Columnist Crawford Kilian advises aspiring writers to avoid Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and eight other well-known novels.
But Kilian isn't saying they're bad novels — quite the opposite, actually. In a piece for the Canadian online daily The Tyee, Kilian writes, "their readable styles look so easy that they might seduce a young writer into imitating them."
Kilian tells NPR's John Donvan that he composed his list based on personal experience.
"As a teenager in the '50s, I read those books," he says. Take, for example, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. "It took me awhile to recover from [its] seductive influence ... because it meant I could essentially be a stenographer for my own teenaged whining."
And even Salinger couldn't take that theme beyond one book. "Salinger never followed up with anything remotely like it himself," says Kilian. "[So] why should we think that yet another teenaged kvetcher is really what the reading public is yearning for?"
On Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged
"It was a powerful book for a lot of young people, especially young Americans and some Canadians as well, simply because it seemed to be so confident of itself and its radical point of view. And an impressionable kid could read that and think, 'Oh, so that's the way the world really works. Well, now I know something, and I'm smarter than my folks and all the dummies around me who think that they should take care of each other.' And we have spent half a century dealing with the consequences of that."
On the right way to let great books inform your writing
"What you need to do is bear in mind that you are entering a conversation with everybody you have ever read when you start writing. And you don't want to simply say 'ditto, ditto, ditto' to the authors that you're conversing with. What you want to do is to say, 'That's a very interesting point you made. Now let me take it a little further and show you what could also be done in this regard.' ...
"There's a lot of great writing being done in translation from other languages. One of the authors I say you can't imitate but you can still learn from is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most astounding books of the century. ...
"These writers are telling you, in effect, don't worry about the choice of words, or the plot or the kind of characters we're using. Think about, for example, writing a century-long history of a family and what kind of family would it be if it grew up in Schenectady instead of Macondo, Colombia. You know, play games with what you've learned from the writers you love, and see what — they're not the last word. It's interesting gateways to somewhere else."
JOHN DONVAN, HOST:
Well, Crawford Kilian has a piece of advice for aspiring writers. He says this: Do not read Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," do not read Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls," Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" and seven other well-known novels. In a piece for the British Columbian daily The Tyee, Kilian lists 10 modern classics - or books that most of us think of as classics - that are very harmful, he says, to aspiring writers, not because they're necessarily bad books, but because he writes, quote, "their readable styles look so easy, that they might seduce a young writer into imitating them." And he says some of them just cannot be imitated.
So to our writers out there, I think you know what he's talking about. We want to know from you which books can you not get out of your head when you're writing, and what books do you wish that you had never read for that very reason? Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is email@example.com, and you can join the conversation at our website, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
So Crawford Kilian, a writer and columnist for The Tyee, joins us via Skype from his home in Vancouver, British Columbia. Thanks very much for coming onto the show.
CRAWFORD KILIAN: It's a real pleasure.
DONVAN: So you tell aspiring writers - and let's just say writers - in no uncertain terms to stay away from certain books. Why? What's the polluting factor in those books?
KILIAN: I think you might call it the kids-don't-try-this-at-home effect.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KILIAN: In many cases, certainly in my own case as a teenager in the '50s, I read those books. And it took me a while to recover from the seductive influence of, for example, "Catcher in the Rye" because it meant I could essentially be a stenographer for my own teenaged whining, and hey, I'd write a novel that way. Well, it didn't exactly work out that way, and it took me a while to recover, say, from the influence of "Catcher in the Rye" or "For Whom the Bell Tolls." And in the case of "The Lord of the Rings," I - that was a long recovery.
And in - I was truly discouraged 40 years later to see what teenagers were writing on their hot new computers, and they were doing elves and orcs and, you know, magic swords and all that stuff just like "Lord of the Rings." And you have no idea how that discouraged me.
DONVAN: They were doing it but just not as well is what you're saying.
KILIAN: It was that they thought that was the way you were supposed to do it instead of thinking, gee, that was kind of cool. What could I do that would be different but cool too?
KILIAN: So they were too imitative.
DONVAN: And so you're not saying don't imitate "The Catcher in the Rye" because it's a bad book. You're saying don't imitate it because it's a good book, and you can't (unintelligible).
KILIAN: Exactly, exactly. And it's really a kind of one-off. J.D. Salinger never followed up with anything remotely like it himself. And why should we think that yet another, you know, teenaged kvetcher is really what the reading public is yearning for.
DONVAN: Now, you write on top of your list is "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayn Rand.
DONVAN: You write very acerbically about a number of these books, and you say this at least has the virtue of being so widely read and discussed that we really don't need to read it ourselves. I tried a couple of times and bogged down badly.
KILIAN: It's true.
DONVAN: And so you're making it sound like you actually don't think it's a very good book.
KILIAN: Well, it was a powerful book for a lot of young people, especially young Americans and some Canadians as well, simply because it seemed to be so confident of itself and its radical point of view. And an impressionable kid could read that and think, oh, so that's the way the world really works. Well, now, I know something, and I'm smarter than my folks and all the dummies around me who think that they should take care of each other.
