Thursday, April 27, 2017

Speaking of the Canon

The canon is what one must have read to be considered well-educated. There is the canon for Western civilization which is largely books that are non-fiction. There is the canon of English literature (the books you'd see in an English Lit survey class in college.) There is the canon for literature of the American West.

And of course there is the canon for whatever category you write (or in my case read) in. I mentioned the canon a few days back as something you'd need to know if you wanted to write something fresh and new in a well-trod category.

I hadn't heard the term "the canon" till I got to grad school when it was the subject of fierce debate. I mean fistfight debate. Of course that was just about the time a lot of people realized the literary canon should include people like Alice Walker, Margaret Atwood, Tillie Olson, and all those other people who didn't have the balls to be old white men.

But enough of my misspent youth.

Recently, I was reading my requested fulls. One was a fresh take on the old familiar country house murder trope. I had LOVED those books as a kid. Not just for the murder but for the world they created. No surprise I grew up to love Upstairs, Downstairs, Downton Abbey, and my beloved Gosford Park.
Which brings us to The Secret of Chimneys which is an Agatha Christie novel. You might not have heard of it because the main character is Superintendent Battle not the world famous Hercule Poirot or Miss Jane Marple (who I think is the best character ever, and to hell with that walking Belgian mustache.)

But I digress.

I realized as I was reading the manuscript that it had been quite some time since I'd read one of the original country house mysteries. I popped online and sure enough, The Secret of Chimneys was right there in paperback and ebook. I bought the paperback (somehow I had the idea if I did, I'd also get the
ebook, but that was my stupidity.)

I started reading the ebook only to discover it stopped about 20 pages in and I'd have to buy it to keep reading.

Now, writer fiends, here's the point of this blog post: I didn't wait till Tuesday, a mere 48 hours from that exact moment, when the paperback would arrive. I didn't wait till Tuesday to finish reading a book I've read at least five times before (admittedly some years back, but I knew whodunit, and I knew the ending.)

I bought the ebook so I could finish the book then and there. And I did. And it was as good, if not better than I remembered (although the racism and classism is just really hard to ignore.)

And that is the pudding proof of damn fine writing.

Thus my suggestion to you: list five go-to books for the canon in your category. Go read them again. See if they hold up. If they do, you know you've got an author to study closely. What they're doing has stood the test of time, changing fashion, changing tastes.

You might not be able to read 100 books in your category but you surely can read five.

If I were to pick five they would be:

The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie
The Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan
The Key to Rebecca by Ken Follett
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
When the Sacred Ginmill Closes by Lawrence Block


And even as I look at this list I think of all my faves who are not here: Lee Child, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, Catriona McPherson, all my clients!!!, Nick Petrie, Lou Berney, and a dozen others I'll think of in another minute.

But my point here is not to choose only five, it's to figure out what works in a novel that appeals to you for YEARS. A novel that you'd use to illustrate essential elements of a novel (I use Key to Rebecca on shifting POV all the time.) A novel that can be YOUR signpost for moving ahead.

When I go to the Met, I often see students painting copies of the great masters. By copying they are learning. It's not plagiarism to copy. It's plagiarism to copy something and pass it off as your original work.  Thus, I suggest using these authors as guideposts, but don't just change the names in The Secret of Chimneys and expect to have a bestseller.  Superintendent Battle and his sharkly fan will not be happy if you do.

Do you have some classics that have stood the test of time?



PS writer fiends is not a typo

81 comments:

Kitty said...

At the tippy-top of my list is Heartburn, by Nora Ephron. I haven't identified the other four, but without a single solitary doubt, Heartburn tops the list. I've read it at least six (?) times and loved every single syllable. The first time I read it was right before I saw the movie (in the theater). That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer. The book is in sad shape and taped together, but I still read it when I want a 'comfort book.'

Btw, Joan Hickson was THE best Miss Marple ever.

Gail said...

Remarkably for me, not all SF:
...Left Hand of Darkness (LeGuin)
...Straight Man (Russo)
...Going Postal (Pratchett)
...Busman's Honeymoon (Sayers)
...Callahan's Crosstime Saloon (Robinson)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

My canon teachers and peeps:
Bombeck
Rooney
Sedaris
Strayed
And the folks who wrote the back of every classic cereal box I read as a 1950's kid consuming O’s, flakes and puffed anything.

Matt Adams said...

I like long-ish, plot driven character fiction with something to say. So for me:
The Hotel New Hampshire -- My favorite opening phrase (The summer my father bought the bear ...) that sets the tune for the interpersonal craziness that follows. The beauty of this book (compared to Garp) is that the story doesn't feel as dated, and the insanity that follows feels perfectly natural
The Lords of Discipline -- The right mix of plot and character, as well as voice. Conroy has you so deep into Will McClean that you can feel all the madness and chaos he goes through, and it's a reminder that a plot has to pay off
The Fountainhead (I know, I know) -- for all the crap she takes for her philosophy, I think this is a well-plotted, character driven and pretty insightful piece of work.
Skinny Legs and All -- still the best mixture of thought-out philosophy and character I've ever read, as well as absolute lunacy
American Gods -- As I hope the TV doesn't screw it up, this is a big concept taken large, and it works.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

It seems too obvious to cite Lord of the Rings which I have read hundreds of times and wrote a well-received thesis on it - Frodo as the anti-Faust which was done to death by the time my paper was written.

I have read all five books Janet mentions even though not my genre. I tend to study the ones that I love best and revisit them often.

I too remember the empassioned debates over canon when I was in school. Even then, I was such a devout individualist, that I ignored the arguments. Canon to me varied from person to person. It was only the banning (literally or by simple obscurement) that drove my wrath.

When the giant bookstores began to eclipse the little local shops, that also borhered me because of titles that were obscured by corporate shelves.

In my canon for genre, if looking at test of time, I include C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia loosely. It can't be ignored. Then I would perhaps now include Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time which brought me to Brandon Sanderson. Also, David Eddings Belgariad is lovely and still quite enjoyable.

