Wednesday, January 16, 2019

your five favorite authors?

The question came up in our office: "Who's your favorite author?" This proved too hard to answer; we're all word nerds and bookworms here, so limiting our favorites to a single person was impossible. We also began to think aloud about the criteria for saying someone was a favorite. What if you respected an author but didn't exactly like his writing? (That's how I think about Tolkien: an innovator in his genre, and blessed with a grandiose vision... but his books are a slog. Cf. Tolkien's easy-to-read contemporary, CS Lewis.) Should screenwriters be included? What about comic-book writers and their episodic storylines?

Ultimately, I didn't answer the question, but I did change it to, "Who are your five favorite authors?"—which ought to be slightly easier to answer, although, granted, if a mother of twelve had to name her five favorite children, she'd have a hard time doing so. I decided that, were I to attempt an answer, my major criterion would be whether this was an author to whose works I returned often. So: assuming "favorite author" is, in my case, equivalent to "author I'm most likely to return to," here are my five favorites, not listed in any order of preference, prominence, or professionalism:

1. Tom Robbins. The man is a nut, a refugee from the Sixties who still writes in a druggie-tinged vein (vein/druggie pun intended). The first novel of his that I read, and still my favorite, is Jitterbug Perfume, about an ancient European king named Alobar who searches through the centuries for the secret of immortality. He is accompanied by his Indian lover and co-seeker Kudra, and the book is peopled with weird characters like the ever-fading god Pan (the idea of a god whose existence is sustained by believers' belief comes up again, decades later, in Neil Gaiman's American Gods), the LeFever brothers, Priscilla the bisexual waitress, Madame Devalier and V'lu, and the effervescent Irish stereotype Wiggs Dannyboy, a "scientist" also questing for immortality. Robbins's other books are great, too: I've read and enjoyed Another Roadside Attraction (about Jesus' corpse), Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and a naughty favorite of mine, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates.

2. Stephen R. Donaldson. My list wouldn't be complete without this man. While I'm not a fan of his Final Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I've read and reread the first two trilogies—in which a mysterious Hindu monk sends a leper from our world to battle the devil in an alternate world—too many times to count. Donaldson's writing treats characters as symbols and metaphors representing something far larger than themselves, and Donaldson's stories often deal with heady philosophical themes like fate/freedom, choice/necessity, peace/violence. Donaldson's female characters often end up getting raped, which is disturbing, but Donaldson is on record defending the idea that his characters develop best when they're put through a wringer. Some of his male characters, like Angus Thermopyle in the Gap series, are arguably raped on several levels as well. And some of Donaldson's prominent female characters suffer no sexual violations, like Terisa Morgan from The Mirror of Her Dreams, and Linden Avery from the Covenant novels. In his later years, Donaldson's prose became a bit too abstract and self-conscious, but his earlier work moves along at a lively clip and will massage even the tautest brain with a host of cosmic ideas.

3. JK Rowling. Rowling may have taken a hard left turn into self-righteous PC/SJW politics, but her Harry Potter heptalogy will remain for me an example of exemplary storytelling. Rowling's series follows the young boy Harry Potter as he discovers his power and learns to use it, all while making fast friends and learning life-lessons from wise old masters like Albus Dumbledore, and even from bitter, nasty teachers like Severus Snape. The Harry Potter books, for all their magical realism, explore human themes like courage, devotion, love, friendship, integrity, and a sense of adventure. Even the minor characters in Rowling's works are dimensional, and despite Rowling's frustrating tendency to strew her pages with comma splices, she writes with a nimble, deft wit that keeps the reader turning those pages. Rowling does all this while remaining firmly double-rooted in both British fantasy (pageantry, swords, and sorcery) and British children's stories (cool kid, dead parents, nasty relatives), giving her work an air of history, dignity, and authority. There might be a debate about whether Hermione should have been paired up with Harry and not Ron (Rowling later expressed regret about this), but when you think about all that poor Ron and his family have gone through, I think his ending up with Hermione is a condign fate for a character who best represents the steadfastness of good friendship through thick and thin.

4. Stephen King. King is another PC/SJW numbskull, but he's a damn good writer. His stories could sometimes use some brutal editing, but with the exception of his horribly bloated and borderline-nonsensical novel It (I've complained about it here), I can't say that King has ever written a single boring sentence. I've read a couple different versions of The Stand, which is a novel I come back to every few years. I haven't read much of King's material since, oh, the 1990s, but many of the novels I have read have stuck with me, and I come back to them, too. Along with The Stand, I've enjoyed novels like Salem's Lot, Cujo, Pet Sematary, Firestarter, Misery, Christine, Needful Things, and The Dark Half. I've also enjoyed King's short-story collections: Skeleton Crew, Night Shift, and Four Past Midnight.

