Click here to read more from Slate’s Fall Fiction Week.
Six years ago, Slateasked critics to reveal their “gravest literary omissions“: the most important books they’d never read. Norman Podhoretz confessed that he’d tried, and failed, to finish Bleak House. TheNew Yorker’sAlice Truax said she was particularly weak on American novels: Moby-Dick, The Grapes of Wrath, and Sister Carrie.
For this year’s fall fiction issue, we’ve sent our old survey question to a different group: contemporary authors. It turns out that professional writers find it just as hard to get through the classics as the rest of us. Never managed to finish Ulysses? You’re in good company.
Since it didn’t seem fair to dwell on sins of omission, we offered an alternative question: What’s your guiltiest pleasure? As you’ll see, some authors took this opportunity to drag skeletons out of their literary closets.
Alas, Moby-Dick. It’s not that I haven’t tried. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the brilliant use of actual events (the sinking of the whaling ship Essex in 1820 when repeatedly attacked by an 80-ton sperm whale, the mighty Mocha Dick), deft use of ghosts, allegorical doubloons, and symbolic what have you, or Melville’s Great Name Hall of Fame (including Starbuck, Daggoo, Tashtego, and Fedallah). I do appreciate it all … in theory. In practice, I have never gotten past the 100th page. However, unlike some other books I’ve been happy, even gleeful, to give up on (Beowulf, The Faerie Queen), I plan to continue chasing this damned thing until I catch it.
The most talked-about book I have never read is actually seven books—the entire Harry Potter series. Everyone I know who has read them loves them, and I keep telling myself that next year I will get started. But I never seem to find the time.
My guiltiest pleasure? Dear me. I used to have an absolute thing for the novels of Robert Ludlum, even though most of them repeated the same formula. I understand that some editors even have a name for it, the Ludlum Formula, after the style of the titles of his books. But the real answer, if we must name only one, is probably Gone With the Wind.
One classic that I seem to be perpetually on the verge of reading is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks. It mystifies me that I still haven’t managed to read this novel; I’ve owned it for a few years, since an acquaintance who shares my opinion of what constitutes the most devastating single moment in 20th-century fiction (the scene with the punch bowl in Pnin) cited it as one of her all-time favorites. And it isn’t that I haven’t liked Mann’s other work; The Magic Mountain was a seminal book for me in my early 20s, and Death in Venice had a big impact on me later on. It isn’t even that I’ve begun reading it and failed to get traction, because truthfully I’ve never cracked the thing. Why? There seems to be no good answer. So … I’m walking to the shelf, I’m picking it up, and I just may start it tonight.
Curtis Sittenfeld Although I nod knowingly when people refer to Voldemort or Muggles, here is my dirty secret: I have read only the first 72 pages of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and not a word of any of the six others in the series. But wait—it gets worse! At the time I read those 72 pages, I was the writer-in-residence at a boys’ school in Washington, D.C., and I’d borrowed the book from a student who lived down the hall from my dorm apartment. Now, more than four years later, I have moved twice to different cities, the boy who lent it to me has graduated from high school and is well into college (for all I know, he has a beard and children), J.K. Rowling has apparently writ her last about Harry, and I STILL have the book. That I was unable to get through such a beloved book is embarrassing; that I committed the sin of borrowing it (from a kid, no less) and not returning it is truly shameful.
I’ve never made it through James Joyce’s Ulysses. To be precise, I’ve never made it past Page 2. I have a 20-hour plane trip in my future, however, and I have to pack lightly, so maybe I’ll try an audio version on my iPod. As for guilty pleasures—I’m trying to get away from the notion that there is such a thing as guilt-inducing reading. So, while those who love me may squirm at my habit of rereading Marjorie Morningstar every year, or even my compulsive need to revisit the complete works of Lenora Mattingly Weber, a Denver-based YA writer popular in the 1950s and ‘60s, my conscience is clear.
J.D. McClatchy Hardly a day goes by that I don’t see somewhere in print an impassioned reference to some classic I haven’t read. Why, having read so many over so many years, am I still embarrassed to be caught short? Am I certain that Oblomov will change my life the way Middlemarch once did? That Luis Vaz de Camões could rival Hart Crane? The fact is, at the age of 62, I know I don’t have enough time left to read all the books I wish to or should. So, I’ve shrugged, and narrowed my regrets. And though I’d most like to spend my time now properly rereading classics I encountered at too young an age to fathom, I am also determined to make my way through a few (I will confess only a little of my shame) not yet read: The Tale of Genji, the notebooks of Paul Valéry, and dozens of Balzac novels.
