What I Teach: A Back to School Reading List
A Crowd-Sourced Syllabus for the Next Generation of Writers
Last week we asked booksellers across the country what titles they were excited about this fall. Though it pains us to say, five years from now, a lot of books from that list will have been forgotten. The ones that aren’t, that linger on in the literary consciousness, will likely end up on a list like this some day. As tens of thousands (millions?) of MFA students return to class, we decided to check in with their teachers and find out what books are being taught to the next generation of writers. Some of this crowd-sourced syllabus draws from the literary canon as we know it, but some of it doesn’t, and instead offers a look at what books might someday achieve the status of classic. Only time will tell.
Seize the Day, Saul Bellow
I’m teaching a class called “Character” (as in how to write one, not to have some), so I’m once again using an old favorite, Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day. Everything a fiction writer aiming for realism—and laughter, and heartache—needs to know is contained in this short novel: scene, exposition, brilliant dialogue, comedy, compassion, a ticking plot line and yes, best of all, character . . . such characters. Some writer, that Bellow guy.
–Alice McDermott is the author of seven novels including the National Book Award-winning Charming Billy and is a professor at Johns Hopkins University.
The Daydreaming Boy, Aharonian Marcom
I first read Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s novel The Daydreaming Boy about eight years ago and have taught the book regularly since, usually in a MFA-level prose literature course. Writers and readers both have much to gain from this novel. In terms of form and style, the book is highly experimental, drawing on a range of modernist and meta-fictional techniques. However, the novel reads fresh, original, and never feels gimmicky. In fact, it packs an emotional punch driven as it is by an intense focus on violence and abuse, and its troubling theme of the cycle of abuse, how people (and groups) who are abused often seek out weaker souls to torment. Marcom’s novel is an all-around brilliant achievement.
–Jeffery Renard Allen. Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia and author of the novels Song of the Shank and Rails Under My Back.
The Lifespan of a Fact, John D’Agata and Jim Fingal
I like to teach books that stirred up controversies, and The Lifespan of a Fact certainly did (full disclosure: I was personally involved, albeit unwittingly, in the controversy). D’Agata wrote an essay that was full of intentional factual inaccuracies; one magazine killed the essay, then another magazine killed it but not before an intern completed a practically book-length fact-checking document. The book includes the original essay in the center of each page, and surrounding it, like a thick frame, is the correspondence between D’Agata and his fact checker, Jim Fingal. Though it’s a nonfiction book, I use it in fiction classes as a way to look at constructed narrators, artistic bias, genre conflicts, and also as a way to introduce a conversation about ethics, i.e. what, if anything, is our ethical obligation to made-up humans? What is the role/duty/limitations of the artist in terms of locating or creating of forcing a design onto otherwise shapeless material?
–Heidi Julavits is the author of four novels and, most recently, The Folded Clock: A Diary. She teaches at Columbia University.
Runaway, Alice Munro
A book I like to use in workshops is Alice Munro’s Runaway—not necessarily because it’s so great, but because it should be so awful. If you break down what actually happens in the stories, just look simply at the plots, you’ll find that the scenarios are ludicrous. Really, they belong to bad romance novels. Hugely melodramatic and silly and soap-opera-ish. But the stories don’t come across that way, because Munro delves so patiently and carefully into her characters’ emotional interiors. We end up understanding their obsessions and choices completely. I tell my students, “If you can write this well, you can get away with anything.”
–Don Lee, author of Yellow and The Collective, is a professor at Temple University.
Choctalking on Other Realities, LeAnne Howe
I teach eight weeks a year at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, beginning mid October. In a graduate memoir topics class one of the books I’m teaching is LeAnne Howe’s Choctalking on Other Realities. This book isn’t memoir, but personal essays from a brilliant, witty, Choctaw world traveler. Her observations lean toward the irreverent, with a wide-ranging Choctaw perspective that can be dangerous when traveling in a country like Japan, which has very different protocols. She is no fool. We the readers are lucky to get to travel with her into these tightly written, highly entertaining adventures.
