Writing begins with reading. There is a vague rule of thumb that good writers read. A lot.
Granted, reading a lot doesn’t mean you’ll be able to write. It’s a start, though. And without question, the thirst with which I drank in books as a daydreaming kid, and later as an in-way-over-my-head young man, had a huge huge huge (three huges) impact on my later, and very ridiculous, decision to devote my life to writing.
It led me to journalism and books and other stuff, and these days, it has me working as a freelance writer.
Which is amazing and stupid and can barely buy me coffee in the morning, but it’s so worth it (and SHAMELESS you should totally write me at firstname.lastname@example.org and hire me).
Yet none of that would be the case without these five amazing authors:
5) Arthur C. Clarke
Throw in the fact that Clarke, a self-described atheist, wrote a few of the greatest stories you’ll ever read that seem to support the idea of faith (something I recently discussed with my friend and writing compatriot Keith Howell), and suddenly I realize that I have nailed down why he belongs here. Because a man who can manage that kind of balancing act is worthy of praise.It’s hard to nail down exactly why I feel Arthur C. Clarke belongs here (and believe me, I’ve gone over this list in my head for years, and Clarke makes it every single time).
As a stylist, Clarke is stripped down and utilitarian. Erase his byline and you’d never know it was him. That is, perhaps, one of the great points in his favor. Clarke also filled me with wonder and ideas and the notion of grand visions without needing fancy writing or lofty ambitions to fluff it up. He just told good, solid stories about wonderful things that somehow always managed to be grounded in reality, and he did it in a way that you never actually noticed him. That’s a gift that my self-indulgent self still needs to learn from.
4) Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick is so bold, I can’t even get halfway to where he was even when I’m trying to steal from him. He was fearless. Maybe it’s because he was a little crazy. He wasn’t a brilliant prose man, perhaps (though he had some amazing moments, particularly in the final pages of Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said), but his ideas were abundant and his writing was deeply personal in a way few people realized until after his death.
His every work was a reflection of himself. He explored the same themes repeatedly, yet they always felt fresh and surprising. I’ve read 30+ of his novels, and thematically almost all share the same connective tissue, yet they feel amazingly different from one another. Plus, he managed to deal with powerful issues without beating you over the head with them. The Man In The High Castle, The Man Who Japed, A Scanner Darkly. This is important stuff.
And yeah, as egotistical as it sounds, I’d like to leave behind a body of work that people look back on and say, “I didn’t notice at first, but this guy had something to say with these stories; they were a real reflection of himself.” Some of that came from PKD.
3) Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut somehow escaped being lumped in as “mere” science fiction and is praised widely by critics, despite his work clearly belonging in the category. (Aliens, time travel, “magic” formulas, etc.) I kind of admire that, even if he had no real choice in the matter. Perhaps it’s his wry conversational style, which I love but have rarely been bold enough to try on for size.
Perhaps it’s his willingness to engage in social commentary without feeling the need to disguise said commentary, something science fiction does exceedingly well. (Hide its social commentary, that is.) Whatever it is, Vonnegut’s work inspired me from the word go. After passing up Slaughterhouse-Five in my high school library many times over — it had a reputation I vaguely knew was positive, but the title conjured up images of ponderous early 20th Century novels about blue collar workforces and sweaty work conditions, and I had no interest in that — my dear friend Jeff forced me to read Cat’s Cradle.
And that was it. Life changed. I read his stuff and said, “Holy shit, why am I not doing this?” Here’s how good that book is: it doesn’t even fall in my top 5 Vonnegut’s anymore, yet it STILL changed my life. Plus, I LOVE the notion that he’s a genre writer “slumming” it as a critical darling rather than the other way around. You go, Kurt!
2) Ray Bradbury
If there is a writer I would want to be, a guy whose work I’d most like to run through with an eraser, rubbing away his name and replacing it with my own, it’s Ray Bradbury. He’s a brilliant stylist who got sent away to the science fiction ghetto and, despite being as good a wordsmith as anyone in the 20th Century, has never been able to fully escape it.
Total bullshit. (Vonnegut, for reasons that have never been clear, gets a pass, despite most of his works clearly falling under the science/speculative fiction umbrella.) He’s also a fantastic idea man, someone who thrives in the short story setting and who has thrown away more fantastic ideas than most writers will create in an entire lifetime. Even without his ideas, Bradbury strung together words in a way that was as delicate and beautiful as a dew-covered spider web; his prose was poetry, and yet never ventured into being self-indulgent.
Bradbury is legend. I’ve written about my love for his work before, and for good reason. If I could steal some of his mojo, oh man …
1) J.R.R. Tolkien
This is not news. I’ve posted before that J.R.R. Tolkien is the guy who made me want to write. His dense, rich, alive world drew me in like nothing else ever had. When I finally wrapped my head around the idea that some guy created it, I realized that it was something you could do. You could create worlds. All this stuff could spring out of your head and you could make it real for other people. Holy shit, that was powerful.
For a time, I wanted to be J.R.R. Tolkien — at least, in the vague kind of “I want to follow his exact creative path” kind of way. I don’t want to write like J.R.R. Tolkien anymore. It’s been a long time since I wanted to, actually, but he belongs at the top of this list because I wouldn’t have started this journey without him. He’s the guy who made me want to write in the first place. Plus, I still want to move and inspire and influence people like he has, even if I want to do it in a different way.
You won’t catch me riffing on Tolkien’s style or ideas, not anymore, but since I wouldn’t be writing corporate blogs and the like had Middle Earth not touched me all those years ago, no one else can be atop this list.
Thank you, John.
A Few Honorable Mentions
There are works that had just as big an impact on me as the above, and in some cases even bigger, but since I’m talking about bodies of work rather than individual books, they don’t make the list. That said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Orwell’s 1984 (perhaps no other book has informed my worldview more), Golding’s The Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors (both of which are powerful fables about humanity), and almost anything touched by Alan Moore between 1980 and 2005 (no one has done more to convince me of the worth of the comic art form).
There is also the matter of authors who came to me after I decided I wanted to write for a living. I think of people like Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest authors of the 20th Century, in my estimation, but who I didn’t discover until my 20s, as well as inspirational friends too numerous to name. And there are others.
But they are for another post. Maybe several more.