Ursula LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness is grand as is Connie Willis's Doomsday Book. The whole of Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is amazing although I have a particular fondness for his Equal Rites.

I need coffee. I could go on much longer but I have no point other than to bow for the Queen.

Gigi said...

The ones I go back to again and again cross genres a bit. Off the top of my head: The Poisonwood Bible, The Book Thief, The Blind Assassin, Wildwood Dancing, Graceling, Harry Potter, The Passage Series, Hunger Games, and Jurassic Park (strangely enough). All of them make me want to write.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

I was always drawn to memoirs, biographies, non-fiction - even as a child. It's still my reading preference. My own titles are non-fiction (stories about the animals who find their way to our sanctuary).

Just recently, however, I completed a middle grade ms. As I was writing, I tried to stay mindful of books or stories that were compelling to me when I was that age. At the top of the list: the "Little House" series.

Thought provoking blog, as always, Janet. Thank you.

But In Cold Blood? Yeah, *cough. No and nope. I can't even look at the cover.

Amy Johnson said...

I like reading stories that get me considering matters of everyday life in a new way. And I try to write that kind of stuff.

About a decade ago, I read a short story by John Updike titled Trust Me. It's message stuck. Once, I thought about it while sitting in the dentist's chair getting X-rays. So often we believe people who say, in one way or another, we should trust them. But if they're wrong, they're not the ones who pay the price--we are. I incorporated that message a bit into the novel I'm currently peddling, I mean querying.

Before mentioning the next story, I'm wondering if I should get all sharky and say, "Don't you roll your eyes at me." :) It's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I'm intrigued by how our own setting influences our views. That's something I'm exploring in the novel I'm writing now.

Amy Johnson said...

Its message, not It's message. Sorry. Errrrrrr.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

It is a source of literary guilt that I haven't yet read The Left Hand of Darkness.

But for me, writing across scifi, fantasy, and horror, with a background in voraciously reading plain ol' literary classics, it seems to me like what counts as canon for all of those categories is a joyously monstrous mountain of work.

For fantasy, if we're talking Epic Fantasy, then yes absolutely Tolkein and C.S. Lewis and Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books. Then throw in Poul Anderson's Three Hearts, Three Lions. But then I write more urban fantasy than secondary world, which means I need to count Dracula (which arguably is also horror canon? when did horror and urban fantasy gain this interesting intersection where the beasties aren't necessarily the bad guys? Anne Rice? Or earlier with Frankenstein?)

For scifi there's The Left Hand of Darkness (I'll get there!), Dune (I feel the first three are the best, personally), Starship Troopers, The Martian Chronicles, and then the slide into cyberpunk with Neuromancer and Snow Crash.

For horror, there's The Haunting of Hill House, and The Yellow Wall-Paper, and pretty much all of Poe but then also Stephen King from Carrie on up, and House of Leaves (which is more recent but holy smokes), and Robert Bloch's Psycho books (which are not precisely 'good' books but.....).

Then (still for horror) the true stories like In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter, the latter of which is honestly the most frightening thing I have ever read in my life, but then if it's couched in "based on a true story" like The Amityville Horror (and House of Leaves, ostensibly), I think it makes it a little more likely to get under our skin, doesn't it?

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Food for thought this morning. I seem to be writing a woman's fiction type of story. So, the top five, at the moment, in my canon?

Jodi Picoult (specifically The Storyteller and Small Great Things)

Elinor Lipman (love the eccentricity of her characters)

Jane Austen (of course! Although she may not be termed Women's Fic? But for her time, she probably was.)

Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand (recommended here on this very blog)

and most recently Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove

french sojourn said...


In cold blood...mmmmm! just wonderfully crafted, then I got mixed up with Prince of thieves and City of thieves (The ww2 stalingrad version of the odyssey. One of my all time fav's except for one scene that I can never wash from my mind.)

I think for me it's

Gogol- The Overcoat (for character development)
Robt. Littel - The October Circle (Dated and long at times, but the found objects and their symbolism are outstanding.)
Larry Niven - The Ringworld Trilogy. Scope and scale...oooof!

who am I kidding, just five...never happen. Great post as usual.

stacy said...

The canon I've read from the most is crime fiction. Working my way through some middle grade stuff; I'm sure I'll have a list by EOY. I've read In Cold Blood--and if you want a lesson on how being nice will not always protect you, that's the book to get--and Prince of Thieves. The others have gone on my list.

My own five:

No Country for Old Men - Cormac McCarthy
Looking for Mr. Goodbar - Judith Rossner
Marathon Man - William Goldman
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold - John Le Carre
The Breach - Patrick Lee (I classify this as crime even though there are strong SF elements)

Honorable mentions are Elizabeth Hand's Cass Neary crime series and anything by Craig Johnson.

stacy said...

Oh, and John D. MacDonald. And Elmore Leonard.

Craig F said...

My list would need to be five or six lists to cover the varied things I read. I bore y'all enough already so I will just state the book that changed reading from a chore to an addiction for me:

STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

For me, it comes back to Stephen King's older novels and novellas. I've re-read a number of them over the years and they continue to creep me out - Salem's Lot, Cujo, It - as well as inspire me with their character development - The Body (Stand By Me) and Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption.


Elissa M said...

Epic fantasy is my genre as well. I agree with the lists provided thus far, though I read everything I can get my hands on. There are lessons to be learned from every bit of good writing regardless of genre.

That said, I want to add five more examples to the lists for epic fantasy: "The Black Cauldron" by Lloyd Alexander, "The Wizard of Oz" by L. Frank Baum, any and all Arthurian tales, "The Dragonriders of Pern" by Anne McCaffery, and "The Odyssey" by Homer. Yes, most of these are by old (dead) white guys, but they're still canon in my opinion. Anyone who writes epic fantasy who hasn't read piles of mythology is doing themselves a disservice. And I mean mythology from every culture, not just the Romans and Greeks.

