive email correspondence with the man a decade ago as well. His best novels include Underlay and Galaxies.
I very much liked her novel Half the Day is Night many years back, and now I’ve managed to assemble her complete ouevre, even if there are a couple of things I haven’t read.
James Tiptree Jr.
In actual fact a woman by the name of Alice Sheldon, Tiptree is famous for some amazing short stories written mostly in the 1970s. I’ve read virtually all of them. “Her Some Rose Up Forever” is among the best.
Vandermeer is among beautiful stylist and author of numerous works, none better than his collection thingy City of Saints and Madmen. I’ve been following his career with interest.
Another writer I’ve only recently discovered, I discovered Woodrell on another discount pile in the form of his novel Winter’s Bone. I liked that plenty so I ordered everything else he’d written. Right now I’m very much enjoying his most recent novel, The Maid’s Version.
That’s fifteen writers I’m very fond of. Eleven of them are men. Eleven of them are Americans, three British and one South African. All of them are contemporary or near-contemporary. Chandler was born earliest, but Greene published earliest. There were a few others who didn’t quite make the list for one reason or another, such as Iain Banks, John Crowley, William Gay (haven’t read his stories), M. John Harrison, Jonathan Lethem (plenty more of his to read), Kim Stanley Robinson, Kurt Vonnegut, Irvine Welsh and Ma Jian (he’s only written about three books). And then there are Australian writers I like but haven’t read everything by, such as Garry Disher, Andrez Bergen, Simon Haynes, Paul Haines (I have read all of his), Bruce Russell, Kaaron Warren, and plenty of others.
So, which writers would make a similar list if you were to construct one?
I have a thing about fiction: I hate reading books over a certain length (about 300 pages). My optimum novel is probably 220 pages in length (Exhibit A: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker) and it’s no coincidence that I try to write novels of a similar length too. But there is a type of book where bigger is better, for me at least, and that is the literary biography. I only read biographies of writers and only if I respect them for their work, and I generally read bios as part of a ‘general immersion’ in writers I especially like. Put bluntly, I binge on great writers and their biographies are often a heavy though satisfying side dish. There’s nothing I enjoy more than curling up in bed with an overweight biography – like the 500+ page tome on Raymond Carver I’m currently reading. Why?
I guess literary biographies are a way of communing with (mostly) dead writers, of exploring their zeitgeist, of absorbing the lessons of their life. Writers’ lives are often chaotic, the morality of their actions very frequently questionable, their behaviour often loathsome. But a literary biography is almost always a tale of redemption, in that the Great Work eventually gets written and published, often in spite of the author’s lurchings through life. These biographies are a form of nourishment for the acolyte writer such as myself, but writers rarely offer good role models in terms of their behaviour. Perhaps it’s the type of writers I enjoy reading, but it seems to me that literary biographies often allow writers a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card for their bad behaviour in exchange for the Great Work they have produced along the way.
Here’s a list of some literary biographies I own and have read. The better ones are bolded.
The Inner Man: The Life of J G Ballard – John Baxter
Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S Burroughs – Ted Morgan
The Lost Years of William S Burroughs: Beats in South Texas – Rob Johnson
Cursed From Birth: William S Burroughs Jr – edited by David Ohle
Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life – Carol Sklenicka
Raymond Chandler: A Life – Tom Williams
The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved – Judith Freeman
Raymond Chandler – Tom Hiney
Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K Dick – Lawrence Sutin
Search for Philip K Dick: 1928 – 1982 – Anne R. Dick
Graham Greene: The Man Within – Michael Shelden
Nothing Is True, Everything Is Permitted: The Life of Brion Gysin – John Geiger
James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B Shelden – Julie Phillips
In addition to the above, there are a number of writers whom I would love to read full length biographies on. English novellist Pat Barker is in her seventies now so she should be prime for this treatment. American writer Harry Crews died recently and I would love to read a book on him, although I’m not sure he’s popular enough these days to warrant one. There is rumoured to be a follow-up volume to his amazing memoir A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, so that would be almost as good, should it ever appear. I’d like to read a biography of William Gay too. But for now, it’s back to the boozing and philandering of Raymond ‘Running Dog’ Carver.
It occurred to me last night that all the writers I’ve written about on this blog so far are men! Here I am, a so-called egalitarian thinker, but 90% of my favourite authors are male. I wonder why this is? One of my favourite female authors, Alice Sheldon, used to be a man. Erm, kinda. If you don’t know who James Tiptree Jr aka Alice Sheldon is, it’s not hard to find out. The best place to learn about Sheldon’s life is in the biography James Tiptree Jr: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Philips. Check out some reviews of this outstanding book, including one by yours truly.
This is the best biography I’ve ever read. If you’ve read some of Tiptree’s stories and appreciated them, you need to read this biography. If you’ve never read Tiptree, trust me, you can’t go wrong with this. You don’t even need to be interested in SF to get into this book. For some reason, Amazon have slashed the price of this book to $6.99, and that’s for the hardcover. This is literally the best $7 you can spend!
OK, so that’s the biography of a life, but what about the work itself? It turns out that there is just ONE essential volume of stories that everyone interested in Tiptree/Sheldon needs to own. It’s called Her Smoke Rose Up Forever and it was re-issued by Tachyon a few years ago. The first edition came out in 1990 or so, but it’s out of print now.
I’ve just realised that you can get both of these books for $US17.84 plus postage. I’m not kidding – you can’t go wrong with this. Just to prove I didn’t make this up, if you look at my PKD bookshelf at the top of the page, you can see Tiptree on the end. I’ve got the biography, as well as the original edition of Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Tiptree published several volumes of short stories and a couple of undistinguished novels, but the cream is in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever. Read “Her Smoke Rose Up Forever” and “A Momentary Taste of Being” and then get back to me.