Notes on creative writing: crowd-sourcing a Non-Fiction reading list

One of the most fun parts of the job of being a lecturer in Creative Writing ­is putting together reading lists. As Programme Director for the relaunched, redesigned MA/MFA Creative Writing Programmes at City, University of London – which is still open for application for this September – part of my job is helping assemble a reading list for the Non-Fiction workshop strand. 

Last week I pulled together a bunch of the books I think would work well on the course, took a photo of them and posted it on Twitter, asking people what books they’d have on their reading list.

I posted the photo on Thursday afternoon, and at the time of writing the tweet has had over 260 replies, almost all of them suggesting books, often multiple books. If you want to read the full thread, it’s here.

I couldn’t reply to all of suggestions, but I thought it would be useful to collate the responses, to see which writers get picked the most, and which books mentioned. 

Before I go into the suggestions, I’m going to share a few thoughts about what makes a good reading list, and what kinds of books I like put on them. 

First of all, a Creative Writing degree is not an English Literature degree. Its job is not to critique it the books on the reading list, or to contextualise or theorise them, but to analyse the craft that went into making them. The books on the reading list need to be useful, before they are interesting, or significant – or even great.

I’m always wary of putting books I consider utterly utterly brilliant on reading lists, because often that brilliance is something that surpasses my understanding. They’re brilliant because I don’t know how the writer gets the effects they do. And when you’re teaching Creative Writing, that’s half the point.

Beware of brilliance

And not just because brilliance can be dispiriting. Giving students a work of genius and saying, Here is one of the greatest examples of writing in the history of literature, let’s see if you can match it, is no one’s idea of fun.

But also: brilliance can be a balance of elements that is so finely attuned that it’s hard to learn from. The two most recommended books in the replies to my tweet were The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. Both are brilliant books – I’ve just read them properly for the first time now – but can you learn from their brilliance without being as brilliant as Baldwin and Didion were when they wrote them?

We love Didion for her cool distance and precision of her prose. (“‘It’s okay,’ the social worker said. ‘She’s a pretty cool customer.’”) We love Baldwin for the clarity of his moral statements, and for his calm inversion of familiar metaphors (“We cannot be free until they are free”). But can we replicate those facets in other circumstances? The longer essay in The Fire is structured somewhat like a sermon, and builds to a brilliant echoing conclusion, but I wouldn’t advise anyone to write a similar essay until they had a topic that they had thought through – and argued through – as thoroughly as Baldwin had thought the issue of racism in C20th America. These aren’t effects you can easily transplant.

Beware of exceptionalism

In teaching creative non-fiction I would align myself with VS Pritchett’s “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living”, but it’s important to remember that that’s not necessarily the view that publishers take. I haven’t read Joe Simpson’s account of his near death during a mountaineering adventure in Touching the Void, but I’m willing to credit quite a lot of its success to the living. And for that reason I wouldn’t be rushing to teach it.

Likewise, while Primo Levi came up number of times in the replies, the book that was most often mentioned was The Periodic Table, rather than If This is a Man. This makes sense. It’s not a better book, but it’s an easier book to teach, from a Creative Writing point of view, because it’s not predicated on the fact of having survived Auschwitz. Untangling the rigour of Levi’s prose – how he gets his effects – from the history it tells would be a major undertaking.

And Edmund de Waal is a beautiful writer, and The Hare with the Amber Eyes is a wonderful book, but unless your family has a collection of netsuke passed down through generations, and a similarly tragic story to offset them against, then I’m not sure how much you can learn from it.

  • The more exceptional the experience that goes into a piece of life-writing, the harder you have to work to extrapolate the general craft techniques from it. 

Consider the scope of a book

Allied to this is the idea of a book having too large a scope for the student to easily assimilate its lessons. That’s why I wouldn’t teach In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Yes, it more or less invented a genre, and yes the writing holds the attention, but the book succeeds in large part because of the level of commitment shown by the author, and the time it took him to research and write. You can’t learn piecemeal from a chapter of it, you’ve got to read the whole thing to get a sense of the scale of the achievement.

