I submitted my graduate school thesis, which is the first 70 pages of my novel. I feel pretty okay about it (not great, because my novel isn’t finished yet). I’ll head to Paris for one last time in July, but already I’m mourning this program ending. Do I really not get to go to Paris twice a year? Are my writing deadlines (which I’ve agonized over for two years) really done? How will I stay accountable? And do I really not get personalized book lists anymore?!
As part of NYU’s low-res Paris Writers Program, students working toward an MFA in fiction are required to read 40 books and write response essays to them over the course of two years. The best part: The books are all recommended by talented and well-read faculty advisors and based on each student’s individual project. (My project is a novel about a chef from Northern Michigan to marries a diplomat and moves to Yemen where she works as the cook at the embassy’s outdoor lunch counter).
I’ve read books set in the Middle East (The Dog by Joseph O’Neill) and Northern Africa (Under the Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowels and Links by Neruddin Farah) to help me write place; I’ve read classics (Henry James and Proust and Nabaokov) to learn how the masters do it; I’ve read authors of short fiction who can expertly tell a story without belaboring it (Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, and Flannery O’Conner) I’ve read books steeped in loneliness and isolation (Look at Me by Anita Brookner and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine); I’ve read books about foreigners trying to make sense of the new places in which they’ve found themselves (Mating by Norman Rush); I’ve read books with complicated love triangles (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) and I’ve read books with impeccable pacing that reveal information at precisely the right moment (The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna).
I haven’t loved everything I read, but that’s the not the point. I’ve realized that while it’s super easy to read for pleasure, it’s difficult to take yourself out of the story and think “how did this author, specifically, accomplish x, y, and z.” And it’s very, very difficult to take all these tips and tricks and incorporate it into my own writing.
I was lamenting to someone about how hard it is to write a book and she said “But there’s so much crap out there.” I have not seen any of that crap over the past two years. Perhaps I should read some of it to boost my self-esteem. Or perhaps I should figure out a way to continue to get personalized book recommendations from world-class authors now that my graduate program is over.
Either way: For anyone interested (lovers of great books and aspiring novelists perhaps?) here’s my “school reading list” ranked (loosely) in order of books I found most helpful for my own writing.
Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna
A Heart So White by Javier Marias
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine
Look at Me by Anita Brookner
Mating by Norman Rush
Austerlitz by W.B. Sebold
Under the Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
Like Life by Lorrie Moore
The Fixer by Bernard Malamud
The Quiet American by Graham Green
Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis
A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Conner
The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud
Passage to India by E.M. Forster
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Pnin by Vladimir Nabakov
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
Links by Neruddin Farah
Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey
The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower
Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver
The Goldfinch by Donna Tart
Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham
Seize the Day by Saul Bellow
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
NW by Zadie Smith
The Collected Works of V.S. Pritchett
Cherí by Collette
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway
Em in Jerusalem