Susan said...

My five:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith--always, always, always
A Fine and Private Place by Peter S. Beagle--I love the philosophy and wit he infuses in his writing.
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez--Generations of family dynamics and a different way of looking at dystopia. This book has been the inspiration behind The Damn Novel since I first read it.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak--I just love when Death is personified, and this is an excellent example. Also, a coming-of-age against the backdrop of WWII.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers--a coming of age set in the 1950s with a town full of misfit characters/outcasts.

These are my favorite books and the ones
I turn to time and again. I think only two are actually classified as YA, which makes me wonder yet again where my books belong. But the coming of age thread and the nostalgia-based history is where I write, and it's because of these books. I just love them. In fact, "Heart" is the inspiration for my coming of age WIP set in the 50s with a colorful cast of characters. Do they still stand the test of time? To me, they do because they still inspire my writing.

McCullers' novel is similar to Janet's experience reading her book--since it was written in the 50s, times were markedly different from a social context. But McCullers was sensitive and astute even then, and she wove the social issues into a thread for one of her main characters--a black doctor who grappled with racism. When I reread the book recently for my own writing, I could see how far we've come--and not at all.

Love seeing everyone else's five. It's amazing how stories influence our own stories and our lives.

stacy said...

Love Stephen King, Madeline! The Shining is my personal fave, but I love everything I read by him.

Timothy Lowe said...

For epic sci fi, DUNE.
For prison break stories, RITA HAYWORTH AND SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.
For narrative non-fiction, THE ELECTRIC KOOL AIDE ACID TEST.
For fantasy, the LEGENDS trilogy by Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman.
For dystopian, 1984.
For women's fiction, THE COLOR PURPLE.
For classics, THE GREAT GATSBY.
For small town family saga, EMPIRE FALLS.
Anything by Steinbeck is pretty much genius.

Off the top of me head! Fun post!

Timothy Lowe said...

Jennifer, my students have been eating up HELTER SKELTER. If you can stand it, try COLUMBINE. If you can stand it.

nightsmusic said...

For me, The Nine Tailors (Sayers) is probably the quintessential mystery novel and if anyone doesn't love Wimsey, they're not human.

Number two is The Stand by King. The first book I read was Carrie, but it's still The Stand that makes the most impression. It's sprawling and commentary and possible and absolutely frightening and I still love it.

I adore anything Marple and have yet to make it through a Poirot. I don't think he holds a candle to her.

In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter are a tie for me.

And last but not least, almost no one here reads romance of any kind, but Gallant Waif by Anne Gracie is the epitome of what a great romance should have and I still well up when Wellington comes to the heroine's rescue. I would love to write that good since that's my genre and its sub groups.


Julie Weathers said...

Five in my category:

Lord of the Rings series-Tolkien
Chronicles of Narnia series-C.S. Lewis
The Crystal Cave series-Mary Stewart This is truly a classic series.
A Game of Thrones series-G.R.R Martin Though I have vowed never to read another one of his books until he finishes the series, once I start reading I can't stop and that's danged good writing. That's why I own the books in the series so far, but haven't read them all.
The Belgariad-Eddings-I stopped reading him after his wife got involved in the writing. A third of the book was repition of what came before. Trust your reader to remember the previous book without re-writing it a second time to pad the word count.

Mark Ellis said...

Don De Lilo is the highest of bars, also Richard Ford. The short stories of Lorrie Moore and Louise Erdrich. Joan Didion always speaks to me. For mysteries, which for me is a vehicle rather than a hard-fast genre, always, Rebecca.

Julie Weathers said...

Tolkein and C.S. Lewis because they are good and classic to fantasy.
I enjoy and study the way Diana Gabaldon writes. She's one I go to when I need to dissect my own writing. She's not perfect, but she does a lot of things right and it's interesting to take apart how she crafts sentences, descriptions, scenes, and characters, not to mention the story.
Shelby Foote, Bruce Catton, Jack Whyte, and Bernard Cornwell for historical writing.
James Lee Burke-Burke has a talent not only for story-telling, but also vivid description.
Agatha Christie because she just tells a good story, but some have held up better than others with me.
Hemingway. Sometimes I just need a no bs story, boiled down to the bones and soul.
Crichton. All but the last book they published after his death I could read over and over and I am not given to doing that. He was a master of combining science and thriller and making me believe, yeah, they're probably doing that right now somewhere.
Edgar Allan Poe because he was simply a master.
O. Henry. Sometimes a person just needs a perfect short story and Jack London fits in the same category.

I read widely in fantasy so I know what's been done, what's good and what's not so good. Some things I refuse to read others hunger after. One fantasy author has a huge following and I despise his writing. I can't stand his characters. I think he's lazy and repititious, but people love him. So, he must be doing something right.

Timothy Lowe said...

If nothing else this exercise is demonstrating exactly how good my WIP needs to be. It needs to stand up to current competition and all this other great stuff!

*heart starts palpitating*

Sherry Howard said...

My all-time favorite classic is Little Women. I think it's because I was the oldest girl in a family of seven children, and family dynamics frequently puzzled me as a child, even though my childhood was idyllic.

As a YA writer, John Green is the high priest of masterful writing to me. I can't get over how varied his books are, and how memeorable his characters.

For MG and PBs, there are too many to name.

It's great to see here the books that stick with people.

Claire Bobrow said...

I don't even know where to begin, but I'll stick to classics in my current writing category (picture books):

Blueberries For Sal (McCloskey)

The Story of Ferdinand (Leaf)

Shrek (Steig)

Bedtime For Frances (Hoban)

Madeline (Bemelmans)

Pride and Prejudice (Austen) - okay, I cheated!! But when I die, this is the book they'll be pulling from my cold, dead hands.



Donnaeve said...

My five:

TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
THE YEARLING
ELLEN FOSTER
BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA
THE CATCHER IN THE RYE (mostly for voice)

***Cormac McCarthy - binge read most of his works. My favorite, CHILD OF GOD, but after reading about 3-4 of his books in a row I had to take a break.