DONVAN: Well, we're...
KILIAN: And we have spent half a century dealing with the consequences of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: As you say and your note on this, not to mention Rand's impact on Alan Greenspan.
DONVAN: We're asking our listeners who are aspiring writers, or who are writing, to talk to us about, you know, this concept of yours, and I think folks get it, that some of these things might come back to haunt you. So let's go to Eric in Rochester, New York. Hi, Eric. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
ERIC: Hi. I wish I'd never read "Infinite Jest" or anything else by David Foster Wallace.
ERIC: That's because, I guess, I just feel that since reading that, all of my sentences have gotten five times longer than they used to be, and I use much bigger verbiage than I need to use. And it's just really, really futile attempt to imitate his style of writing.
DONVAN: Well, let's stay...
DONVAN: Let's stay on for a minute, Eric, because I'd like to actually have you and Kilian - Crawford - Kilian interact a little bit on this because the question I want to have is, can you really avoid imitating? In other words, Eric, why was this so seductive to you? Why don't you just read it, put it down and go back to who you were?
ERIC: Well, I guess, it kind of really appealed to me, because in some ways that it's sort of resembles things that I've already been doing or already wanted to be doing with my own style of writing. And just seeing it done so perfectly and so elegantly and so, you know, convincingly with such coherent arguments, you know. Wallace uses such a - it's like there's no way to escape the arguments that he makes. There's no way to escape the kind of, like, rational sequence of his thought, because it's so clearly laid out. Yeah, it's just - it make me want to try and write like that.
DONVAN: So, Crawford, let's talk a little bit about the trap that Eric...
KILIAN: I understand Eric's situation very, very well, because every writer who really makes an impact on us, in effect, is giving us permission to write like that. And often, for a young writer, you think, wow, I can actually say something like that. I can use those long, elaborate sentences or that, you know, high, arcane vocabulary. And you do it. But chances are the model you are trying to follow, understood what could and could not be done in that style, and was much more careful about using those techniques than a young apprentice writer is likely to be.
DONVAN: All right. Eric, thanks very much for your call. But at the same time, Crawford, isn't imitation, at some level critical, to the process of learning how to write for yourself?
KILIAN: Oh, yes. One of the things I used to teach my own novel-writing students was that, essentially, we're always telling the same story. It's the fall from Eden, and the struggles in the desert of this world and the hope of achieving the heavenly city at the end, you know? And we are all telling stories that are variations on that theme. Nevertheless, it should be what we find in one particular writer should be simply what we can use to say what we want to say, not just to be a megaphone or an echo chamber for some other writer.
DONVAN: Let's go to Rebecca in Kendallville, Indiana. Hi, Rebecca. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
REBECCA: Hi. I kind of agree. I read Charles Bukowski. I have almost all of his books that I can find, and I find myself and my writing almost imitating his style, not because I'm trying to, but it's almost that his writing is so ingrained in the way I read, it comes out whether I try to make it or not.
DONVAN: How good are you at being him?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
REBECCA: I wouldn't say very good, but I wouldn't even want to compare myself to him anyway.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KILIAN: Yeah. I think what you have to do is to pull back a little way and ask yourself, what is it about David Foster Wallace, or Charles Bukowski or J.D. Salinger that really gets to me? Is it...
KILIAN: ...a voice? Is it an attitude? Is it a vocabulary? And then try to apply what you have abstracted from that writer into a form that will you let you say your own thing in your own way.
DONVAN: So, Rebecca, thanks for your call. So, Crawford, sounds like you're saying it's find to be inspired, but not to be looking for a template.
KILIAN: Not really. What you need to do is bear in mind that you are entering a conversation with everybody you have ever read when you start writing. And you don't want to simply say ditto, ditto, ditto to the authors that you're conversing with. What you want to do is to say, that's a very interesting point you made. Now let me take it a little further and show you what could also be done in this regard.
DONVAN: Erik(ph) in Kansas City, Missouri, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.
DONVAN: Hi, Erik.
ERIK: I - the author I wish I never read is just Kurt Vonnegut, and the first book I read by him...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ERIK: ..was "Slaughterhouse-Five," but I just fell in love with that book and the way he wrote so much that - I mean, anytime - like the previous caller said, anytime I see a Kurt Vonnegut title, I'd buy it and I just - I love so much about what he does, and I think he's so deeply ingrained in me is because I didn't truly know the joys of reading until I read "Slaughterhouse-Five" for the first time. And I don't know if that was him, so much, as a great author, as much as it was just maybe my time to start loving books. But again, it's just his style is so choppy...
ERIK: ...but yet so elegant and so smooth that it's just like, you know, I just - like my heart cries out to write like that, and I just want to pay him an homage and share the experiences of heroism, but, again, I want to recreate it. And so now I can't write, you know, an article for the staff newsletter or a text message to my wife without, you know, somehow playing it back and say, oh, my God.