–Joy Harjo is a poet, musician, writer, performer and a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign in the Creative Writing Program.
I Am an Executioner: Love Stories, Rajesh Parameswaran
I will certainly ask my grad workshop to read Rajesh Parameswaran’s 2012 collection I Am an Executioner: Love Stories. He takes a number of different narrative approaches, and succeeds at all of them, so it’s a rich book both in terms of its literary merit and the techniques on display. Also, because he’s a young writer on the way up, I think he’s evidence that the distance from where they are to where he is might not be insurmountable if they’ve got compelling stories to tell and are smart and willing to explore various methods of narration. I think I’m also going to have them read Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March. That novel, it seems to me, is one of the best from the last hundred years or so, a book that they are not likely to be aware of and one that I hope will lead them to some other Central European writers like Musil, Fontane, Broch, etc., who receive short shrift in MFA programs, I’m sorry to say.
–Steve Yarbrough is the author of several novels and teaches at Emerson College.
The Tree of Life, Hugh Nissenson
This fall one of the books I am teaching is Hugh Nissenson’s The Tree of Life, in a class called History, Research, and Imagination. The Nissenson book is striking and powerful for many reasons, but I love its lack of sentimentality about the past. No sops to current sensibilities, no comforting anachronisms, no cheap irony derived from our simply being later in chronology than the people he writes about. The book reads like a primary document of 1812. He was a real fanatic for authenticity—although writing from the vantage of another time is not really possible, Nissenson convinces you that he has done it.
–Dana Spiotta is the author of four novels: Innocents and Others (forthcoming in 2016), Stone Arabia, Eat the Document, and Lightning Field. She teaches in the Syracuse University Creative Writing Program.
A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord
I’m going to teach A Giacometti Portrait by James Lord. It’s a superb dramatization of how seeking and daring oneself to fail is at the root of creativity. And it’s an argument against the more typical, exclusive over-concern with issues of craft you see in creative writing workshops and in favor of mastering curiosity about the world and one’s materials and metaphors.
–David Biespiel, author of A Long High Whistle, is a professor at Oregon State University.
Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis
I’m teaching 12 books by contemporary American poets in my graduate seminar on “The Art of the Book” this fall, including Robin Coste Lewis’s powerful new Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf, 9/15). This innovative collection coheres brilliantly, and is an ideal read for students at work on first books. Each week class discussion culminates in a visit from the poet at hand, and we’re looking forward to having Robin (NYU MFA ’13) back with us to discuss her debut. The title poem—constructed entirely of titles of works of art that address the black female figure—comprises the heart of the book, and is framed on either side by lyric poems. Voyage of the Sable Venus takes historical representations of black women as its central preoccupation (along with interconnected questions of race, gender, beauty, and desire), and is stunningly original in form and style.
–Deborah Landau’s most recent book of poems is “The Uses of the Body;” she directs the Creative Writing Program at NYU.
Jump and Other Stories, Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer’s Jump and Other Stories has always been my favorite among her large body of work. The stories are startling, provocative, and beautifully rendered. They are at once subtle and in-your-face. The stories are mostly South African but the concerns are universal, about freedom and dignity, about suffering and privilege. Most important, these stories challenge—and I want my students to be challenged. I want them to wake up, just like I wake up every time I read Gordimer.
–Samrat Upadhyay is the Martha C. Kraft of Humanities at Indiana University. He’s the author of five books of fiction, including Arresting God in Kathmandu.
Lost in the City, Edward P. Jones
I tend to rotate my reading lists quite a lot, but Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City is among the books I almost always teach from. A stunning collection on every imaginable level: the vivid and complicated landscape of D.C.; the unendingly layered characters; the technical mastery and daring, the rule-breaking, the sentences that startle with their beauty and truth. There are 14 stories in Lost in the City; each is a world. They might be short, but they never ever feel small.