Madeline Mora-Summonte said...

Stacy - The Shining, yes!

Nightsmusic - The Stand is my favorite King novel and one of my all time favorite novels in general.

RosannaM said...

Oh, boy. What a delicious post. I will revisit this comment thread again to mine all the lists for some reading suggestions. As far as mine, I hesitate even attempting to form one, because I'm sure there will be glaring omissions. But I'll give it a whirl.

Catcher in the Rye
1984
To Kill A Mockingbird
Are You There, God It's Me Margaret
Little House on the Prairie series
Little Women and the rest of Alcott
Thorn Birds

Read my way through Agatha Christie-loved Marple better. Loved Dorothy Sayers and Dick Francis and Earl Emerson and JA Jance. Also, Philip R. Craig for his series set on Martha's Vineyard. The setting came alive for me. John D. MacDonald, Sue Grafton, Patrica Cornwell, Earl Stanley Gardner.

Helter Skelter and all the Ann Rule books, but obviously I need to find In Cold Blood. Those books are so scary, I have to be in the right frame of mind to read them.

Okay, way too many to list. But for more recent reads, and for those of you writing YA I recommend Everything Everything by Nicola Yoon.

Happy reading and writing to you all!

stacy said...

The whole Michael Connelly thing is just not fair. I've only finished the seventh Bosch book and he's got TWO new ones coming out this year. And the Bosch series on Amazon.

Probably over my comment limit but this post is all kinds of squee for me.

french sojourn said...


As a few people noted, The Stand, for so many reasons.
And Donna, I agree wholeheartedly for The Catcher in the rye...voice.

So many great choices, a different shade of reading for so many different people.

nightsmusic said...

Madeline I think The Stand hits home so hard because it could so, so easily happen. That's true horror!

stacy Read Connelly's The Poet. Not Harry Bosch but an absolutely brilliant stand alone! It's the first Connelly book I read and hooked me.

stacy said...

Thanks, nightsmusic! It's on my TBR list. Which is huge. :)

literary_lottie said...

I write YA, which is still a fairly young (no pun intended) category. But these are the classic YA books that I read growing up, which are still largely considered essential reading:

THE OUTSIDERS - S.E. Hinton
THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL - Anne Frank
A WRINKLE IN TIME - Madeleine L'Engle
FOREVER - Judy Blume
THE CHOCOLATE WAR - Robert Cormier
OUT OF THE DUST - Karen Hesse
THE GIVER - Lois Lowry
CRASH - Jerry Spinelli
MONSTER - Walter Dean Myers
HOLES - Louis Sachar
SPEAK - Laurie Halse Anderson
THE ABSOLUTELY TRUE DIARY OF A PART-TIME INDIAN - Sherman Alexie

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE isn't explicitly YA, but it's still had an outsized influence on the genre, probably because every teen (in the US, at least) reads it in school. Same with THE HOBBIT, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD and THE GREAT GATSBY.

Obviously, there's a lot missing here (very little SFF, for one, plus not a lot of racial or sexual diversity), but if you write YA you absolutely should be familiar with these books, IMO.

kathy joyce said...

Craig F, No one on this list bores me. Write as much as you like!

What a fun morning thinking about what to add. I'm sure I'll have more later too.

Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner (literature). He defines the title about 2/3 through, and I realized that the entire book illustrated the concept. My dream is to write a book like this.

Ivan Doig, any book. Great storyteller.

(Mystery) Agatha Christie, any and all. Iain Pears. I found his An Instance of the Fingerpost (medieval murder mystery) as a staff pick at the bookstore in Rehoboth Beach DE years ago, and have read everything he's written since. For more medieval murder, I also re-read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. I still sometimes re-read old (original) Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys for fun and nostalgia.

More later....

Terri Lynn Coop said...

In my genre of thriller (particularly the legal kind,) the books that stand up the best for me:

To Kill a Mockingbird. The primer on who lawyers wish they were and just how high the stakes can be and how heavy those stakes can be to carry. A must read if you are writing about lawyers. Our secret is that we all aspire to be Atticus Finch and fail and how we reconcile that in our heads.

The Firm by Grisham. No one will accuse it of being lyrical, but it is a romping good time that keeps the pace crackling and makes tax law exciting. Law is dull. Good law is even duller. Grisham makes technical topics fun to read.

Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy. This book is a masterwork in creating, maintaining, and meshing multiple timelines into a coherent whole and never losing the tension.

The Godfather. All of Puzo's crime fiction is required reading for crime writers, but Godfather towers.

The New Centurions. Even though it's dated, you can't write about cops without reading Wambaugh.

Kilvinski's Law:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUxjQYiWjTE

That's my crime/thriller/legal canon. All books I could pick up again and read with pleasure and see something or learn something I'd missed before.

Also, a few go-to books that I've worn thin that are masterworks in their own way:

Kinflicks by Lisa Alther. Anyone who ever thinks anything I write is funny is because of this book. It is a masterpiece of bitter biting self-deprecating nihilist humor. Alther is also the reigning queen of the awkward sex scene. It has been described as the Catcher in the Rye for growing up female.

The Grapes of Wrath. This is my "desert island" book. I still carry the copy I stole from the college library in 1979. Steal is a harsh word. I told them I lost it and paid the $1.58. It is the 1953 watercolor cover edition wrapped in clear tape. I read a passage from it at my brother's funeral. Not just the story, but the elegance and lyricism of speech. Writers can also learn a thing or two about alternate POV structure from Steinbeck.

The Dwayne series from Larry McMurtry: Starting with Last Picture Show, through Texasville and "Dwayne's Depressed," damn McMurtry for making me read literary fiction and like it. The last two in the series falter, but like cleaning my plate, I still powered through them to find out the end of Dwayne's story. Dwayne's Depressed gave me one of my favorite lines on how to define the loss of someone with whom you had an intense problematic relationship, "Carla was hard to love and easy to miss." Improve on that, I dare ya . . . People expecting to see Lonesome Dove are often put off by this series, but I think it is his best work.

