Authors learn to write by reading. But what are the best fiction books for writers who want to study character development or plot and pacing? We asked literary blogger Levi Stahl for some recommendations.
Q: Could you recommend a novel with characters that felt particularly real to you or which made you care about the story?
A: Well, at the risk of sounding like I'm shilling, I have to cite my favorite novel of all time, Anthony Powell's twelve-volume epic A Dance to the Music of Time, which is published by my employer, the University of Chicago Press. I tend to try to keep my blogging separate from my day job, but in this case I can't: I write about Dance all the time because to me it's inexhaustible: it traces the lives of a huge number of characters in London from just after the first World War into the late 1960s, and it's astonishing how many of those characters a fan of the books (and there are many, many of us who are devoted to them) carries around in his head ever after. Seriously: I could right now, without straining, name fifty characters from that book and tell you something about them; I could name twenty and tell you a lot about them. It's that good. Powell is a master of empathy, the most important characteristic for a novelist, and of humor, which I usually think is the second most important quality; he understands that, as one of the characters in Jean Renoir's very Powellian film "The Rules of the Game" says, "Everyone has their reasons." Or, as Powell writes in Dance, "All human beings, driven as they are at different speeds by the same Furies, are at close range equally extraordinary." (Bonus shilling: in December, to launch our e-books of the individual volumes of Dance,the University of Chicago Press is giving away the first book, Books Do Furnish a Room, for free through our own site and nearly all outlets that sell e-books, including Amazon and B&N.com.)Advertisement:
Q: Could you recommend a novel that you think is an example of effective plot development and pacing?
A: The most immersive reading experience of my year has been Dorothy Dunnett's eight-volume House of Niccoloseries, which runs to nearly 5,000 pages. It's historical fiction, but don't let that scare you off: the history detail here is so wholly woven into the story and the characters that the books never give off that awful sense that you're just gawping at history, that the author is using historical events for her own ends rather than as the real world in which these believable, compelling characters lived and worked.
Any work of fiction that long has to be well-assembled, or else no one would ever finish it. And the Niccolo books definitely are: Dunnett is a master at pacing and plot. The balance between straightforward character development and dramatic (often violent or dangerous) incident is never lost; they're so well balanced that every time danger--related in incredibly gripping, almost tangible fashion--rears up, it comes as a surprise, sweeping you away from the everyday concerns of the book the same way it does the characters. Yet at the same time, you keep reading for larger reasons, both to find out answers to questions posed earlier and to see where the various inclinations, habits, and machinations of the dozens of characters will lead you. It's stunning work, and a real primer for anyone wanting to write either adventure fiction or more staid, straightforward literature. Start with Niccolo Rising and see what you think.
Q: What's an example of a great beginning to a novel?
A: Iris Murdoch's A Word Child opens brilliantly: the narrator, a male civil servant named Hilary, is going about his daily routine, and in the course of his self-narration we begin to realize that all is not well. He's inwardly seething with frustration and anger, though denying that fact, and we don't know why. The chapter culminates in a surprising act of violence that, though small-scale, is shockingly effective at getting our attention and setting the tone for the book, because of all the quieter groundwork Murdoch laid earlier in the chapter. (Apologies for the lack of detail; I don't have this book in front of me and haven't read it in ten years--but as you can see, it stuck with me in its essence at least!)
Another is Philip K. Dick's Time Out of Joint. A man in 1950s America is getting something from his closet and reaches for the pull cord to turn on the light ... only he can't find it. In fact, it's not there: there's a wall switch instead. From that little blip of memory, his world begins to unravel. That situation--a momentary lapse of understanding--is so familiar that we instantly are in sympathy with the man, and then Dick leads us by the hand into territory we could never have expected.
(Without giving the ending away), could you recommend a novel with a particularly satisfying ending?
A: Cees Nooteboom's odd little novel The Following Story ends beautifully and brilliantly. A handful of passengers are on a cruise liner out of Portugal, and they start telling each other the stories of their lives. There are hints of oddities in the tellings, and a vague air of mystery hangs over the proceedings. The ending, though not really a surprise, is surprising in its perfection and the skill with which it is managed.
Q: Could you recommend a novel where the author has successfully done something innovative with form or genre?
A: Dunnett's novels would definitely count: they are part of a very, very small group (Hilary Mantel's brilliant Wolf Hall, Ronan Bennet's Havoc in Its Third Year, Halldor Laxness's Iceland's Bell) that redeem the entire concept of the historical novel from the critical ghetto to which most are (rightfully) assigned.
At risk of sounding yet again like a shill for my employer, Richard Stark's hardboiled crime novels featuring Parker the heister--which I was a big enough fan of to convince the University of Chicago Press to republish--expanded the boundaries of the crime genre wonderfully. They focus on a bad guy, unapologetically, and they don't give you any way out--no faux moral uplift or pretense of redemption. At the same time, they show the world of crime as a job just like any other, with work to be done, good and bad coworkers, easy and hard days. The difference, of course, is that here a bad coworker can get you killed.
Q: Could you recommend some wonderful novels or story collections that are not as well-known as they should be?
A: I'm a huge fan of J. F. Powers, a novelist and short story writer from midcentury Chicago. He wrote mostly about priests, which limited his audience, but these aren't books about religion so much as about, well, work and vocation. His priests are of and in the world, and they're making the little compromises, and experiencing the little successes and failures, that we all do every day. Powers has a wonderful dry wit and a deep, moving moral sense. His short story "A Losing Game" is one of the funniest pieces of writing I've ever encountered; a companion story, showing some of the same characters in a new light, "The Presence of Grace," is as intelligent, heartfelt, and powerful a reflection on human kindness and human, if ineffable, grace, I ever expect to find.
Contemporary writer John Crowley's four-volume Aegypt series has a small army of devotees, but it remains far less widely read than it deserves. It doesn't sound at all promising when described--it's about a group of aging ex-hippies in the Berkshires, meddling with occult ritual and the history of hermetic philosophy--but it's one of those rare series that makes you come away feeling like its characters and concerns are now inescapably part of your lives. The series took nearly twenty years to complete, with a seven-year gap between the third and final volumes, and when I saw Crowley read from the final volume I experienced a true sense of literary community. He opened by saying he was going to read a passage about a wedding, and the thirty or so of us in the room all sort of shivered and sighed with joy as one: this wedding, following travail after travail, was one we'd been waiting on for years . . . and now, in a sense, Crowley was inviting us to attend. These are books I'll read again and again.
Finally, I can never fail to push for James Gould Cozzens's Guard of Honor, which for my money is the best novel about World War II. Like another of my favorites, From Here to Eternity, its characters don't even get to the war: they're on an air training base in Florida, and the novel is about how they learn to live with each other and the Army, far from home and their ordinary roles. It's really about . . . wait for it . . . work, and how our work changes us and how our approach to our work can change those around us. (Are you detecting a theme here? Heck, even the Dorothy Dunnett novels are about work, in a way: the building of a merchant empire.) It's the work of a man who, for this one novel at least, was able to look deep into human character and relationships and show how they work.
Read Ron Hogan's recommendations of best fiction books for writers.
Read Edward Champion's recommendations of best fiction books for writers.