Last time around, I mentioned a desire to write a book that I want to read, like how my friends write games they want to play. In retrospect, this gave me pause. What the hell do I want to read, anyway?
I enjoy reading, and will give pretty much anything put in front of me a chance. That being said, few things grab me. There is a mile of difference between books I like to read, and books I truly love. And indeed, those I truly love do not come from the ether, they come from on high.
When it comes to books that truly and deeply impact me, they’re from all over. Sci-fi is obvious, there are both large pools of books in the genre I just like reading, as well as some real standouts. Fantasy, oddly enough has never produced an interesting standout book for me, even though I like a lot of it well enough. You may say I’ve never read great fantasy, but let’s be honest, Tolkien bored me. Maybe it’s just not my speed.
Mystery is a genre that for the most part, I can’t just pick up. That being said, the great ones are great. Chandler’s The Long Goodbye is still one of the best books I’ve ever read, and The Last Good Kiss by James Crumley tugged at me. Literary fiction is completely hit or miss…but I love Cormac McCarthy. So there’s that.
I could go on, but there are a few books that stand out to me as ones that strongly influence what I try to read and write.
Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson: If I ever wanted to write a novelization of any of my RPG campaigns, I wanted it to come out like this book. The cyberpunk-y ideas here are cool for the time but they got quaint pretty quick; I’d say this book did not age as well as Neuromancer. That being said, Stephenson knows how to write, and how to pace. I don’t know if this is his best work, but it is the height of his ability to balance pace and plot with ideas and setting. Cryptonomicon comes close, admittedly.
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul, by Douglas Adams: Everyone knows about the Hitchhiker’s Guide. That being said, these books are superior, and if you liked The Hitchhiker’s Guide, you’ll know that’s a tall order. Think of these like the five books of The Hitchhiker’s Guide series with all the fat cut off and a whole lot more plot and character added. I can’t remember many details, which I think means it’s high time to reread these.
The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, by Michael Chabon: Part of this was just good timing, as I read this book while in college in Pittsburgh. Chabon is the unique author who manages to keep most of his CV elevated to this level of consistent greatness, I plowed through Wonder Boys, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, all with pretty much the same voracious hunger. He writes about human relationships in a way that just strikes me very deeply. But when you add the nostalgia and locational awareness of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh (Wonder Boys I read while out of the city), it will always stand as my favorite.
Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert Heinlein: Another one that’s probably due to be reread at this point, I remember it standing out because of both the best depiction of understanding something completely alien, and the completely unrepentant liberal politics, especially sexual politics. It stood out as a product of its time, in a good way.
The Illuminatus! Trilogy, by R.A. Wilson and and Robert Shea: This book confused the fuck out of me but I never wanted to put it down. I think I missed a good 60% of the content (probably the fnords) but it still stands as the most hallucinogenic book I have ever read. Probably needs another two rereads just to be understood fully.
There are others, but most of them are unmitigated classics. The more typical 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Neuromancer, Catch-22, The Stranger…with the exception of Neuromancer which is the quintessential Cyberpunk namedrop, the rest of those probably could be assigned in English classes. I caught on early that our English teachers do know better than us to a degree, and though the curriculum surrounding them often strangles them, the novels we are assigned to read in high school are usually brilliant. The one I remember taking me by surprise was reading Death in Venice, by Thomas Mann. It was probably the first book I was assigned to read where the pace and nature of the assignments surrounding the book enhanced rather than detracted from it. I’m not, as I said above, much for literary fiction, but that book was surprisingly poignant, especially once it dawned on you that it was simply about death from the beginning (the title is not false advertisement).
But now it seems apt to return to the main question: what do I mean when I say I want to write a book I want to read? I clearly appreciate an intellectual sense of predictive work, which is why Cyberpunk is a genre that keys so keenly into my psyche, but I also seriously grok books about the nature of relationships, romantic and otherwise (The Long Goodbye, all of Chabon, Stranger in a Strange Land because I used the word grok). But does approaching this at a literary level help me? Or is it more important to know I can lovingly write about place, and that books benefit from Japanese rappers and crazy Eskimos with nuclear bombs attached to them? I’m not entirely sure.
Inevitably, you learn the most about writing fiction by reading it, as much and as often as you can. But even then, it’s up to you to decide what it is you want on paper. I’ve written before that taste for good fiction develops faster than the ability to write it, which is probably the most significant frustration among aspiring writers. But even if you really think you could develop an ability to write fiction, the ability to know what you’re going for could help. As I sift through my ideas, the ‘how’ of it all is sometimes more vexing than the ‘what’ or the ‘why’. Any given conflict can be approached in a thousand different ways, and inevitably differing approaches get you an entirely different genre of book some of the time. So what is it that grabs me when I write? Well, like when I read, I don’t really know until I get into it. But maybe now I have at least some consideration where to point the arrow when I finally sit down.