–Laura van den Berg is the author of two short story collections and the novel Find Me, and is currently teaching in the M.F.A. Program at Columbia University.
Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle
The text in my workshops this fall will be poet Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey. Usually I supplement the students’ writing with one or more collections of contemporary poetry, which this isn’t—instead, it’s Ruefle’s collected lectures, each of which is both deeply intelligent and thoroughly silly. I always tell my students that I want them to write good poems, but it’s more important that they leave the class with the mind of a poet. In Ruefle’s pages, good sense and nonsense alternate as steps on the path to enlightenment; it would seem that her aim is to give pleasure by showing how the mind works when it’s working most pleasurably. I’ve always thought the world would be a better place if everyone in it had a poet’s mind, so, yeah, this is a book about poetry, but it’d be a shame if only poets read it.
–David Kirby teaches at Florida State University. His latest poetry collection is The Biscuit Joint.
New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus
This fall my advanced undergraduate fiction students will be reading from New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus. I chose it because I’ve got a story in there and while I don’t plan to assign them my story, I’m hoping my students will notice it and be impressed. This way I won’t have to wear high heels when I teach, which is my only other way of cultivating authority in the classroom. I don’t wear high heels since I threw my back out wearing a pair at a day-long awards ceremony at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, where I briefly spoke to Michael Chabon. In the past, when my students have questioned my authority by asking what kind of a lady professor wears only sneakers, I’ve had to casually work in my meeting of Michael Chabon. I’m hoping that this excellent anthology will save me (and Michael Chabon) that indignity.
–Claire Vaye Watkins is the author of Battleborn and Gold Fame Citrus, a novel due out this fall. She teaches at the University of Michigan.
Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight, Jean Rhys
I went on a Rhys binge about 15 years again and am keen to see what the grad students make of her—I’m keen to know what I make of her—now. I’m guessing that if they know her already it will be on the basis of Wide Sargasso Sea. She’s such a mysterious and haunting writer—and in some ways a very contemporary one.
—Geoff Dyer, is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including, most recently, Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. He teaches at the University of Southern California.
Sylvia, Leonard Michaels
I do such a mishmash because it’s mostly stories. But I am going to do this thing with Leonard Michaels for my advanced class. Reading Sylvia the novella and “Sylvia” that is in the collection of essays. They are in essence the same story, much of one grafted upon the other, but one is “fiction” and one is “true” and they are both excellent but the pace and feel is very different.
–Jennifer Gilmore is the author of, most recently, The Mothers, and is teaching creative writing at Harvard University.
Notes for Echo Lake, Michael Palmer
This semester I’m teaching a seminar on the history of prosody in English, so there are mostly anthologies involved—among the single volumes we’ll look at, though, will be Michael Palmer’s Notes for Echo Lake, a book that never ceases to make me rethink all over again what a poem might be. His interest in and contributions to some of the aesthetic concerns of the Language movement combine with his clear command of traditional prosody—the result is a poetics that strikes me as utterly new, even now. He’s a good example of what I want to convince the students of, that tradition has its role in how we think about form, no matter how experimental we may want to be.
–Carl Phillips is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry including, this month, Reconnaissance, and teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
The Writers Notebook 1, Tin House Books
The only text I know I’m going to use is an old favorite: The Writers Notebook 1, by Tin House Books. It has really useful essays by Aimee Bender, Dorothy Allison, Chris Offut, Tom Grimes and Anna Keesey, among others. The reason I like it is because of its variety of approaches to craft, and also the fact it is not prescriptive. It works by raising questions about craft; it’s definitely not a how-to book.
–Jim Krusoe, whose new novel, The Sleep Garden, will be published by Tin House Books, this winter, teaches at Santa Monica College and at the Antioch graduate writing program.