Barbara Cartland romances. Yup, I said it. The old biddy has sold a BILLION (with a damn "B") books for a reason. The stories are crisp, formulaic, satisfying and the act structure turns on a damn dime. They are like Lay's potato chips. Sometimes I just want to open the cover (or the bag) and know exactly what I'll find inside. Deconstructing several of her books taught me about the 3-act arc. 40 years later they still are in demand on the secondary market when contemporary romances sell for $1 per bag. They are the romance equivalent of crime pulp.

What do all the books on this list have in common? None are "trendy." None are second-person present tense told in retro-linear epistolary haiku. They are solid examples of their craft. Even if the cultural references are dated, the writing stands tall.

Terri

Amy Johnson said...

Claire: Thank you for bringing up those wonderful picture books. I read them all with my kids when they were younger. Fond memories. Oh, for pity's sake, would you believe this? My eyes, they're moist. Ferdinand, oh Ferdinand, how I loved you.

Great post, Janet. Thank you.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I was feeling a bit left behind when I started reading some of the stuff you reiders have read. And then I realized I have read, and love, a lot of that stuff too.
"Stuff," the stuff of great reading.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

My 5

Little Drummer Girl by John Le Carre
The Arrangement by Elia Kazan
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Christopher and His Kind by Christopher Isherwood
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Rena McClure Taylor said...

Am I ever behind in my reading! What a list, but of great books, please add All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Story of Edgar Sawtell by David Wroblewski.

Casey Karp said...

OK, since I'm doing urban fantasy these days, let me throw in my five books

"Guilty Pleasures" (Laurell K. Hamilton). The series went downhill fast when it turned into an interminable romance, but the first three or four are solid.

"Storm Front" (Jim Butcher). Not the best of the series, but to get the full Dresden impact, you ought to start at the beginning. UF and noir. What more do you need?

"My Life As a White Trash Zombie" (Diana Rowland). Proved that there's more to the field than vampires and werewolves.

"The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump" (Harry Turtledove). IMNSHO, still the best integration of humor into UF.

"The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant" (Douglass Wallop). There had to be a baseball book somewhere on the list. Forget the god-awful movie.

BJ Muntain said...

I've always been an eclectic reader, so my go-tos aren't all science fiction. In fact, not many are.

Terry Pratchett's DiscWorld novels (the entire series, though if I had to choose, I'd choose Wyrd Sisters. Maybe Thud! Though they're very different books.) The first one I read, though, was Moving Pictures, and if you ever want to read a hilarious commentary on the motion picture industry, read this book.

Leslie Charteris' the Saint novels, especially the early ones. And the proof that they can stand the test of time is that I first read these books in the 1980s, when they were written in the 1930s. (Seriously, some of those 1930s novels were darned prescient. They pretty much foresaw World War 2 and should be required reading for anyone interested in today's politics. They were even more prescient than Orwell's 1984 and dug more to the heart of the causes of war.)

Alan Dean Foster's Star Wars and Splinter of the Mind's Eye (yes, both are based on the movie). This was my first foray into science fiction.

James Blish's novelizations of the Star Trek series. Because he didn't just write novelizations. He took the characters and the words and brought them to life even better than they were on the screen.

I haven't read this recently, but the last time I read Cue for Treason by Geoffrey Trease, it was still damn good (despite it being required reading in grade school.) Of course, it was set in Shakespeare's England featuring a girl pretending to be a boy acting as a girl in an acting company.

And, I know this is weird, but I have to say Colin Renfrew's Archaeology and Language, which is NOT fiction, but is a very good discussion about an alternate theory for the spread of farming and language through Europe. I read this book years after I got my degree in Anthropology, and for the first time I realized that all those 'facts' I'd read during my studies weren't facts but theories. And it's possible to have theories that conflict with the accepted ones. Of course, it helps that Renfrew is one of the masters in the field of archaeology, but it made me THINK again. (I suppose this also goes towards the idea of 'canon' in any field. Like EM, I'm an individualist. I have my own ideas, which I can usually back up. I wrote a paper once for a post-degree class based partially on Archaeology and Language, which used Renfrew's spread of language and farming through Europe to point out the importance of beer in early non-Mediterranean cultures.)

I think that's 5. At least. And of course I take a simple, short question and make an essay of it. Because my mind doesn't work 'short' when it comes to comments.

Also, Poe's works are so carefully contrived to stick in one's soul. A Cask of Amontillado is one of my favourite short stories. O. Henry, too.

Gail: I'm curious. Why Going Postal, of all of Pratchett's works? I'm a big fan of Pratchett. Of all his works, as you can see above. While Going Postal is a good book (as are most of the series), I'm curious as to why you chose it. (Also, LOVE Callahan's Crosstime Saloon!)

Jennifer: Actually, Frankenstein was one of the first science fiction stories, not horror. :)

Cassandra Briggs said...

As the only child at many a grown-up party, I looked forward to evenings at the home of an Englishwoman who loved both me and traditional mysteries. She would let me hang out upstairs in her library, and generously loaned out the book I was immersed in when it was time to say goodnight. I've read many other "study-this" mysteries since then, but the books that made me are because of that early kindness.:

Some Buried Caesar (Rex Stout)
Gaudy Night (Sayers)
Crooked House (Christie -- the reveal was such a shock to 11-year old me)
Cover Her Face (PD James)
I.O.U. (Nancy Pickard)

Not a mystery, but one of my all-time favorite tongue-in-cheek, laugh-out-loud novels: Good Omens (a collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett).

Claire Bobrow said...

Amy J: Ferdinand is so lovable, isn't he? And the illustrations are to die for.



Donnaeve said...

Hank, absolutely yes... CATCHER is (IMO) THE Tutorial on Voice.

While I listed my five, I will also say that I'm feeling all hunky dory about having read the books I believe would be considered the canon for my genre - Southern Fiction.

