I’m afraid I’m not going to give you the answer to that question. I’m asking it of you.
This is a selfish attempt to crowdsource wisdom before I begin a low-residency MFA in Writing at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. I’m suspecting I’m not sufficiently “well read” to take on this challenge.
My anxiety didn’t ease when the first two Vermont alums I spoke with after accepting admission told me they had been English Literature professors before starting the MFA program.
So I’m looking to do some catch-up reading, and started by tweeting the question over the weekend. It prompted my friend Kate Arms-Roberts to write a post for her own blog on her recommendations, and generated lots of suggestions. Here’s a summary of what I heard:
- William Shakespeare. The runaway leader by a lot. Not really a surprise.
- Ernest Hemingway. He’s one of my favorite authors so I was pleased to see his stock high. Love his economy of words while conveying characters and setting brilliantly.
- Tie: Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. If the measure of literary achievement is number of movies made based on your books, these authors clearly are worthy of making the list. I’ve seen adaptions of their works on screen more than I’ve read them, I must confess.
- Tie: The Bible and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I hadn’t anticipated the Bible making the list, but it is full of dramatic stories and beautiful poetry. I have only read The Great Gatsby by Fitzgerald but I did love it.
- Nathaniel Hawthorne. My apologies, but I was forced to read The Scarlet Letter in high school, and I didn’t really care for it that much.
Among the others receiving votes were Russians (Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Leo Tolstoy); Brits (Geoffrey Chaucer and Lewis Carroll); Classical Greeks (Aeschylus and Sophocles); Hemingway contemporaries (F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner); poets (Emily Dickinson, Hermann Hesse, Hart Crane and Langston Hughes); well-known 20th Century writers (Phillip K. Dick, Arthur Miller, John Irving, Larry McMurty, Lee Child and Jodi Picoult); contemporary authors (Gene Wolfe, Mary Sojourner, James Salter, Chris Galvin, Elizabeth Strout, and Brady Udall); and an author in a category all her own, Harper Lee.
A confession — I hadn’t heard of a few of those writers before conducting this survey, and others I have heard of but have not read. My local bookstore is going to love me this month.
What three authors do you think are must-reads for any writer and why? Are they above? Do you have your own suggestions? I’d love to hear from you!