Cocktails, D.A. Powell
While each of my students has a somewhat different reading list (I teach in a low-res MFA program), I find that I consistently assign D.A. Powell’s Cocktails to most, because it exemplifies so many surprising ways to write a successful poem—to deploy the line, shift register and create attitude. Also, the poems are personal lyrics—a mode most of my students relate to (and write themselves)—but they resonate with wider social significance (the AIDS crisis) and keep their narrative heads about them. Cocktails can also be read as a series of elegies—without sanctimony, often irreverent, and extremely moving—and it proves that a poem can do many things at once, including playing with language and humor while also exploring deep emotions.
–Joan Houlihan teaches on the poetry faculty in Lesley University’s MFA Creative Writing Program and is the author of several books of poetry including Ay (Tupelo Press)
Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell
In my Advanced Undergraduate Fiction class this fall I’m teaching Narrative Design by Madison Smartt Bell. I have a lot of repeat students—lovable fiction-writing junkies—so I have to use new texts pretty much every time I teach the class. Narrative Design is a book I’ve long wanted to teach and reading it in preparation for the fall I was kicking myself for not having taught it sooner. It’s fascinating and unlike any other craft book I’ve read. Bell uses form and structure—what he calls narrative design—to guide his book, analyzing stories that are linear and stories that are nonlinear, or “modular” as he calls it. Having some sense of the different ways stories can work and unfold, he believes, gives the writer just a steady enough footing to free him- or herself up to focus on the exciting aspects of writing—“the unconscious mind,” imagination, creativity—which are much harder to teach but too often devalued in the craft-based study of fiction. I really like this, not only as a unique strategy for a writing book, but also because I’m kind of a structure/form enthusiast. I find it to be one of the most exciting aspects to reading and writing, so it’s nice to see a whole book devoted to it. I should also add that one of the pleasures of Narrative Design is seeing Madison Smartt Bell relentlessly breakdown a story. There are myriad DFW-style endnotes to each professional piece, which illustrate beautifully to students how to read like a writer, and that, as I see it, is one of the most important things we can teach aspiring writers.
–Andrew Malan Milward is an assistant professor of English at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers, where he is also the editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review. He is the author of story collections The Agriculture Hall of Fame and I Was a Revolutionary.
How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales: and Other Stories, Kate Bernheimer
Why this book? Kate once said, “Because my stories seek to create radical moods about some very bad problems.” In these moods we find outrageous, subversive, poignant, and productive strategies that offer insight into how we might abandon our efforts to escape our wounds, and be in them and deal with them instead.
–Selah Saterstrom is the director of Creative Writing at Denver University and author of three novels: Slab, The Meat and Spirit Plan, and The Pink Institution.
Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe
I am always back and forth about what books or stories I will teach; it’s most likely I’ll teach Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart since it offers a contrast to the methods I use to introduce point of view to my fiction-writing students. I recommend that students begin with a closely controlled third person point of view that allows them access to the characters thoughts, senses, and interior. Achebe’s novel is sparse, its point of view omniscient, moving from character to character to serve his storytelling needs, and the story he tells covers a lot of time with a great economy of words. This is a contrast to the way I write and helps me point out to students that there is no single path toward writing a novel. Any approach to a novel will work if the writer is talented and disciplined.
–Jim Grimsley is the author of How I Shed My Skin and a professor at Emory University
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Encountering Carter’s astonishing gothic-feminist retellings of European fairy tales was one of the most exciting events of my life as a writer. My writer pal Stacey Levine introduced me to Carter’s work in 1984 (after the publication of my own first book of stories) and assumed I was already a fan of Carter’s work. I wasn’t then, but I became a very eager neophyte. Carter’s language is phenomenal, her imagination both brutal and hilarious. She wrote daringly, brilliantly about the dark and the beautiful and showed us that often the dark is beautiful. One of the great writers of the late 20th century.
—Rebecca Brown is the author of American Romances and teaches in the Master of Fine Arts program at University of Washington.