Meaning, I've also read Carson McCullers, Robert Morgan, Charles Frazier, Ron Rash, Fannie Flagg, Lee Smith, Larry Brown, Tom Franklin, Rick Bragg, and on and on.

I have Eudora Welty, Doris Betts, Clyde Edgerton, and William Gay in my massive TBR pile. There are others I've read too, but I'm feeling too lazy to plod back upstairs to look - and I don't really need to...b/c, yep. Feeling purty good about my reading as I should be reading!




Adele said...

Murder Must Advertise (Dorothy L. Sayers) is one book I must re-read at least once a year.

I am still recovering from the fierce glare I got from a well-known writing teacher when I mentioned my love of MMA. Apparently writers must only read current novels. (which makes me think ... Jane Austen on a Must Not Read list? Really?)

I also re-read most of Rex Stout every year; but I don't have one in particular in mind. From Stout I have favourite scenes rather than favourite novels.

Donnaeve said...

Um. Feeling good about my reading but not about my writing. Hmph.

That should be..."Feeling purty good about my reading." Period. Not "as I should be reading"...which I should be...but I can't be, not at this moment b/c I SHOULD be writing.

:>)

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Can't believe I forgot Alcott, who inspired me to write my first story!

So many enjoyable books that I've read, as I do read cross genre, and more to be put on my TBR pile. What a great thread.

Thank you for asking the question, Janet! Even though we've done our usual and taken different tangents.

kathy joyce said...

Willa Cather, especially Death Comes for the Archbishop. Love that title. He doesn't just die, death comes for him.

Pearl Buck, such gentle writing to describe such pained existence.

Can't narrow down the thrillers, so many to choose. My own work is kind of a literary thriller, and I keep trying to find something similar. Jodi Picoult meets Vince Flynn...

gypsyharper said...

So many great books! Here's some that stand out for me:

General fantasy canon (some of which have already been mentioned):

Lord of the Rings
Chronicles of Narnia
The Belgariad / David Eddings
Kushiel's Dart / Jacqueline Carey
Symphony of Ages series / Elizabeth Haydon

Urban fantasy

Dresden files / Jim Butcher
Mercy Thompson series / Patricia Briggs

Fairy tale / Folk tale retellings (or new stories that evoke that feeling)

Daughter of the Forest / Juliet Marillier
Wolfskin / Juliet Marillier
Uprooted / Naomi Novik (okay, this one's new, but the first time I read it I knew it would be one of my go to books)
The Glass Slipper (I don't remember the author - I read it years ago after finding it at random in my school library. Later, when I discovered online shopping, I tracked down a copy and read it again - still good. I have to read it again once I get all my books unpacked)

Craig F said...

I can't believe it has gotten this far without a mention of the two authors who got me pointed toward Mystery/Thriller:

Dashiell Hammet

Ellery Queen

Mocha Von Bee said...

This is an attempt at YA Spec Fic which (for me anyway) is a hard one to pin down.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)
The Scorpio Races (Maggie Stiefvater)
The Lie Tree (Frances Hardinge)
Chime (Franny Billingsley)
and (even though not technically YA)Station Eleven (Emily St John Mandel)

Adult Spec Fic
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (Susannah Clarke)
The Night Circus (Erin Morgenstern)
Shadow in the Wind (Carlos Zafon Ruiz)
Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
The Hakawati (Rabih El Ahmeddine)

Joseph Snoe said...

If I had to pick one of the books of all those listed in the comments today it would be DUNE.

If I had to pick one person’s list. It would be RosannaM’s. Let me whisper this confession: Even though I’m a lawyer and have lived in Alabama for nearly 30 years, I’ve never read “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’ve bought two copies and one sits on my to-be-read shelves. I’ve never read “Catcher in the Rye” either.

But “1984” and “The Little House” books were major parts of my youth.

I recall reading Ian Flemings’s “Dr. No” (and many other James Bond books in high school and after college). I loved the opening and when I was reading the final confrontation, I literally jumped (fell) out of bed I was so caught up in it. I pulled “Dr. No” up on Amazon.com a few weeks ago and read the opening pages again. I had not realized how fabulous Ian Fleming’s writing was.

So Todays’ blog and comments convince me I will order and re-read “Dr. No.”

I’m a Robert Louis Stevenson fan, and did re-read “Treasure Island” a few months ago.

I finished Lou Berney’s “The Faraway and Long Gone” last night. Very good. I should comment more on it later.

I start Sara Paretsky’s “Fallout” today. I won it in a Goodreads giveaway. Winning a book at Goodreads is as exciting as catching a foul ball at a baseball game.

It will be my first Sara Paretsky (and V.I. Warshawski) novel. After receiving it, I figured I was destined to receive it. Her main character is V.I. Warshawski. My main character is E.J. Sniegorski. Similar name construction. Her character’s father is Polish and mother Italian/Jewish. My main character’s father is Polish and mother Italian. Kismet.

Kate Larkindale said...

I write YA, so I read a lot of that too. And there are so many books that I love and re-read in that genre. But I guess I have to go back to where it all began with THE OUTSIDERS, the book that made me want to be a writer, made me write and still stands up over 30 years after I first read it. The rest of my favorites shift and change depending on the weather and my mood and what I've been reading recently, but that one never moves from the top spot.

Kitty said...

From my shelf of "definite keepers" I found these which I'll be re-reading eventually:

A Slipping-Down Life, by Anne Tyler
Why Shoot the Teacher, by Max Braithwaite
One Day In the Life of Ivan Denisovich, by Solzhenitsyn
Sweet Thursday, by John Steinbeck

Russell Buyse said...

I'd rather read all of your lists than provide my own, they're so good. But here goes:

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
Anything by Margaret Atwood, especially Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale.

Joseph Snoe said...

