My Writing

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Who should I read? Am I a snob? Wtsldfk%#gh etc.

I don't feel a kinship with many contemporary prose writers. I have many online poet friends, and I know many online prose writers, some of whom I feel, when I put on my "let's pretend I could be anything close to objective or definitive with an appraisal" hat, I consider to be "good" prose writers in some way, but with very few writers, particularly prose writers, do I feel a kinship.

There's Tao, Sam Pink, Richard Chiem, Frank Hinton, Ben Brooks, Timothy Willis Sanders, and beyond that I'm not sure.

I liked Zachary German's book, but I don't want to write like that book.

Beyond the online writing scene, as a reader of print books by non-online-lit people, I have very few contemporary favorites. Maybe none who are alive. The most recent authors, besides those mentioned above, who have impressed me, are David Foster Wallace and Roberto Bolano. I believe the hype is "justified" in both cases. Bolano impresses me more than Wallace, and I like his work a lot more. [Edit: I like Dennis Cooper. Forgot about Ryu Murakami and Michel Houellebecq; those bros are alive, right? I like both of them.]

Many writers that my peers or other people I see writing about literature online seem to admire, like Don DeLillo, Joan Didion, Gordon Lish, for example, do not immediately appeal to me (Lish's admiration of Beckett and Salinger endears him to me, but I've yet to read a book of his I liked a helluva lot; Didion is "on my shit list" for shit-talking Salinger back in the day; she seems cool, but I don't vibe with her writing/viewpoint, from what I've read).

I am not very well-read outside of Modernist literature of the 1920's/30's. I want to read more and I want to find many more authors to love, particularly post-1960, but I am the sort of person who doesn't want to buy a book, even from a used store, unless I am fairly confident I will like it. I commonly pick up a book, read through it a bit, and feel as if it will be a chore to read its prose or experience, so to speak, its narrative. Then I set the book back down.

A thing I have noticed about some earlier 20th-century classic authors: they are more appealing to me, more varied in tone and approach, and somehow surprising to me when I read them vis-a-vis my expectations from advance word/reputation. Some good examples are Chekhov, Beckett, and Kafka. I thought Chekhov was the patron saint of contemporary Realist authors who get published in the New Yorker, like Alice Munro, Jhumpa Lahiri, or William Trevor. But when I read a collected Chekhov, there was way more playfulness, comedy, and seeming casualness than I had ever seen in contemporary Realist stories. Some Chekhov stories were like fun little vignettes, in a way I liked. All of the stories I read were more appealing than any Realist story I have read in the New Yorker from the last couple of decades.

I've written about Beckett before, but point is I thought he'd be a slog to read and instead he is hilarious, beautiful, dark, beautifully dark, beautifully hilarious and dark and beautiful, one of the most inspiring writers I've ever read.

Kafka's novels seem less appealing to me from paging through, but the stories I've read have been uncannily humorous, almost patient, almost incorrigible in their humor. Very uncanny and odd and nice. Kafka truly makes me lol.

Maybe the point I'm grasping for here is that I want authors to be surprising and exciting and do things you didn't think they would. Maybe it's harder to be truly zany and idiosyncratic and get published now, unless you're on a small press. And in the small-press/online-lit scene, there are some microtends/tendencies in experimental lit to which I don't feel attracted, I think, as well as a lot of more Realist fiction I'm not excited about.

Using 1960 as a marker, post-1960, there is a big drop-off in the number of writers I like.

I sent a query email to Dalkey Archive after college, asking to be a coffee-fetcher. Dalkey's publisher kindly responded, and eventually I got a phone interview with him and someone else on the staff. I failed the interview--maybe the only time I truly felt I had failed an interview--because they asked what books/authors did I like post-1960 and nothing/no-one came to mind.

I did not get the internship, but Dalkey's publisher kindly gave me a reading list. I took that list to the used bookstore and picked up a number of the books on the list.

That summer, I read some books I now consider favorites, like Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, Djuna Barnes' Nightwood, and Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts. I also read some books I didn't like quite as much, though appreciated in some ways, like Second Skin by John Hawkes (I have since tried to read other Hawkes books, and it seems like Second Skin is the most immediately appealing to me of his books).

If anyone has recommendations, please leave them in the comments.