  • If you want an example of research and interviewing on a more manageable scale, then any decent New Yorker article can do that.

Consider feasibility and proximity

By the same token, a reading list should have some books in them that can act as models for what a student might be able to do on the course. I like to think that a reading list should have some books that seem ‘within reach’ to the students. That they can imagine themselves writing, or writing something like.

Francesca Main’s Square Haunting is a brilliantly written book, but it’s also relatively easy to parse, and to break down into its constituent elements. You can see how she wrote it – where the archive research sits, where the lived experience, where the foreknowledge, where the reflection that brings it all together, how the thesis is built. You can say to a student, Go out and do likewise.

Someone suggested Christophe de Hamel’s Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts and although I love the book, it’s about as far from what I’d put on a reading list as it’s possible to be. Nobody has access to that kind of research.

  • The best creative writing reading list books are both brilliant examples of their form, and somehow ‘within reach’ of students

Think of range

Two comments in the responses to my tweet:

First, Melanie McGrath (@mcgrathmj) said, “Interesting choices, but a lot in a similar cultural and tonal register”, and I agree. These are the books pulled from my shelves, not from the university library, and the final reading list will hopefully look less homogenous.

And @DanSmith_Writer said, “Something really commercial for a different aspect – say Ben Macintyre or Adam Kay?”, and that’s a fair point too. I’d be more likely to pick Macintyre from those than Kay, who is drawing on a lifetime’s experience in that book. Macintyre would be a solid example of narrative non-fiction – except that, like Capote, the kinds of research he uses to build his books might seem daunting to a student. There are simpler, lighter examples in that vein.

Issues of structure

A number of people picked Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer, and while I bow down before her books (I haven’t read others of hers but not that one) I’m not sure how useful they are as learning tools. She is a clearly a superb interviewer, not to mention committed and persistent, and she marshals and arranges her evidence brilliantly, but her books stand out precisely because the connective tissue ­– the writer’s own prose – is largely absent.

  • It’s the writer’s prose that, in most cases, has the central job of bringing all the other elements (research, interviewing, description, reflection, insight) into relation with each other, and telling the story to the reader of how that story will be told. Learn to see how writing does all those jobs.

All of which is to say: thank you to those who suggested books, and if you want to find out more about the MA/MFA Creative Writing at City, University of London, where I teach, then don’t hesitate to get in touch.

And now, here is a list of the writers who were picked three times or more with – where appropriate – their most-named book.

The list is in descending order of ‘pickedness’, starting with Didion, who was mentioned 12 times, and going down to those mentioned three times. 

A crowd-sourced Non-Fiction reading list for Creative Writing classes

Joan DidionThe Year of Magical Thinking
James BaldwinThe Fire Next Time 
Annie Ernaux
Olivia LaingThe Lonely City
Robert MacfarlaneUnderland
Edmund de WaalThe Hare with the Amber Eyes
Erik Larson
Kathleen JamieSightlines
Primo LeviThe Periodic Table 
WG Sebald
Alexander MastersStuart: A Life Lived Backwards
Anna FunderStasiland
Derek Jarman
George OrwellPolitics and the English Language
John Berger
Jonathan RabanBad Land
Maggie NelsonBluets
Norman Mailer
Robert Caro
Svetlana AlexievichChernobyl Prayer
Truman CapoteIn Cold Blood
Valerie LuiselliTell Me How It Ends
Annie DillardPilgrim At Tinker Creek 
Carmen Maria MachadoIn The Dream House
Denis JohnsonSeek
Doireann Ní Ghríofa A Ghost in the Throat
Hallie RubenholdThe Five
James Boswell
Janet Malcolm
Katherine AngelUnmastered
Laura CummingOn Chapel Sands
Lorna SageBad Blood
Norman LewisNaples 1944
Oliver Sacks
Philip HoareLeviathan
Raynor WinnThe Salt Path
Rebecca SolnitA Field Guide to Getting Lost
Robin Wall KimmererBraiding Sweetgrass 
Samuel R Delaney
Sebastian JungerThe Perfect Storm

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