Friday, December 04, 2009

A Fantasy-Writer's Reading List

I am always suspicious of the credentials of those aspiring writers who say they are too busy writing to read. No doubt their word-count is impressive, but I'm not sure I'd want to read what comes out of the sausage machine. Reading is a hugely important part of the writer's life, for a host of reasons: edification, market research, breadth of mind, simple enjoyment.

The genre writer has an additional pitfall to negotiate, for there is a strong temptation to confine reading to the genre in question. This must always be a mistake. While it's helpful to know what's going on in your field, if you never read beyond it, your chances of producing genuinely original work are limited.

With this in mind, I've set a score or so of books that I think are excellent primers for the writing of fantasy:

Fantasy genre

The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
Even if you don't like it, this is the book that created commercial fantasy. You need to know how it works

Lyonesse, Jack Vance
To show just how good the field can be. Genre writing should aspire to more than functional.

The Eyes of the Overworld, Jack Vance
You can mix fantasy with very dark humour

The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie
You can also subvert the original model


History is very close to fantasy. Understanding the history of our world will help you create a plausible history for yours

Byzantium, John Julius Norwich
All human life is here, including a full measure of absurdity. You'll never have a more genial guide than Norwich

1812, Adam Zamoyski
If you want to understand hubris and military logistics (and why wouldn't you?), start with this account of Napoleon's Russian campaign


Augustus, Allan Massie
Times may change but power-politics never does.

My Cousin Rachel, Daphne du Maurier
If someone tells you not to write a first-person narrative, give 'em this. It couldn't work any other way, and it's perfect.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark
While we're on the subject of perfection. You'll never want (or be able) to emulate this, but it's a corrective to the prevailing fantasy wisdom that you need to write long.

Bleak House, Charles Dickens
If, on the other hand, you want to write a really long novel, sit and learn at the feet of the master. Dickens' understanding of structuring a long book has never been surpassed.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I assume you want believable and engaging relationships in your fantasy? Austen shows you how it's done (humour, precise observation and a dash of lemon).

L.A. Confidential, James Ellroy
Fantasy needs a sense of place to draw the reader in. It's unlikely your place will be much like Ellroy's Los Angeles, but the lessons he teaches are worth learning

Aubrey-Maturin series, Patrick O'Brian
O'Brian's richly detailed evocation of the early 19th century is at once tender, vigorous, dramatic and heartbreaking - and that's before we touch on the beauty of his prose. Fantasy world-building should aspire to be this good.

Hamlet, William Shakespeare
The reverence in which we rightly hold the Bard's language often obscures the brilliance of his dramatic pacing and structure.

Read that lot and we're up and running!
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David Isaak said...

That was fun and instructive.

I'd like to see your fantasy-only list, too--the ten, or dozen, or twenty fantasy writers you consider essential.

Tim Stretton said...

I might just do that, David.

For fantasy writer I'm not that well-read in the field, particularly the modern stuff - but it will still be an entertaining exercise!

Chelle Cordero said...

great post - I agree, writer's NEED to read and not just in their genre. Thanks for putting great words together.


Chelle Cordero said...

*writers need to read to be able to spell too! lol

Tim Stretton said...

Hi Chelle,

Reading and spelling are both pretty important! Although if pushed I'd reading was more so...