Angie Cruz Awhile back I interviewed a reputable American author, and she said that unless a writer read George Eliot’s Middlemarch, she didn’t consider them an educated person. This was right before my first novel, Soledad, was published, when I was feeing vulnerable and insecure. I bought the book, and it sat by my bedside for a long while. I would pick it up and put it down because other books were more important to me at the time. But the comment always stuck with me, in this irritating way, and I felt guilt for not reading it. More recently, while living in Italy, I seemed to have been the only writer or “intellectual” who hadn’t read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Eyebrows arched, lips puckered in disapproval when I admitted to my ignorance. But it no longer irritates me. I often respond with, Have you read … ?—and smile to myself, knowing that I have a few books of my own that are most important.
Benjamin Percy I gobble up horror novels like Halloween candy. Ghost Story by Peter Straub. The Shining by Stephen King. The Exorcist by William Blatty. At the Mountain of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. There is something voluptuous about entertaining the nightmare, about putting your foot over the edge of the cliff and drawing it back with a smile and a shiver. The best horror stories do so much more than frighten me with a Boo. They make me value the relative normalcy and well-being of my life. They provide psychic relief by showing me a world where the bad guy is obviously bad, the good guy good. They allow me to lance the boil, to let the poisons out, by experiencing (even if only vicariously) the worst the imagination has to offer. It’s not a guilty pleasure; it’s a pleasure. And though some may roll their eyes and turn up their noses, I remain happily, darkly in love.
John Haskell I’m in Germany at the moment, teaching American literature to German students, and one of the books I’ve assigned them to read, because I’ve never read it, is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. I haven’t read it in part because I’ve assumed the narrative has something to do with aliens from another planet. But now, feeling slightly alien myself, living about an hour from Dresden, a group of students calling me Herr Professor, I’m going to give it a try.
Myla Goldberg I’ve never read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. There, I’ve said it. I’ve started it a few times, but something always seems to happen to me around Page 20. I thought there might be hope after I read Orlando and enjoyed it, but then I went back to the Lighthouse and found that its door was still closed, not to mention cold to the touch. And since we’re getting all confessional, I’ll go ahead and admit that I’ve got the same problem with Borges: Whenever anyone describes Labyrinths or Ficciones, I get incredibly excited. But try as I might, I can’t actually read them all the way through. As much as I admire and value intellectualism and experimentation, I’ve discovered that unless a book has a throbbing heart as well as a sexy brain, I feel like the story is a specimen in a sealed glass jar and not a living, breathing creature I want to take by the hand and talk to for hours on end.
Jonathan Ames I haven’t read the Bible, Ulysses, Moby-Dick, A la Recherche Du Temps Perdu, or any of the Greek tragedies, though I was a palace guard in a college production of Oedipus, and my father used to call me Oedipus when I was a small boy and he witnessed me kissing my mother. He also would cry out “Oedipus!” when he beckoned me to the dinner table. At the time, I didn’t know who Oedipus was and assumed that my father’s nickname for me was Yiddish for “good boy,” since the occasional Yiddish word, such as tsures (misfortune), was often heard in my household.
I will say that I have several copies of the above-mentioned books. How it works is this: In 1993, for example, it strikes me that it’s very embarrassing that I haven’t read Swann’s Way, so I pick it up in a bookstore. Then in 2007, it strikes me that it’s every embarrassing that I haven’t read Swann’s Way, and having forgotten (not very Proustian of me) my purchase in 1993, I repurchase the book 14 years later.
What have I read? All of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett at least three times. I have also read all of Charles Bukowski’s fiction, Don Quixote, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time, and anything by P.G. Wodehouse with the word Jeeves in the title. I still haven’t read Swann’s Way.
