I don’t read a lot of fiction, unfortunately. As you mentioned, my time is usually occupied by non-fiction, but I really should read more fiction because it does help me grow as a writer. I actually probably read more fiction books last year than I have in any other year over the last decade, though. I tend to stick with specific writers and classics. I also read a lot of poetry. I do have some favorites that I can recommend:
•Anything by Sam Shepard — I’ve written many times that Sam Shepard is an American treasure. He is our greatest living playwright, a brilliant actor, and the author of vivid, haunting, beautiful short stories and poems that can be found in fantastic collections like Day Out of Days, Great Dream of Heaven, Cruising Paradise, Hawk Moon, and other books. I get every single book that Sam Shepard releases and I have never been disappointed.
•The Outlaw Album by Daniel Woodrell — I was sent this book by the author of Winter’s Bone by his publisher and just happened to start reading it even though I rarely, if ever, review fiction. I didn’t stop reading it until I was finished a couple of others later and was blown away as I explained in my review of The Outlaw Album for AND Magazine.
•Anything by John Steinbeck — Like Sam Shepard, Steinbeck (a buddy of LBJ, by the way!) was an American treasure. I never tire of reading his words. He was one of the greatest of all-time.
That’s a start. Some other writers whose fiction I love are Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Umberto Eco, Tennessee Williams, José Martí, Jorge Luis Borges, Gore Vidal’s historical fiction, and Ambrose Bierce among others. And while I’m not going out on a limb or making some radically original suggestion, I have to say Shakespeare. I have my Complete Works of William Shakespeare nearby at all times because I can open the book up to any of the 1400+ pages, randomly find a line, and be amazed every single at the beauty and creativity of every single word that Shakespeare strung together — writing that is over 400 years old still constantly amazes me. Not familiarizing yourself with Shakespeare because everyone focuses on his work is like not breathing because everybody else is doing it.
However, the film adaptation of the book is not good, to say the least. Sam Waterston (a real-life Lincoln history buff) isn’t terrible as Abraham Lincoln, but if you see Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and then go back and watch Waterston in the same role, it’s just not fair.
I can’t think of any others off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a few other stinkers that my brain worked hard to forget about.
Two days ago, I was watching the 1997 Ken Burns documentary on Thomas Jefferson and Gore Vidal was one of the talking heads who contributed to the film. Seeing Vidal reminded me that I had wanted to write him a letter to tell him how much I appreciated his work and to see if he would answer some questions for Dead Presidents because he was a top-notch Presidential historian and never afraid to give his opinions. Someone I know who had some connections had told me a few months ago that I might be able to land an interview because Mr. Vidal was usually excited to talk about Presidential history but suggested that I write my letter by hand and send it the old-fashioned way because Mr. Vidal would be more likely to pay attention to it that way.
Of course, I procrastinated because that is what I do. When I saw Vidal on the Jefferson documentary, I decided right then to write my letter. I had lost Mr. Vidal’s address, so I had to wait until my friend with the connections e-mailed it to me before I could put my letter in the mail. He responded this afternoon and I was going to send my letter to Gore Vidal tomorrow.
It’s always sad when somebody dies, but we feel better when the person who died lived a long, active life. Gore Vidal was a couple months shy of his 87th birthday, and his life was certainly active. He was a brilliant man — a great writer and great thinker. There were many who found his prolific work to be controversial, but I don’t see how some of it is seen as anything but courageous. Vidal never pretended to be someone that he wasn’t, and that meant telling the world who he was. He broke down barriers in the literary world as well as culturally. Above all else, he was never, ever ashamed to be the person he was, to say the things he said, to love the people he loved, and to share his passion — whether it be his appreciation of history or his vehement opposition to the Bush Administration.
For me, Gore Vidal opened up a whole new world of literature. I have rarely strayed from non-fiction and the idea of historical fiction always seemed silly to me. I thought of it at one point much like I think of fan fiction. I couldn’t understand why anyone would read historical fiction when they could just read the real story of whichever historical event might be the subject. Vidal showed me how well and how interesting historical fiction could be with the books in his Narratives of Empire series. Lincoln: A Novel (BOOK•KINDLE) not only opened my eyes to historical fiction’s advantages, but it remains one of my all-time favorites — of ANY type of book. Lincoln amazed me because I hadn’t realized that a historical fiction novel could augment the actual history and help illuminate the people and events that really existed. I was never taken out of the story by something that Vidal wrote in Lincoln. In fact, much of the story was so accurate historically that I often found myself thinking that every bit of dialogue was real. I enjoyed Burr: A Novel (BOOK•KINDLE) nearly as much as Lincoln.
In the letter that I didn’t get a chance to send, I told Gore Vidal that he helped me open my mind by showing me how historical fiction could be done right. That’s a relatively minor achievement because Vidal helped a lot of people open their minds to a lot bigger and more important ideas or thoughts. I didn’t always agree with Gore Vidal, but I always admired and respected him. Despite his death, his body of work will speak for him and I think it speaks in a loud voice because you didn’t have to like him or agree with him but you damn well were going to know what he thought. Unfortunately, I think America will be a little less honest without Gore Vidal around.
It’s not that I don’t like historical fiction or alternate history, but I simply don’t have the time to read it. I’m fortunate enough now to get a lot of books sent to me by publishers (and that’s not a complaint, it’s a dream) and I don’t even have time to read all of the real history books that I read. I just don’t have the time to fit stuff that isn’t true into my reading.
I have read Gore Vidal’s Lincoln and I think it’s a fantastic book. It’s almost 100% historically accurate with embellished dialogue and some dramatized characters. I love that book, and love Vidal’s historical novel, Burr, as well.
If a story is told well, I will find it interesting. Unfortunately, I just don’t have the time to fit in the stuff that isn’t real when I have so many actual history books piled up in my living room.
I think that historical fiction and alternate history has an important place in studying history, too. I think alternate history helps with understanding history from a different perspective, especially for people who are trying to have a hard time figuring things out. It’s a useful mechanism in a lot of ways.
Gore Vidal is pretty awesome, so I can’t disagree with your statement.
Thank you very much for the compliments, I really appreciate your support. You won’t be sorry for reading Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. It is a wonderful book that really brings Lincoln to life. Vidal’s Lincoln is so good and so true to the history that I barely consider it fiction. I am a person who has a very difficult time reading the same thing more than once, but I can always get lost in Vidal’s Lincoln. It’s an absolutely captivating piece of literature.
I’ve read Gore Vidal’s Burr and Lincoln, and I have several of the other Narratives of Empire books lost on my bookshelves. I thought Burr was a really fun read, and Vidal is great at connecting characters from history in an entertaining, interesting manner.
As for Lincoln, it’s one of my favorite books. I don’t read much fiction at all, but I barely consider Gore Vidal’s Lincoln as fiction. To me, it’s an illumination of Lincoln’s character and personality. Reading a book like Vidal’s Lincoln makes it even more fun to read serious books about Lincoln because Vidal brought Lincoln’s personality, as well as the personalities of the people Lincoln interacted with, to life. Gore Vidal’s Lincoln is one of my favorite books — and that’s a huge compliment from me because, like I said, I don’t read fiction and when I do read fiction, I usually don’t like fiction.