Storyville: The Books You Should Read Every Year
So every year there are certain books I think a writer should read. Some are books they've read before and some are books they've never even seen. Here are my tips, suggestions, and reasons for why writers should do this. Have fun!
Best of the Year
Every year there are a number of anthologies that collect a variety of stories into what is subjectively called "the best of the year." I read several of them annually, and think you should do the same. For example, I’m mostly known as a horror author (though I consider myself more of a hybrid author who writes across several different speculative genres and sub-genres). So why should I read The Best Horror of the Year, edited by Ellen Datlow (or other horror-themed best of the year anthologies)? SO many reasons. You get to know authors—writers that have done exceptional work. You get to see where they are published, which can help you figure out if those are markets you should submit to as well. You get to study the genre you write in—to see what is selling, what new things are being done, and the range of the genre as a whole. Now add in the other genres you write in—fantasy, science fiction, mystery, new-weird, literary, etc.—and wow have you just set yourself up for a personally-guided, mini-MFA program. Look at these stories, compare their work to your own, and figure out how to close that gap. That kind of critical analysis is essential for your growth as a writer. (We do a lot of that in my Advanced Creative Writing Workshop).
Suggestions: The Best Horror of the Year, The Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Short Stories (literary) etc. (And of course, if you live OUTSIDE the USA, you may want to look at anthologies that focus on British, Canadian, or Australian voices, or wherever you live.)
Within Your Genre
To build on what the best of the year anthologies do, be sure to read extensively in your genre (or genres) of choice. You need to not only look at short stories that stand out, but the novels as well. You can revisit authors you already know, or take a look at the various awards (since we’re talking about horror, that would be the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson nominees). That’s a great way to find work that has gotten critical acclaim, that has resonated with the masses, and books that are getting great reviews. So within horror, you probably should have picked up The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones. SGJ should already be on your radar, from the best of the year anthologies. He’s been an industry darling for years, and recently broke out with multiple award nominations and wins. Read books by the biggest names, as well as smaller independent presses, see what your friends are talking about, what’s getting adapted into television shows or films, or what’s generating hype and buzz. It’s important to keep up with your genre. And of course, we are just talking about horror here, so add in fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and whatever other genres you write in, for sure.
Suggestions: I just mentioned Stephen’s last book, but his current book is My Heart is a Chainsaw, and I’ll add to that The Deep by Alma Katsu, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Devil’s Creek by Todd Keisling, and Malorie by Josh Malerman.
Your Favorite Author
So it probably doesn’t need to be said, but whoever your favorite authors are, you should be reading whatever new work they put out. I’ve been a fan of the aforementioned Dr. Jones for many years, and consider us good friends, so whatever he puts out, I grab a copy the minute it hits the streets. I’ve done that for Stephen King for as long as I can remember. I also keep an eye out for new work by Benjamin Percy, Brian Evenson, A.C. Wise, Chuck Palahniuk, and many others. My list here isn’t important; what’s important are the authors that you love. Not like, but LOVE. Study them, see if they are doing things that you do with your writing, and then try to learn from them. Stephen has been the carrot in front of my horse-drawn wagon for many years. And he still is. Sometimes he writes a story I feel I can emulate, or study, or absorb, and sometimes his style is too different for me. I don’t write like Chuck—he’s a minimalist and I’m a maximalist—but I can still learn a lot from him. A.C. Wise has written a lot of stories that have really pushed me, one of them, “Harvest Song, Gather Song,” getting a rare 10/10 in my workshop, inspiring me to work harder, and really push myself, stories such as “The Caged Bird Sings in a Darkness of Its Own Creation” and “Ring of Fire,” which was on the preliminary Bram Stoker ballot.
This is one that I really hope you’ll adopt. The last three suggestions are probably (hopefully) things you are already doing, but I really want you to consider adding a few of your favorite books to your annual re-read list. I’ve re-read so many books. My favorite book by Stephen Graham Jones is All the Beautiful Sinners, and while it is a large, complex, and layered book, I try to read it every year. The introduction alone just pushes all of my buttons. For my Contemporary Dark Fiction class I re-read four books a year, which means I’ve read each of these books about 12 times so far—Bird Box by Josh Malerman, Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, Come Closer by Sara Gran, and Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I learn something every time I re-read these books. I also love re-reading thinner books, like Denis Johnson’s collection Jesus’ Son, and Stephen King’s The Long Walk. If nothing else, pick one book, or maybe two, and make a commitment to re-read them every year. The best books, whether they are thick or thin, will always have something new to show you. I don’t re-read The Wind Up Bird Chronicle every year, by Haruki Murakami, but I try to revisit it as often as I can, the same as Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
And I’ll end with this idea—read a new craft book, or revisit an old one—every year. I guarantee that if you’ve read a craft book once, reading it again can benefit your writing. And why not find some new craft books that can enlighten you as well? Especially if they’re written by one of your favorite authors (see above) or focused on a genre or genres that inform your writing. Just add one craft book to your reading list every year—whether you are new to writing, or have been doing this for 14 years as I have. You’ll thank me later. My list below covers some classics, as well as a few that were written in recent years.
When you finish this column I’d love to see you go browse your own bookshelves, or maybe stop by a bookstore (online or local), or hit up a nearby library and see if there aren’t some titles that can be a part of your 2021 reading list, or maybe even be an annual read. And remember—have fun! Read what YOU want, not what the universities or some author writing a column says. Curate your own list and enjoy every single title on that list. Every writer is different, so our influences will be different as well. Best of luck!
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