The 10 Most Harmful Novels for Aspiring Writers
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Any young person who wants to be a novelist should of course be a reader as well. But some novels can be more hazard than inspiration. They are often well-written, but their effects have generally been disastrous: they inspired younger writers to imitate them, they created awful new genres that debased readers' tastes, or they promoted literary or social values that we could very much do without.
Here are ten 20th-century novels that have done more harm than good to apprentice writers. My list is both entirely subjective (I am a scarred victim of several of them) and in no particular order.
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
This at least has the virtue of being so widely read and discussed that we don't really need to read it ourselves. I tried a couple of times and bogged down badly. Others apparently found Rand's novel an inspiring political blueprint; they are numerous enough to form hazards to navigation on the Internet, not to mention Rand's impact on Alan Greenspan. Perhaps significantly, no successful novelists have carried on in her tradition.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.
Mark Twain made the American vernacular a literary language; Salinger tried to do the same for the American adolescent whine. We who read Catcher as teenagers in the 1950s and '60s at once considered ourselves free to babble on paper just the way we did over coffee and cigarettes. It was certainly easier than learning how to write a straightforward sentence expressing something more than teen angst.
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.
As a kid, I knew a few veterans of the International Brigades who'd actually fought in Spain instead of reporting on it, as Hemingway had. They called this novel For Whom the Bull Throws. But Hemingway's style was fatally imitable, and I dropped my plagiarism of Salinger to plagiarize Hemingway instead. Politically, Hemingway didn't know what he was talking about, but it sounded cool to spend your days blowing up fascists and your nights in a sleeping bag with a hot Spanish babe.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.
When I stopped plagiarizing Hemingway, I plagiarized Tolkien. It wasn't the old master's fault, and I got over it. But thousands of others created a literary Mordor: mass-market industrial fantasy, where the orcs, elves and dwarves march past like the North Korean army.
The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler.
Hemingway's greatest influence was on hardboiled detective writers like Dashiell Hammett, who actually did some good work. Then Chandler came along with private eye Philip Marlow, more poached than hardboiled. Chandler wrote entirely too well, stacking up bizarre similes and metaphors like so many poker chips in a high-stakes game of roulette in some lost casino of the soul. So to speak. Not until Elmore Leonard would crime fiction finally free itself of Chandler's self-conscious style.
Love Story by Erich Segal.
This one took me only 45 minutes to read, and half a second to fling across the room. All by itself, it made the 1970s a lost decade.
USA by John Dos Passos.
In the 1920s, Dos Passos was an interestingly experimental writer, breaking up his narrative with "newsreels" and sidebars about current events and celebrities. I thought he was tough and gritty, but when I revisited this endless trilogy a few years ago, I found the narrative unreadable no matter how it was broken up. Dos Passos eventually migrated from the Marxist left to the Buckley right, without improving as a writer.