Like all the writers I know, I’ve been reading a lot during this pandemic, for comfort and consolation and even comic relief. New novels, old classics, perennial favorites—many of which are about writers.
I was reminded of this reading Lily King’s WRITERS & LOVERS (Grove Press, 2020). A wonderful novel, so wonderful that it inspired me to revisit the other stories about writers that I’ve got right here at home. Here’s my top ten, listed in the random order I found them on my bookshelves.
Note: Not listed are any of the books that served as the source material for the films I mention in my recent Career Authors post Binge Watching for Writers. They’re all great, too.
“I am a creature of my pen. My pen is the best of me.”
― A.S. BYATT, POSSESSION, 1990
Inspired by the author’s trip to the British Museum Library, this is a big book in every way—a literary tour de force about two couples, the modern-day scholars investigating the mysterious link between two Victorian poets, and the poets themselves, supposedly based on Robert Browning and Christina Rossetti.
One of my favorite books of all time, this is the kind of novel you fall into and never want to leave.
“Boredom is the only real tragedy for a writer; everything else is material.”
― ANDREW SEAN GREER, LESS, 2017
This hilarious coming-of-old-age novel about a writer on the cusp of fifty who embarks on the book tour from hell to avoid attending his ex-boyfriend’s wedding won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. This comic masterpiece has it all: love, envy, writer’s block, regret, and redemption.
And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”
― MICHAEL CHABON, WONDER BOYS, 1995
At 2,611 pages, Grady Tripp’s second novel is going nowhere. And that’s just the beginning of this Pittsburgh professor’s woes, which include a wife who leaves him, a mistress who gets pregnant, a student who steals the jacket Marilyn Monroe wore when she married Joe, and more.
Note: The movie version is good, too—with Michael Douglas as the prof and Tobey Maguire as his pupil—but the novel is perfection.
“The only reason for something to happen in a novel is that it’s the perfect thing to have happen at that time.”
― JOHN IRVING, THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP, 1978
Reading Garp turned me into a John Irving fan for life. There’s no describing this story, and I’m even not going to try, but it’s proof positive that a good story puts its hero up a tree and throws rocks at him—and the rocks just get bigger and bigger for writer Garp.
“Just think how it would look if a reader walked into a café you’d recommended and found it taken over by vegetarians.”
― ANNE TYLER, THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST, 1985
Anne Tyler is one of those writers who makes good writing look so easy you might not notice how brilliant it is. This poignant story of a travel writer who hates to travel and the family tragedy that nearly unravels him is Tyler at her best. They made this into a good movie, too, but the book is not to be missed. And for dessert, treat yourself to Breathing Lessons, the perfect little gem of a novel that won Tyler the 1989 Pulitzer Prize.
“I had devoted my whole life to books; to bookshops; to booksellers; to bookish people like Charles and Alan. And in doing so, I had ended up like a book: on the shelf.”
― ANTHONY HOROWITZ, THE MAGPIE MURDERS, 2016
This murderous romp by the man who brought Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War to the small screen is a mystery within a mystery that pays homage to Agatha Christie and skewers writers and editors and publishers at the same time.
It’s wildly clever and slyly funny and the heroine is a book editor. He had me at magpie.
“It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer.”
― E. B. WHITE, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, 1952
How can you call yourself a writer if you can resist a story in which you find that line? Not to mention the very first line, one of the best opening sentences ever:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Read it to your kids, your grandkids, yourself.
“A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him.”
― GABRIELLE ZEVIN, THE STORIED LIFE OF A. J. FIKRY, 2013
This novel is worth the read just for the rant indie bookseller A. J. Fikry delivers when a new salesperson from a mid-size publisher asks him what kinds of books he likes. I often read it to writers when asked why some books get published and others do not. A crash course in publishing woven into a wise and witty tale about the difference words can make in the stories of our lives.
“Where are the reporters of yesteryear?” he muttered, “the nail biting, acerbic, alcoholic nighthawk bastards who truly knew how to write?”
― ANNIE PROULX, THE SHIPPING NEWS, 1993
I saw the film first and knew the book would be better. I went right out and bought it. I hadn’t yet read Annie Proulx, and her voice was a revelation to me. I’ve read the Pulitzer-Prize winning novel countless times since. (And her short story collection At Close Range.)
Read it and you’ll see why.
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― MAYA ANGELOU, I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS, 1969
Not a novel.
A writer’s autobiography.
Simply the best.
By the best.
This post was originally published at Career Authors.