So far I have only really gotten into Burroughs, of the Beats. I like Burroughs quite a bit.

I like Henry Miller, but so far I haven't liked any of his books as much as Tropic of Cancer.

Have never read Vonnegut or Pynchon. Not particularly psyched to read either. Want to read Gaddis even though he seems like a self-serious misanthrope in a way I'm not sure I like.

Incomplete list of authors I have already read and liked:
Joyce, Beckett, Salinger, Cortazar, Virginia Woolf, Ford Madox Ford (The Good Soldier), Jean Rhys (love Rhys' concision, form, style, and details she chooses, how her narrators are flawed and "very human" in ordinary-non-melodramatic-type ways), Roberto Bolano, Clarice Lispector, Reinaldo Arenas (The Color of Summer I read based on Dalkey bro's suggestion; there is a lot of gay sex in bathrooms in this book and it has some very beautiful prose at times), Chekhov, Kafka, Rilke, Djuna Barnes, Yukio Mishima, Ryu Murakami, et al

Feel like I'm an asshole or a snob. A lot of authors seem "fine, OK, whatever" to me, but I don't want to read them. I want to be excited to read someone. I want to feel cool reading someone, but to actually like the book, too. I want to feel like the author was trying to do something other than just "write a Literary Novel."

In other news, I cried twice reading Frank O'Hara the other day.


  1. I recommend 'Dogwalker' by Arthur Bradford.

  2. Based on your list of books you like, I think you should give Pynchon a chance. "Gravity's Rainbow" lives up to its reputation, in my opinion. Just try to hang in past the first 100 pages -- it gets a lot funnier and more engaging after that.

    Also Haruki Murikami maybe? "Norwegian Wood" reminds me a lot of contemporary writers like Tao Lin: simple, clear prose; minimal plot; story about idle young people in love. His other books I've read are different and kind of uneven, but "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" is very worth it.

  3. thanks for the recommendations, James and Morgan. i haven't heard of Arthur Bradford.

    Morgan, i have an impression, probably unfair both to Pynchon and his fans, that there is a type of person who is really into Pynchon, and my unfair caricature of a person who is into Pynchon is not the kind of person i want to be. also he seems to be into science. i hate science. is he as humanist/sentimental as Joyce is at times? feel like he'd be a poor man's hippie Joyce. pretty sure that's incredibly unfair. i'll think about trying him.

    i have read some Murakami. i liked some of the short stories. i don't feel drawn to him. i feel he is not as [something] as Tao. "rigorous"? "concise"? i feel like Murakami's love of Chandler and Carver may have something to do with me not being drawn to his novels (so far). does he like Chandler? feel like i read that. i know he likes Carver. i don't care for Carver. i'll reconsider both. thanks, Morgan

  4. by the way, humanist/sentimental in reference to Joyce was meant as a positive--i love those qualities in Joyce. just for clarification

  5. i liked reading anais nin, lydia davis and george saunders
    i really liked 'both ways is the only way i want it' by maile meloy

  6. Richard Brautigan is very good. I recommend him highly.
    Nabokov? I've only read Lolita but the idea of him appeals to me. I want to read Pale Fire.
    Have you read Lydia Davis? I enjoy her stories a lot.
    I haven't read 100 Years Of Solitude of Love In The Time Of Cholera, but Marquez's novellas are very good and I think you might enjoy them.
    What about Bukowski?
    I don't know where these people fit into the timeline you're looking at. I'm not good at history.
    Also I love Vonnegut, so there

  7. hi N, thanks for the recommendations. i have read some Anais Nin. i'm interested in her. interested in her relationship with Miller also. i like Lydia Davis. i like George Saunders to some degree. Lydia is closer to my taste of the two.

  8. thanks, Jackson. i have read and liked Brautigan. i like his informality. i like that he appears in photographs on his covers. his prose style is a little hit or miss for me but i definitely like him.

    i like Nabokov in some ways. i'm definitely impressed by him. i think the crucial difference to me between Nabokov and Joyce, both very technically talented, smart writers imho, is that Joyce identifies with his characters, he's a humanist, whereas Nabokov is strictly an aesthete (or so he claims..) that has kept me from loving Nabokov, i think, so far.