Heavenly Questions, Gjertrud Schnackenberg
A great book of poetry is both a literary and a life event; flesh is given to the word; the craft breathes where the lines are most marmoreal and strikes us with the archaic reality of death, which, this book, Heavenly Questions, stands as an astonishing consolation against. I am teaching it in the spring semester for the second time around because the authority of its metre, the pure distillation in which nothing is insincere, enthralls me. There are other reasons: the quicksilver imagery, the way allusions turn into myths and myths transmute into the diurnal, without force, but with a perpetual ease I can only call grace. Any young poet would be extremely lucky to learn from Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s gift, in particular the mastery within Heavenly Questions.
–Ishion Hutchinson was born in Port Antonio, Jamaica. He teaches at Cornell University
AP Stylebook, edited by David Minthorn, Sally Jacobsen and Paula Froke
It’s always best to start with first principles. In journalism, the first first principle is to be correct and clear, and once I introduce the AP Stylebook as the bible of correctness and clarity, my students embrace it. It’s got a full range of information (did you now that it’s redundant to say “Kuomintang Party,” because tang means party?), much of which can’t be found elsewhere, and the punctuation guide keeps it simple and sticks to the first principle: Correct and clear.
Add to that the fact that the AP Stylebook doesn’t require students to remember a bunch of stuff. All they have to do is remember how to use it. Some students opt for the smartphone app version, but the general rule is to keep that stylebook close at hand and remember, even when not using it, that the principle is to get it right and get it read.
Books are—for students, anyway—a means to an end. The news stories, whether print or online, that we read every day and attempt to recreate in our assigned work, change constantly. The AP Stylebook’s entries change over time, but the way we use it doesn’t. I like to tell my students that, after 40 years of journalism, the only tool I’m still using the same way is the AP Stylebook. It can be counted on in a zombie apocalypse (which isn’t in the Stylebook—yet).
–Kel Munger is Adjunct Professor of Journalism at American River College and a contributor to the Sacramento News & Review, the Sacramento Bee and the Colorado Springs Independent.
The Tusk That Did the Damage, Tania James
Set in South India, The Tusk That Did the Damage explores the ivory trade through three protagonists: Manu, a local poacher; Emma, an American documentary filmmaker; and a dangerous elephant known as The Gravedigger. It’s mostly this last choice that earned the novel its place on the syllabus: Like in J.M. Ledgard’s Giraffe or Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth, James gives a large portion of the novel’s point of view to an animal, deemphasizing the human-centric worldview that’s the default in most novels. (Interestingly, the two human protagonists narrate in first person, while The Gravedigger’s sections are in third—even with this close attention paid to the elephant’s inner life and experience, there’s still a scrim of separation left between his mind and ours.) As readers, we’ve been trained to invest the bulk of our emotional energy in a novel’s protagonists, making their goals our goals—this is one of the tactics involved in getting us to empathize with otherwise heinous or unlikable characters—and by making The Gravedigger a protagonist alongside two humans, James asks us to empathize with this animal just as much as we might empathize with Emma or Manu.
For me, The Tusk That Did the Damage and other novels like it form a crucial part of the answer to one of the big questions of our time: How are novelists going to respond to humanity’s role in climate change, environmental devastation, and ongoing extinctions? One powerful way is through characters like The Gravedigger, who are given the same dignity of agency and interiority as anyone else in the book. This has the tacit effect of making the animals whose planet we share our equals, by diminishing their difference, by showing how what seems to be Other is in fact Us. It’s an important choice that a growing number of contemporary novelists are making, each in his or her own way, and I’m excited to use James’s novel to talk with my students about other ways of crafting fictional responses to the daunting problems of the world around us.
–Matt Bell’s second novel Scrapper is out now from Soho Press. He teaches in the MFA program at Arizona State University.