Stacy

I've read two Michael Connelly "Bosch" books in the past year (The Burning Room " and "Angels Flight") and have six or seven more on the TBR shelves. He's so good.

i picked up my first one (the Burning Room) after someone listed Michael Connelly as a favorite books read in 2015 on one of Janet Reid's blog columns.


To paraphrase Billy Joe Shaver, The devil made me read him the first time. Second time I read him on my own.

Mark Thurber said...

On the sci-fi side I'll join the chorus of love for THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS and also submit votes for Arthur C. Clarke (CHILDHOOD'S END is my #1) and Isaac Asimov (I'll go with FOUNDATION). I have an embarrassing gap in the Octavia Butler department which I plan to fill soon.

elisabethcrisp.com said...

My daughters are named after Alcott and Cather. They take up two spots.

1. Little Women
2. My Antonia
3. Pride and Prejudice
4. The Lacuna
5. Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

I just realized. The last two are stacked next to me now. I'm placing the others on top. I think I'll re-read them consecutively.

Julie Weathers said...

And with that, I'm done.

roadkills-r-us said...

Most of my favorites have been listed.

I was so glad to see Sayers finally mentioned! I was rather surprised not to find her on Janet's list, but I guess most of her work wasn't quite country house.[1] Still, her command of the language and her treatment of English society is wondrous. Whether she or Christie tops my list for detective fiction varies based on which I am reading. (We have, I believe, all the fiction each of them published. I love the lesser known leads in Christie as much as the giants!)

In fantasy, Tolkien, Lewis, L'Engle, Le Guin (whom I met and heard speak!), Andre (Mary Alice) Norton, McCaffrey, and Rowling are some I reread regularly.

One gaping hole in the scfi authors listed is James Schmitz. I love all of his work, but The Witches of Karres had a huge impact on me as a young teenager, and I still reread it once a year. I have given away at least a dozen copies to others who needed to read it. Keith Laumer also, especially the Retief books (despite some sexism) are excellent. Laumer was ex-AF and ex-diplomat; the stories of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne (CDT) are both hilarious and incerdibly insightful.


[1] Murder Must Advertise is also a personal fave, Adele!

Janet Reid said...

Today's topic is the canon, not cannons (of any size).

Three comments have been deleted.

Stay as close to the topic as you can please.

lb667 said...

I love this question today.
Canon is Sooooooooooooo important
It's important to see what has come before and HOW, When and Why
I LOVE canon....

Hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy - Douglas Adams
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
I Jedi - Michael A. Stackpole
I, Robot - Isaac Asimov
A Wrinkle in Time - Madeleine L'engle

and I can't choose between
And The Chrysalids / The Kraken Wakes / The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

Laurie

Theresa said...

Kitty, I'm with you about Joan Hickson as Miss Marple. And like Janet, I always preferred Christie's Miss Marple stories to those about the Belgian detective.

Joseph Snoe, I never miss a Sara Paretsky novel. The whole series is terrific.

Terri, I haven't thought about Kinflicks in years. Must be time for a re-read.

My canon of historical fiction:

The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels
Triangle by Katharine Weber
Atonement by Ian McEwan
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell

BJ Muntain said...

roadkills-r-us: Yes! Witches of Karres was one of my favourite novels when I was younger. It's weird that not many people know about it. I've read a Retief novella, but haven't read more of it yet, despite an interest. I should do something about that.

LynnRodz said...

Although Rex Stout's books aren't in the genre I write in, I've read and loved all his Nero Wolfe novels with Archie Goodwin as his side kick. Lawrence Sanders Deadly Sin series is another.

The Catcher in the Rye, The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance are also favorites, the early works of Maeve Binchy...God, I could go on and on.

But, my list would be:

1. Of Human Bondage - W. Somerset Maugham
2. The Roads to Freedom (trilogy) - Jean-Paul Sartre
3. The Good Earth - Pearl S. Buck
4. The Mountain Is Young - Han Suyin
5. The Blood of Flowers - Anita Amirrezvani

Right now I'm "studying" two novels I've read several times while I do my final edits.

Megan V said...

oh no. Oh geez.

Really? You're making me dig out my list? To fire my canons? All right...I'll post the first half of the list and combine the genres like they do at the stores and leave you all guessing as to the rest.

MG (all genres)

C.S. Lewis Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe
L.M. Montgomery- Anne of Greene Gables
Jacqueline Woodson- Brown Girl Dreaming
Gale Carson Levine-Ella Enchanted
E.L. Konigsburg- From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
Franklin Dixon – Hardy Boys series
R.J. Palacio- Wonder
Frances Hodgson Burnett- A Little Princess
Judy Blune- Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Gary Paulson- The Hatchet
Lois Lowry- The Giver
Louis Sachar- Holes
Roald Dahl - Matilda
Soman Chainani- The School for Good and Evil
Xavier Garza- Maximilian & the Mystery of the Guardian Angel: A Bilingual Lucha Libre Thriller
Thomas Rockwell- How to Eat Fried Worms
Norton Juster -The Phantom Tollbooth
Madeleine L’Engle- A Wrinkle in Time
Brian Jacques- Redwall
Jeff Kinney- Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Louise Fitzhugh- Harriet the Spy

YA (all genres)

Tamora Pierce—In the Hands of the Goddess
Rae Carson-Girl of Fire and Thorns
Juan Felipe Herrera-SkateFate
Carolyn Keene Nancy Drew The Hidden Staircase
Elizabeth Marie Pope-The Perilous Gard
Sherman Alexie-Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
Angela Thomas - The Hate U Give
Sabaa Tahir-An Ember in Ashes
Jennifer Nielson—the False Prince
Suzanne Collins- Hunger Games
Marissa Meyer- Cinder
Scott Westerfeld- Uglies
Meg Cabot- Princess Diaries
Mike Lupica QB1
John Green - An Abundance of Katherines

Sci Fi and/or Fantasy

Orson Scott Card- Ender's Game
George Orwell- 1984
Ray Bradbury-Fahrenheit 451
Aldous Huxley- Brave New World
H.G. Wells The Time Machine
Jules Verne- Journey to the Center of the Earth
Dan Simmons- Hyperion