DONVAN: So I want to - Crawford, just tell us what's the treatment for Erik's problem?
KILIAN: Yeah. So it goes.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
KILIAN: Yeah. I was a pushover for Kurt Vonnegut when I was in college, and by then, I think my own style had been sufficiently firmed up that I survived. You know, I almost call what Vonnegut does a kind of stand-up comedy.
KILIAN: Yet, you know, he sets you up and he gives you a heck of a punch line and while you're wowed, he's got you in to the next chapter.
KILIAN: And it's a brilliant technique, but it's Vonnegut's technique.
ERIK: Oh, yeah.
DONVAN: All right, Erik. Thanks very much for your call.
ERIK: Thank you.
DONVAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION on NPR News. Crawford Kilian, in terms of Erik's problem, his Vonnegut problem, what's the solution for him to get Vonnegut out of his head?
KILIAN: Probably to read a lot more writers who are not like Vonnegut, but who are nevertheless extremely powerful, extremely witty, masters of the language, and not necessarily just the English language. There's a lot of great writing being done in translation from other languages. One of the authors I say you can't imitate, but you can still learn from is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" is one of the most astounding books of the century.
And again, these writers are telling you, in effect, don't worry about the choice of words, or the plot or the kind of characters we're using. Think about, for example, writing a century-long history of a family and what kind of family would it be if it grew up in Schenectady instead of Macondo, Colombia. You know, play games with what you've learned from the writers you love and see what - they're not the last word. It's interesting gateways to somewhere else.
DONVAN: There are - and interesting you're going in that direction because I'm listening to you and I'm thinking, some folks could take what you're saying as shutting down their aspiration. They can read something and say, I can never, never do that. And you are saying, yeah, you can't do that. But the lesson might be, I can't write ever.
KILIAN: I'm saying, understand what they're doing and then try to do the same thing, which is to carry on the conversation from the previous generation of great writers.
DONVAN: Let's go to Ariel(ph) in Philadelphia. Hi, Ariel. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
My book would be actually the "Harry Potter" series. In fact, what you're saying, is that I feel like I can never compare to that idea. Like the fact that she came up with something like that, wrote something so amazing, I mean, that become so popular. And I just - I love that fantasy genre. And to - it's just hard for me to feel like I could ever write something as amazing as that, so I'm always discouraged. And every time I read her book, I'm like, oh, this is awful. I can never try - I can never compare to her. So that's my big dilemma, is I feel I always get discouraged if I start writing.
KILIAN: Yeah. You don't want to be - you don't want anyone to think that you're just the next J.K. Rowling. You want people to think you are the Ariel and, wow, why didn't anyone else ever think of what this woman has come up with to write about? Because, you know, Rowling essentially took a couple of old genres, like the British schoolboy story, and spun them into something completely new. You might find something equally possible, simply by taking a couple of the genres you love, like this fantasy series, and applying it in a different way. Whether it was - you wouldn't have to have Quidditch in it - I hope you wouldn't - but you might, indeed, be able to say something interesting about the idea of a culture that lives on and depends on magic. And there you might come up with something that I would love to read.
DONVAN: Ariel, call us in two years.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ARIEL: I will. Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. That's...
DONVAN: I was - all right. Let's go Jeremiah(ph) in Pittsburgh. Hi, Jeremiah. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.
JEREMIAH: Hi. How are you doing?
JEREMIAH: This is a great show today. I guess for me, Stephen King has probably been the spoiling of my writing. And also because of that, he has the "On Writing" - his book where he goes into how to write, basically. And I think that, you know, not only do I get discouraged with trying to write by myself, copying his style, but then I resort to his book as a handbook to write similar to how he writes, which is - which kind of puts me in a position I didn't really like. So I just gave this up.
DONVAN: And I think his book isn't how to write, but "How I Write," is what the book...
JEREMIAH: "How I Write," yeah, so.
KILIAN: In many cases, what you find is that the advice that writers give is - comes out of their own personal experience and is not always applicable to other people. But I do it too. I've got a little blog called Writing Fiction, which is larger about what the heck I've learned in publishing 11 novels, about the actual, you know, practical techniques of it. And with Stephen King, I suspect that his talent is as much metabolic as intellectual, that he simply has more energy
KILIAN: ...than most of us will ever have.
DONVAN: I just want to...
DONVAN: I just want to share in - I'm sorry Crawford - the last few seconds an email who says, he would start writing like Hunter Thompson, a newspaper reporter who lives in Arizona. And then he says: Let me tell you, the Gonzo style really doesn't fit when it comes to reports on city council meetings and the like.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DONVAN: Thank you, Crawford Kilian, you know, author and columnists...
KILIAN: Thank you.
DONVAN: ...for The Tyee online daily out of British Columbia, who joined us from Skype. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY, and Ira Flatow will be here to look at science and the art behind visual effects. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm John Donvan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.