Changing My Mind, Zadie Smith
I am sure to teach Changing My Mind, by Zadie Smith; I’ve taught it before, and it’s wonderful because it has such range and flexibility, not only with topic but also a bit with form. Many students want to write about things like pop culture or travel, but are also worried about lapsing into cliche. Smith’s essays show that in the right hands, these topics are still fresh, lively, and compelling.
–V.V. Ganeshananthan, author of Love Marriage, teaches writing at the University of Minnesota.
The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid
This fall I’m teaching The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, and The Metamorphoses, because the only way to write new things is to rewrite old things. (An idea not original to me, of course.)
–Joel Brouwer, poet and critic, teaches creative writing at The University of Alabama.
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
I never studied creative writing, I learned everything I know at the coal face. Fay Weldon learned the same way. When we taught our first course together we sat down and said, “Right, what are the ten things we wish someone had told us when we started.” My Georgetown University course “Becoming a Writer” introduces students to the essential elements of craft, with readings from some of the best of practitioners of technique. Hemingway’s command of the dramatic perspective in “Hills Like Elephants” is unerring, he shifts perspective only thrice in the story, each time minutely and yet to enormous impact. Jean Rhys’s prose in Wide Sargasso Sea suffuses the senses, like both the landscape and the emotions she describes. E Annie Proulx’s “The Half Skinned Steer’s” effortless and yet elaborate structure contains a story within a story and two timelines. Most new writers struggle over where to begin and how to end a story. To show them what can be done we read Tobias Wolff’s short story “Bullet to the Brain” which could have been a novel, but collapses a lifetime into the millisecond it takes for a bullet to travel through a man’s head.
–Aminatta Forna, the author of a memoir and several novels, including The Hired Man, is Lannan Professor of Poetics at Georgetown University.
The Art of the Tale, edited by Daniel Halpern
I often use The Art of the Tale, edited by Daniel Halpern. Years ago when it first came out I came upon writers whose other works I since have come to love. A partial list of these: Russell Banks, Mavis Gallant, William Trevor, Yukio Mishima, Tadeuz Borowski, Ingeborg Bachman, Frank O’Connor (well, I was weaned on his stories), Edna O’Brien (whose huge book of stories I recently reviewed in the New York Times Sunday Book Review), John Cheever, Natalia Ginzburg and Stanley Elkin. There are also quite a few by writers I already had read.
This is a good anthology because it roams the world, taking a core sample of the period between WWII and c. 1960. It’s good for both MFA students and bright undergrads. For the MFAs I sometimes assign one of my own books—“Beyond the First Draft”—a collection of essays—quite a few very close readings of selected passages. Some of it’s funny.
–John Casey is the author of six novels including Spartina and its sequel, Compass Rose. He is a professor of English at the University of Virginia.
Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I like to teach books that make students think, You’re allowed to do that in a novel? You can write about race, and include blog posts, and be very funny, and tell a real love story, all in the same book? I also love that the novel begins with the phrase, “Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing.” This opening allows us to immediately talk about smell, my favorite sense.
–Luis Jaramillo is the author of The Doctor’s Wife. He is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at The New School.
The Shape of a Pocket, John Berger
I often use The Shape of a Pocket by John Berger when teaching students to write essays. His exquisite prose about art fires their imaginations. When Berger says Rembrandt’s canvasses speak “with several voices—like a story being told… from different points of view,” they get that art has an audible dimension and that writing is inherently musical.
–Linda Cutting, author of Memory Slips, teaches writing at New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
The restaurant reviews of Pete Wells
A fellow writer, Christian Howard, turned me on to the idea of New York Times food critic Pete Wells’s reviews as writing exercise jumping boards. Two of them (the 2012 takedown of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar, and this year’s razing of Javelina) have become staples of my creative writing classes. Narrative, in both, is completely incidental; the first is a great piece for exploring voice; the second, for cracking open questions of narrator reliability and motivation. And they are—let’s face it—great fun.
–Téa Obreht is the author of The Tiger’s Wife, and will be the Harman Writing Fellow at Baruch College this November.