J.R.R. Tolkein- Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit
Mercedes Lackey Magic's Pawn
Terry Pratchett- The Coolor of Magic
Piers Anthony- A Spell for Chameleon
Saladin Ahmed- Throne of the Crescent Moon
Neil Gaiman- Stardust
Ursula K. LeGuin- A Wizard of Earthsea

Thriller and/or Mystery and/or Suspense

David Baldacci- absolute power
John Grisham- the client
Harlan Coben- the innocent
Thomas Harris- The Silence of the Lambs
Tom Clancy- The Hunt for Red October
Agatha Christie -- Murder on the Orient Express
Laura Lippman-Baltimore Blues
Joanne Fluke-Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder
Carl Hiaasen- Lucky You
Wilkie Collins- The Woman in White
Faye Kellerman- Sacred and Profane
Mary Higgins Clark- I'll Be Seeing You
Gregg Olsen- A Wicked Snow
J.A. Jance Hand of Evil

Romance

Nora Roberts- the Next Always
Nicholas Sparks- The Wedding
Janet Evanovich- One for the Money
Jane Austen- Sense and Sensibility

Horror and/or Gothic

Stephen King-IT
Dean Koontz-Lightning
John Saul-The Unwanted
Greg Slap- Mouth Sewn Shut
V.C. Andrews-Flowers in the Attic

RosannaM said...

I found myself nodding and smiling at so many of the books that made you all's lists. Books I had forgotten, but may revisit soon, and books that are totally new to me, but I trust I'll be finding a few of soon. (that sentence was clunky and would not survive an edit, but you get the drift.)

Thanks, Janet for this blog. It is always educational and filled with hope and inspiration, and only sometimes a little scary. :-)

John Davis Frain said...

Finally arriving sometime after 1 am, so no one will read this comment, but who cares? This was such a great post. Only 5? Okay, off the top of my heAd and in my phone riddled with possible typos.

1. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold - Le Carre
2. Be Cool - Elmore Leonard
3. Shutter Island - Dennis Lehane
4. The Long and Faraway Gone - Lou Berney
5. Twelve titles tied for fifth ... will update when I figure out a tie-breaker system.

Thanks for a fantastic post Janet. (Another one.)

CynthiaMc said...

Late to the party but this is too good to pass up. These are the books I love, that I never grow tired of, that I've bought and rebought as my copies fell apart.

Love Miss Marple
Love Blueberries for Sal

Gone With the Wind was my beach book for years. Still love it, just don't make it to the beach any more.

Airs Above the Ground

The Screwtape Letters

Erma Bombeck

A Walk in the Woods

Gift from the Sea

Ellen said...

Great lists!

If anyone has a canon for cozy mysteries, I'll love you forever ...

Cordia Pearson said...

Waves, tentatively. Newbie, long in the shadows.
Snagged a few for my TBR lists.
That said, several of the lists had me LOL or "Oh, you've got to be kidding me." (Talk about high-handed attitude!) But isn't that what makes us writers? Discernment. Stance. Voice.
Queen of the Known Universe, reverence for this challenge. Will walk my shelves and see if I can narrow my favs to five.

AJ Blythe said...

Ellen, I write cozies, but not sure this is the best list...

Dorothy L Sayers - The Nine Tailors

Dick Francis - Risk (although Proof and Odds Against would be up there)

Agatha Christie - Miss Marple in The Mirror Crack'd (although I have a fondness for The Body in the Library as it was the first I read)

As a side note, I know Kitty named her favourite Marple actress, but I have to shout out to Dame Margaret Rutherford as we're related. Sadly it was hard to take her seriously as Marple as she looked like my Grandfather in drag.

More contemporary, in the style I hope I'm writing in are series by:

Jenn McKinlay (I buy extra copies which I read with a number of different coloured highlighters so I can 'disect' her stories)

Jana de Leon - Miss Fortune series

Amanda M. Lee - Winchester Witches

Megan V said...

Ellen Joanne Fluke (who's book is included in my massive non-split list writes cozies and the book I give is IMHO a great example of cozy canon.

Bill D said...

I don't have a canon, but a few authors and titles that I enjoy --

Alan Furst
Dennis Lehane
Robert Crais
Lee Childs
Ian Rankin
Bill Bryson
"Rules of Civility"

Ellen said...

Thank you, AJ and Megan! Much appreciated. :)

Steve Stubbs said...

Cecilia,

Your English is superb and I would not have been able to guess that English is not your first language if you had not shared that. You don't have anything to worry about. Feel safe to post to comment trails, agents, and editors all three.

Colin,

I wish I knew what to say, but not having read this book or that book does not a fraud make. If you think you should read something, just go on amazon and order a copy. Nobody can read everything. And rejection does not a fraud make, either. I can't seem to get this damn thing I am working on finished (although it is coming out better than I ever expected.) But far be it from me to classify anyone a fraud if they reject it when I do get it ready. If they give me feedback I can use to fix it (or throw it in the trash, as the case may be) I will remember them in my will. They may not want to be remembered, since I won't be leaving anything but debts. But they can pay a few of them off if they want to. It will be my way of saying thanks.

Actually, I will not call anyone a fraud for rejecting me even if they just send one of those form "You're an idjit" rejections. This thing is pretty edgy and they may want one of those feel good sunshine stories that has them barfing ice cream by the second chapter. (It does have a happy ending.) The way I see it, if they are running a business and not an art museum, it is MY responsibility to produce something commercial. The only responsibility they have is not to laugh at me too loudly. Well, OK, go ahead and let it rip.

Rejection is just rejection. I can take it.

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April said...

I got inspired and wrote a blog post based on yours! I tend to write YA fantasy romance or fairy tale retellings, so I picked my books from that category. I chose:

Beauty by Robin McKinley
Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (technically MG, not YA)
The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale
Crown Duel by Sherwood Smith
My Fair Godmother by Janette Rallison