You learn to write fiction by reading fiction. But what are the best fiction books to teach you about craft? We asked Edward Champion for some recommendations.
Edward Champion is a journalist, cultural critic, fiction writer, playwright, and radio show host. His writing has been published in The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, and numerous other publications, including his own cultural blog, Edward Champion's Reluctant Habits. His radio program, The Bat Segundo Show, features extended interview with writers and other cultural figures.
Q: Could you recommend a novel with characters that felt particularly real to you or which made you care about the story?
A: It's extremely difficult for me to settle on one novel. But to tackle this question from several vantage points, I hope that you can permit me to name two recent examples. I've just read an extraordinary novel written by Paolo Bacigalupi called The windup Girl, which depicts an apocalyptic universe where much of the globe has been flooded, international travel is limited to blimps and clipper ships, biological viruses have ravaged most of the nations, and so forth. The reason this feels real to me is because Bacigalupi is extraordinarily gifted with allowing us to fill in the gaps of what he's not telling us about. He's extrapolated a scenario based on present conditions and demonstrated great care in offering characters who are affected by these conditions. The novel's grim outlook may very well turn out to be false, but its atmosphere feels real in a way that most fiction does not.Advertisement:
Simultaneously, Stewart O'Nan's excellent novel, Last Night at the Lobster, feels real for similar reasons. It is more realist than Bacigalupi's book. But it works in a similar manner. O'Nan's novel depicts, quite literally, the last night that a Red Lobster restaurant operates. The people who toil there. And so forth. Because O'Nan has shown great care in depicting how operating a restaurant affects his characters, we can very much believe in his fiction. Ultimately, a novelist's job -- irrespective of whether she is writing speculative fiction or hard realism -- is to understand how human behavior emerges from systematic consequence. If you can generate an atmosphere based on systematic consequence, then your novel will likely feel "real" even if it is set in a land populated by dancing elves or talking fruit.
Q: Could you recommend a novel that you think is an example of effective plot development and pacing?
A: If you want to learn how to plot, read Richard Stark. Stark was a pseudonym for the late great mystery writer Donald Westlake. Parker is a brutal crook who doesn't let anybody stop him, and part of the tension involves not knowing what Parker is fully capable of. But as I believe Luc Sante observed, Westlake also took great care in presenting the criminal underworld as a capitalist milieu. And I guarantee that you will not be able to put down a Parker novel once you read it. There isn't a single sentence in these books that doesn't drive the narrative forward.
Q: What's an example of a great beginning to a novel?
A: Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers has one of my favorite opening lines. "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me." Now who wouldn't want to read that? The first page of James M. Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice is also invaluable if you want to learn how to set up a novel. I can also recommend Paul Murray's Skippy Dies, which kills off its main character in its first chapter. I also admire Kate Atkinson's One Good Turn in establishing mood.
Q: (Without giving the ending away), could you recommend a novel with a particularly satisfying ending?
A: Faulkner's Absalom! Absalom!. I've always loved the way that Faulkner concludes his complex portrait on a simplistic act of denial.
Q: Could you recommend a novel where the author has successfully done something innovative with form or genre?
A: I don't feel that form or genre matters that much. Not if you're trying to understand the human condition. I could recommend Gilbert Sorrentino's Mulligan's Stew, which is one of the great postmodern classics. Or I could offer a more traditional modernist answer with James Joyce's Ulysses. Or I could talk up David Markson's work. I love all of these guys. But what ultimately makes these books matter is perspective. You could argue that Octavia E. Butler's classic novel, Kindred, is innovative in the way that it uses a science fiction premise to comment upon American racism. But you'd be missing the point. What made Butler such a remarkable novelist was the way she synthesized a complex problem like racism so clearly for her readership. The book sold nearly half a million copies. That's more remarkable than anything she did with form or genre. For me, Sorrentino, Joyce, and Markson are eminently readable because of their respective perspectives. John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor is extraordinarily funny. So is Pynchon. These folks want to party. And the form or genre that they all work in has less to do with the party than their perspectives. This is why I have strenuously objected to the way that the McSweeney's movement almost totally destroyed postmodernism in the late '90s by taking the party factor out and limiting the manner in which one could express one's self. So now form and genre carry a needless stigma. Never mind that people continue to flock to David Foster Wallace not necessarily because of his footnotes, but because of his perspective.
Q: Could you recommend some wonderful novels or story collections that are not as well-known as they deserve to be?
A: Ha! Where do I start? Okay, here are some extraordinary books published in 2010 that deserve a bigger audience: Robin Black's If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This; Paula Boner's BABY; Andrew Ervin's Extraordinary Renditions; Adam Ross's Mr. Peanut; Matthew Sharpe's You Were Wrong; Donald E. Westlake's posthumous Memory. That should get you started for now.
Have you enjoyed this conversation with Edward Champion about some of the best fiction books for writers? You might also like Jonathan Mayhew's recommendations for reading poetry or the blogger Ari's thoughts about the best fiction books about people of color in the young adult genre.