The 30 books that every writer has to read

In my last post, I presented a list of books on writing and publishing which would, I think help absolutely any writer improve their approach to their craft and their industry. As part of that same conversation, I was also asked if I thought there were books that a contemporary writer had to read in order to understand today’s publishing market. The truthful answer to that question is no, of course not. There’s no generally recognised canon and as long as you read widely and ambitiously, it doesn’t particularly matter what books you do or don’t run into.

Guantanamo image

At least we’ll get some reading done …

But that’s a rather cautious answer with no place on a blog like this. So let’s just say we had an emergency situation on our hands. A wannabe writer is about to undergo extraordinary rendition to, erm, a version of Guantanamo Bay that happens to be very well supplied with writing materials, but has no books at all. That writer knows the classics of Victorian fiction, as well as a good spattering of modernists and post-war writers … but they have to know what’s going on in today’s fiction and can only take 30 books with them. The helicopter blades are already starting to whirr. The orange jumpsuits are lying ready. You have three minutes to make your decision. Go.

Hmm Well, I wouldn’t like to have to make that decision as fast, but what follows (at the bottom of this post) is my very fast, back of the envelope suggestion.

American Wife

This woman is a librarian – married to a war criminal. If you don’t believe me, read the book.

Some of the books (Wolf Hall, something by Cormac McCarthy, something by Marilynne Robinson) do strike me as having almost canonical status now. Perhaps you’d add White Teeth, by Zadie Smith too. Jonathan Franzen is surely part of the canon too, though more likely for Freedom than for The Corrections, which is the one I’ve picked below.

Others – the Annie Proulx, the Curtis Sitterfield, the Colm Toibin – are personal favourites that I’d always want to press on people. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is, for my money, better than Jonathan Franzen. (That is: equally good, but less achingly self-important.)

I’ve included a couple of SFF books (China Mieville, Neil Gaiman) because it always annoys me when people are snobby about genre. (And also, why isn’t Cloud Atlas sci-fi-ish too? It is, surely.) I’ve only included one book of verse – Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf – and there’d be an argument for including at the very least Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters or Christopher Logue’s War Music … but I did only have three minutes and the point of an excercise like this is to make decisions fast, not get into those kind of arguments. And anyway, of those three options, I’d still pick the Heaney.

There are one or two books on this list that I don’t hugely love. I didn’t rate Emma Donoghue’s Room, and I think Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life was praised well beyond its actual merits. But if the point of the list is to help someone understand where the industry’s juices are flowing, then I think you have to include books that didn’t appeal to you so much personally.

Mostly though – isn’t this a cracking list? Something to get your reading juices flowing and with a wonderful variety of theme and approach. What would be on your list? Remember: fast and furious. Don’t think too long!

My list in full

Shipping News, by Annie Proulx
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
American Wife, by Curtis Setterfield
Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
The Secret History, by Donna Tartt
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson
Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
The Lie, by Helen Dunmore
American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
Beowulf, by Seamus Heaney
White Teeth, by Zadie Smith
The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi AdichieThe City & the City, by China Mieville
The Shock of the Fall, by Nathan Filer
The Sea, by John Banville
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
Brooklyn, by Colm Toibin
Room, by Emma Donoghue
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
Underworld, by Don DeLillo
An Artist of the Floating World, by Kashuo Ishiguro
American Psycho, by Brett Easton Ellis
Our Kind of Traitor, by John Le Carre
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Remarkable Creatures, by Tracy Chevalier
The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver

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  • So in desperate need to find books similar to those of my favorite authors, I literally Googled ‘Gillian Flynn, zadie Smith, Johnathan franzen, Brett Easton ellis’, and ended up here. I was shocked to see 5-6 of my favorite novels listed together, with 25 fresh books to indulge in.

    I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for this list. Since discovering this page, I have now also read’ Blood Meridian’ and ‘We need to talk about Kevin’.

    My goal in 2017 is to read every book highlighted in this article. Please let me know if you have any other resources that recommend similar authors – so far you’ve nailed it!

    Again, thank you so freaking much!