Writer’s Toolbox

Ask The Writer

Your most pressing and perplexing questions about writing answered here by Gotham teacher Brandi Reissenweber.

What novels are "must reads" for fiction writers?

Ask a hundred different authors this question and you'll get a hundred different lists. There's no definitive list of “must reads" for fiction writers, so you'll have to do some exploring to find or make the list that's right for you. In fact, creating and reading through your own personal “must reads" can be a master class in the novel tailored to your aesthetics and needs.

Don't know where to start? There are plenty of lists to peruse. Gotham Writers' Workshop's Fiction Writing Resource List has categories for contemporary novels, early to mid 20th century novels and 17th-19th century novels. The New York Public Library's Books of the Century has a category on Landmarks of Modern Literature, which includes F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. The Modern Library has two separate lists of the 100 best novels published in the English language since 1900. One, compiled by the Modern Library's board begins with James Joyce's Ulysses and includes Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, Carson McCullers' The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime. The other list—the result of a reader poll with over two hundred thousand votes cast—is headed by Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and includes J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood and Stephen King's The Stand.

Of course, recommendations are only as relevant as the list's creator. Time Magazine's list of the “100 Best Novels" is quite different from The Guardian's “The 100 Greatest Novels of All Time." Turn to organizations or periodicals you respect and whose articles and reviews resonate for you. Still, pay attention to who compiled the list. The New York Times article “What is the Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years?" and the resulting list, topped by Toni Morrison's Beloved, came from polling “a couple of hundred prominent writers critics, editors, and other literary sages." Madison's 100 Best Novels, compiled by Madison Public Library, was created from votes cast by Madison readers.

Also, consider the winning novels from honors like the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award. Among the list of winners you'll find James A. Michener's Tales of the South Pacific, Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, Joyce Carol Oates' Them and Ha Jin's Waiting.

You may even find your favorite writer has discussed his or her own personal “must reads" in interviews. Some authors have compiled more formal lists. In the book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley discusses 100 novels, including Giovanni Boccaccio's The Decameron and Bram Stoker's Dracula, that together “illuminate the whole concept of the novel." Anthony Burgess' book 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939 documents his take on the greatest novels, including Chinua Achebe's A Man of the People and Muriel Spark's The Mandelbaum Gate.

Don't forget niche lists. Some may intrigue you. The American Library Association keeps lists of frequently banned and challenged books, including well-known reads like Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind and Jack London's The Call of the Wild. Esquire compiled a list of “The 75 Books Every Man Should Read" with novels like John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. The Telegraph includes John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces and Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow as picks for the “50 Best Cult Books."

This is your list, so pick and choose as you see fit. And don't forget to consult yourself. What novels have you always wanted to read but never started? What novel keeps popping up—in conversations, articles and interviews with authors you admire? Has someone compared your work to another author's novel? Are there books you think you should have already read? Add those to the list. One of these novels might be the most important you ever read.