10 Influential Books – For Me, That Is

Every now and then a challenge pops up on Facebook, and, even though I normally don’t fall for them, some of them do intrigue me. Recently among my book-loving friends, it was the “10 Works of Literature that Inspired Me” challenge. I made it several days before anyone tagged me, and, then, I got tagged by two different people. I didn’t mind this challenge because it made me reflect on the literary works which have inspired me.

Now, I’ll add, just about every book I’ve ever read inspires me either as an everyday, mostly normal person or as a writer (sometimes both), and if I’d kept a running list of the ten most influential, it would have been a fluid one. So the list here is what came into my head today. Challenge me again in a few months, and some of the books might change.

And I noticed people who accepted the challenge listed the ten books but never explained why any of them made their list. That would have been interesting to me–especially in cases where there was duplication with my list or a book, which when I read it made me gag. So, for my list, I’ve included a brief statement about why/how the book influenced me.

Some of you will likely turn up your noses at some of my selections and declare, “This is not literature!” There is, gasp, science fiction on my list and, horrors, popular fiction, too. 

Oh, and since I was always the one who perversely broke every chain letter/e-mail/Facebook post I’ve ever received, I won’t be tagging anyone to post his or her “10 Most Influential…” list, other than to say: Anyone who reads this should do the same, but you have to explain how or why each book influenced you. Ready, set, dare ya!

10 Works of Literature That Inspired Me (in no particular order)

  • Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. This was the first book, other than a comic book or storybooks, ever given me as a child, when I was around six, I believe. I still have it, though my PITA little brother managed to tear the front cover off this hardback. How did it influence me? It sparked my life-long love of books and reading, and writing too, since I did nothing but write stories about horses for years afterward.
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. When I read this book in the 1980’s it validated my feminism, which I only acknowledged privately to people I could trust not to “out” me. It made me less afraid of the “f-word” (feminism; I’ve never been afraid of the other) and made me proud to be a feminist. The fact that it’s even more relevant now is a testament to Atwood’s genius. I want to be her when I grow up to be a writer.
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. This book made me a sucker for happy endings, in fiction and in life. Even in my own writing, which is sometimes dark and bleak, I consciously, or unconsciously, find a way to work a happy resolution in because this book showed me it can happen. On a personal level, I’m still waiting.
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. This book showed me what a happy family living with adversity looked like and that there were, indeed, happy families. That was quite the eye-opener to me given my combative and tumultuous immediate and extended families. Plus, there was the whole woman-writer thing going on there; I felt Jo and I were really the sisters.
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This book blew away all my preconceived notions of what a novel/novel-in-stories should be. It enthralled me and pissed me off and made me both question and challenge myself as a writer. To absorb this novel you have to shed your skin of mediocrity and just let it pummel you.
  • Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein. Though I thought his later works were just plain creepy and some of his earlier works bordered on fascism, this book was incredible–well-written and timely. This book made me–finally!–question the origins of my own religion and put me on the non-theist path, for which I am forever grateful. Do you grok me?
  • The Still, Small Voice of Trumpets by Lloyd Biggle, Jr. Another sci-fi icon on the list, this was the first, novel-length science fiction book I read. Before it, I picked up sci-fi from comic books, tv shows, and B-movies. I bought the battered paperback at a library sale for a nickel, and when I brought it home my mother swore the depiction of aliens on the cover would give me nightmares. She was wrong; it made me think.
  • The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Because it blew my freakin’ mind!
  • On Writing by Stephen King. I’m one of those writers who like Stephen King’s writing because I see past the grimness and gore and revel in how he turns a phrase. This was the best instructional book on writing (pun intended) I’ve ever read, and it made me give up -ly adverbs, with reluctance.
  • Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood by Rebecca Wells. Don’t bother to see the movie (though it was decent); read the book. Wells never met my parents, I’m reasonably certain, but she coincidentally explained their complex and enervating relationship in a way I could ultimately forgive them.

Of course, I’ve been thinking as I’ve written this, and I offer this addendum: anything by Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou… Oh, hell, just ask me again in a few months, like I said, and the list will be different.

Tag–you’re it.

The Prodigal Returns

It’s been over a month since my last substantive post here–on the first day of AWP. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Mostly re-writing. I haven’t been writing my political blog; I haven’t done Friday Fictioneers; I haven’t done Flash! Friday. I’ve not put my finger on quite why, other than the obvious: winter doldrums, lingering nasty weather, and overall write-on-a-self-imposed-deadline burnout.

So, here’s a summary: AWP was great; I had story selected as a finalist in a national contest; the agent loved my writing but decided my novel wasn’t for him; the Virginia Festival of the book was wonderful (though I’ll confess I wish I’d been a panelist instead of in the audience); I had a story rejected for an anthology about a week after an anthology appeared with one of my stories in it; I had an editor solicit a story from me “for consideration;” and we’re about ten days away from the staging of my ten-minute play, “Yo’ Momma,” which was a winner in the Ampersand Arts “Bar Hopping” Contest.

Then, on Sunday, I got tagged in a Facebook post: “Name 15 authors who’ve influenced you and who will always stick with you.” Once I started thinking about that, I began to jot down names and decided this would be a much better blog post than a comment on a Facebook post.

I’m back!

Here are the fifteen authors who’ve influenced me with a brief explanation of how and why, divided into women and men but listed in alphabetical order so as not to give away who is/was the most influential.

Louisa May Alcott – She embodied for me the woman writer’s struggle to be accepted for what you are by society and family.

Margaret Atwood – She shows the world that dystopian fiction can be intelligent and well-wrought, and that makes her worthy of emulation.

Jane Austen – For her time, she wielded a sharp pen of sarcasm, feminism, and egalitarianism, and, damn, but she could turn a phrase.

Charlotte Bronte – She showed me that romance and happy endings aren’t elusive after all.

Ursula K. LeGuin – She is a pioneer in one of my favorite genres, science fiction, and I first heard “write what you want to write” from her.

Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters – She taught me that romantic pairs as protagonists can carry a series (or several series in her case) and that the romance doesn’t detract from a good mystery story.

Sara Paretsky – She showed me your female protagonist can take care of herself and not be dependent upon a man and still be popular (and don’t let editors tell you otherwise) and that plots suffused with liberal politics can be, too.

Kate Wilhelm – She showed that female writers could write “hard” science sci-fi stories and be respected by her male colleagues, even the stodgy ones.

Honorable Mentions: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Octavia Butler, Shirley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor,

Isaac Asimov – As well as being one of the most prolific authors of the twentieth century, he showed me you could tell a story and educate people at the same time.

Harlan Ellison – As well as being an ardent admirer of LeGuin, he showed me that you could and should go into the dark areas of the mind and write about them. He also spent fifteen minutes with me once and told me to never, ever give up writing.

William Faulker – He showed me what every writer from the south needs to accept–our history is both full of joy and worthy of embarrassment.

Thomas Hardy – I love this man’s prose. He can take pages to relate a nanosecond of plot, but you don’t mind.

Stephen King – He showed me that when you write about the horrific, at least do it in a way which elevates it.

Boris Pasternak – He showed me how an artist should stand up for the integrity of his or her work and that an epic should truly be an epic.

Kurt Vonnegut – He showed me that a good story is worth spending weeks, months, even years to perfect.

Honorable Mentions: Mikhail Bulgakov, Fredreich Engels, Seamus Heaney, James Joyce, V. I. Lenin, Karl Marx, Vladimir Nabokov, William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Leo Tolstoy

Now, fifteen of the writers who read this need to do the same. 😉