    Lydia Davis is appealing to me in some ways, primarily formally, in her sense of play. her content and tone is a bit limited-feeling to me, but i like her

    i have enjoyed reading Bukowksi poetry to some extent. idk how much i want to read his prose

    Marquez seems less my bag, but who knows... Thanks, Jackson

  9. I think that Pynchon can be humanist/sentimental in a way. I definitely think he has a lot of sympathy for his characters, if that's what you mean by that. He definitely has a big Joyce influence, but mostly just in that he writes huge, complicated novels. In some ways he's more like Beckett or Kafka, in that most of what happens in his books is fanciful/allegorical/not realistic. Any science I've encountered in his books tends to be pretty out-there, more like occult philosophy or magic than real-world science.

    Oh, and the suggestion of Lydia Davis (who I haven't been able to enjoy) made me think of Anne Beattie (esp. "Chilly Scenes of Winter") and Mary Gaitskill ("Bad Behavior" is her only book I've read), both of whom I like a lot. "Chilly Scenes of Winter" seems like the main influence on "Eeeee Eee Eeee."

  10. Hi Morgan,

    thanks for clarifying about Pynchon. i'll take another look.

    i wouldn't describe Beckett or Kafka as fanciful/allegorical/not realistic. feel it'd be complicated to explain. Beckett, whether he's relating actual anecdotes from his life, or consciously inventing, fictionalizing (as he sometimes overtly acknowledges himself as doing, within the text)--Beckett seems to be in a strange relation to reality, whether mental reality, concrete reality, intellectual/abstract reality--in my opinion. i don't think he is being fanciful or allegorical or unrealistic.

    Kafka maybe has a fanciful/allegorical *feel* to his work, but to me, the work is not ultimately, at bottom, fanciful or allegorical, or detached from reality. i like Foster Wallace's essay on Kafka and his funniness very much. i think Kafka's humor is the key to his work. i found myself lol'ing uproariously at stories of his that are not conventionally humorous. i kept laughing and laughing...

    maybe it's semantics, but just sharing thoughts on the authors and those adjectives


    i like "Chilly Scenes of Winter" very much. a part in it made me cry. so far haven't been attracted when paging thru others of her books. thanks

    Gaitskill i haven't looked into very much

    Cheers, Morgan. always appreciate your thoughts

  11. feel like maybe Kafka can be looked at as allegory...idk why i disagreed so much... i guess i think Kafka's works are more than allegory, and a strange case of allegory...but you very likely would say that too, so yea...

  12. I figured that if I read two Shakespeare plays a week I can read 18 of his plays in one summer

    Titus Andronicus
    Richard III
    The Comedy of Errors
    Love Labour’s Lost
    Romeo and Juliet

    A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    The Merchant of Venice
    Henry IV, Part 1
    Henry IV, Part 2
    Much Ado About Nothing

    Julius Caesar
    Twelfth Night
    King Lear

    Antony and Cleopatra
    The Tempest

    So I think that’s what I’ll be doing this summer, besides reading a lot of online lit

  13. cool, Chris. i took a Shakespeare class in college and liked it in some ways. i remember liking "king lear," "hamlet," "the tempest"

  14. this owns

    here are a couple examples of some style that are different from what was mentioned in the post

    samuel delany, esp. The Motion of Light in Water and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. he's a fantastic writer. i've been told his speculative fiction is among the best, but i haven't read any of it yet.

    i also really liked tripmaster monkey by maxine hong kingston. that may just be because i'm obsessed with romance of the three kingdoms and there are allusions to it in there.

  15. cool, thanks, Shaun. i just looked at the amazon preview for that tripmaster monkey book and it looks interesting

    i've heard good things about samuel delany a number of times, particularly about "dhalgren." thanks for the recs

  16. while reading this post i thought of gabriel josipovici. maybe you'd like him. he's been around since the 60's. i read a couple of his books which were nearly entirely dialogue. he also has a couple of non-fiction books on modernism. here's a link to a short story by him that's online:

  17. also, i really enjoyed the two books lars iyer has out on melville house.

  18. hi Giles, thanks man. i've heard of gabriel josipovici, about him speaking out about modernism and today's writers, etc. i'll check him out

    i've seen a lars iyer melville house book, but never checked it out. thanks