There are many important writers I should have read: Dostoevsky, Thomas Mann, Czeslaw Milosz, among others. Those omissions make me feel bad as a reader, but the one who makes me feel bad as a person is a writer I have read: Thomas Pynchon. I had to read The Crying of Lot 49 and Vineland in college, and I pretended to like them because it seemed so clear that not to like them made you fundamentally uncool. The literary boys I hung out with in college had all read Gravity’s Rainbow (or said they had), and a couple of the really cute ones had read V., too. This morning, I reread the first chapter of Vineland, wondering whether I might have matured since the first time I tried it, in 1994. Nope. I couldn’t get through even two pages of my husband’s copy of Gravity’s Rainbow, but I did note with frustration that the spine is convincingly broken. I’m sure I finished Vineland in college (because I am the type of person who finished all the books assigned—i.e., the type of person who can’t understand Thomas Pynchon). The only thing I remember about it is the character Frenesi, and all I recall about her is my professor explaining that her name is supposed to sound like “free and easy.” Why didn’t I get that? If Thomas Pynchon wrote a book about someone like me, her name would be Nixhip Squareberger, and she would probably be working for the Feds.
Lucinda Rosenfeld I keep meaning to remedy the situation, but I’ve never read a word of Faulkner—not The Sound and the Fury, none of it. Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of modernism, and I think I got it into my head that Faulkner was the worst offender of the purposefully long-winded/convoluted-sentence school of writing. But that’s really no excuse, since I love Henry James.
Margaret Atwood Never read The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy … somehow I just didn’t know about it. But now that I do, I will. It was certainly much talked about at the time because it was censored by the Russian authorities.
John Crowley There are books we haven’t read but which it’s fair to let people assume we have—my list would include On the Origin of Species and The Wealth of Nations. But books that everybody has read except me? I guess I don’t mind people knowing I haven’t read Gone With the Wind or To Kill a Mockingbird, but Frankenstein? One I most regret and am ashamed of and plan to remedy: Leaves of Grass.
Jess Row In my case, it isn’t so much one particular book as a whole era in the American novel, namely, the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. I have yet to finish a single novel by Norman Mailer, Robert Coover, William Gaddis, John Barth, John Hawkes, James Purdy, or William Burroughs, and I haven’t read nearly enough of the other heavy hitters: Pynchon, Bellow, Updike, Welty, Styron. Somehow in my generation (I was born in 1974), many of these writers seem to have become reference points without being widely read. Or perhaps that’s just my own sorry justification for not doing my homework.
Marina Lewycka In 1964, a 17-year-old innocent from a country town, I arrived at university clutching my copy of Wordsworth and brimming with eager anticipation. All the second-year boys had turned out to welcome the “fresher” girls—although they were too cool to show it, they were brimming with eager anticipation, too. Straightaway, my bright Cleopatra-lined eyes fell upon Jez.
Jez was tall and dark, with moody eyes, a black leather jacket, and brown hair that waved right down onto his collar. A self-rolled cigarette clung to his pouting lower lip. He was exactly the type my parents had warned me about. Our eyes met. An hour or so later, we were fumbling on the bed in his room.
Maybe I was a bit startled by the speed of developments, or maybe my parents’ warning still echoed in my ears—something made me hold back, and Jez realized that my education was incomplete. He reached under his pillow and produced a tattered copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
“Read this!” he commanded.
Back in my room, I grappled with the dense, mysterious prose, for I was eager to please. But somehow my eyes just glazed over.
A week or so later, I met Nick. He had long golden curls and a cute beard. My parents wouldn’t have liked him, either. Encountering the same obstacles, he handed me a copy of John Donne.
“Here, read this!”
And I did.
Jim Shepard What’s the most important book I’ve never read? Well, where to begin? My experience of the canon is mostly a history made of gaps, like one of those “There Be Monsters” medieval maps of what lay out beyond the Pillars of Hercules, with vast stretches of blank space filled in every so often with an archipelago or two of what I have encountered. Of course, I never got through Finnegans Wake—that’s the one everyone feels ready to confess to—but what’s my excuse when it comes to Paradise Lost? Parade’s End? The Waves? Tristram Shandy? Beloved? Then there are whole stretches of work by writers whom I claim to hugely admire—Henry James, Jane Austen, Hart Crane—whose work I keep peering over at and intending to read. And what about those writers of whose work I’ve read almost nothing? Jean Rhys? John Donne? Gertrude Stein? Orhan Pamuk? And then there are all of the books that haven’t even come to mind yet. This is depressing. I’m going back to bed.