5. Larry Niven. Some of my earliest readings in science fiction were from Niven's works. I began with Neutron Star, a collection of short stories, several of which followed the adventures of one Beowulf Shaeffer, a tall, albino Crashlander who, in some ways, felt like a precursor of Han Solo, but without the hirsute counterpart. I eventually graduated to Ringworld and Ringworld Engineers, but I couldn't stand Ringworld Throne, which was written much later than the two earlier novels. Niven couldn't stay away from the ringworld concept, and I thoroughly enjoyed both The Integral Trees and The Smoke Ring, both of which take place in an immense gas torus that encircles a small star. I'd love to see these novels translated to film: this would be a purely zero-gee adventure, with lots of wind and sunlight and weird creatures that have evolved to survive in all the floatiness. When I can, I reread Neutron Star, Ringworld, and The Integral Trees. Oh, and All the Myriad Ways.

Honorable Mentions
Michael Crichton (who was scientifically preachy but very readable)
Robert Heinlein (who was politically preachy but very readable)
CS Lewis (who wrote compelling fare for kids)
Chuang-tzu (who gave us the humorous side of Taoism)
Mark Leyner (with thanks to Steve doCarmo, who introduced me to this hilarious guy)
George RR Martin (another lover of comma splices, but an incredible yarn-spinner)
Neil Gaiman (I've only ever read American Gods, which I enjoyed, despite its many typos and awkward locutions, but a single book isn't enough to put Gaiman in my Top Five)
Arthur C. Clarke (I've talked about how sci-fi smuggles religious themes into its narrative; this was the guy for that because many of his stories dealt with incomprehensible cosmic powers, thus evoking gods and magic)

Why so little love for female authors? I like Amy Tan, I guess; her writing is clear and emotionally compelling, but Tan's problem is that she's too repetitive from book to book. How much money can you make by beating the same dead horse of Chinese family history and tradition? The Kitchen God's Wife reads exactly like The Joy Luck Club, beat for beat. Barbara Hambly is a well-known SF writer, but I find her prose so annoying as to be unreadable. I don't think she's a good writer at all. In theology, there's the very readable Elizabeth Johnson, who wrote the feminist theological work She Who Is, but as with Neil Gaiman, that's the only book of hers that I've ever read, so she's not going on any lists. If you want to recommend some female authors for me, feel free to do so in the comments. Oh, wait: I do like Carrie Fisher's prose. Fisher was a brutally funny, brutally honest author.

I was tempted to cram Heinlein and Crichton into the fifth spot, above, but I decided not to. Larry Niven's writing is much more of a go-to thing for me, a sort of linguistic comfort food, whereas both Heinlein and Crichton strike me as too self-consciously didactic and agenda-driven to make the list. I guess I could also have included some other writers from my religious-studies background, like John Hick and Kate McCarthy, but those are authors whose works affect me only intellectually, not emotionally.

So that's my list, plus honorable mentions and a few remarks. What's your list?


  1. In no particular order

    Stephen King, Cormac McCarthy, John Grisham, Larry McMurtry, and Douglas Adams.

    They've all written books that I've read multiple times.

  2. Frank,

    And what, to you, are the respective virtues of each? What keeps you coming back? I'm actually not at all familiar with the middle three in your list, although I have, of course, heard and read their names many times.

  3. Basically their ability to draw me in and keep me there until I put the book down. King is a master with details and It is actually one of my favorites from him ;), along with The Shining and The Stand.
    McCarthy is a great writer. No Country for Old Men, The Road, Blood Meridian (such a good book, but not for everyone; very graphic and violent). McMurtry wrote the Lonesome Dove series and I love his humor and how he makes his characters so...human.
    Grisham, I've always enjoyed his easy style and even though he writes a lot about law, lawyers and courtrooms, it's never boring.
    And who doesn't like the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series?

  4. 1. John Irving (The World According to Garp). 2. Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show). 3. Pat Conroy (The Prince of Tides). 4. Stephen King (The Stand). 5. JRR Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings).

    Each of the writers I listed (along with arguably my favorite story or at least the one having the most emotional impact personally) provided me with insights and viewpoints I hadn't previously considered and that kept me coming back for more. So in that sense you might argue they changed my life, more or less.

    Oddly enough, in a couple of cases I saw a movie adaptation of the novel before I had read the book. Of course, movies are notorious for what they change and/or leave out. For example, I thought The Prince of Tides was a good movie but Conroy's book had so much more depth and background it makes the movie seem empty. Same thing with Irving and Garp.

    Even with five slots to fill this was a challenging exercise. Especially first thing in the morning with a besotted brain!

  5. Frank,

    I won't begrudge you your love of It. Heh. Besides, you're far from alone on that one. For some, it's a King classic. Cormac McCarthy sounds like one to write punch-you-in-the-face prose. I should look him up.


    I love The World According to Garp, and I regret not listing Irving somewhere. I've also read his The Hotel New Hampshire and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Of the three, I like Garp the best. Irving captures the utter nonlinearity of life—the random catastrophes and tragedies, the weird coincidences, and of course, the many human conflicts and harmonies, both big and small. Not so much a fan of Pat Conroy: he reminds me of Amy Tan, although in his case, the one trick he does is family dysfunction, over and over again. I read his Beach Music ages ago. In looking him up, I discovered he'd also written The Great Santini. Impressive.

  6. Yeah, the Hotel New Hampshire was a great story. "Sorrow floats..."



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