It’s Drama Time! Just Kidding, Let’s Talk Books!

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by Gabino Iglesias

Last week was rough. I started writing about tools you’ll need to succeed in publishing that no one told you about. Then I stopped before I was done and started writing a piece about a racist situation in publishing that made me angry. That was interrupted when I learned that someone had copied Sam Pink’s style and sold a novel writing in his voice for a lot of money. Obviously, I started writing about that. While writing those pieces for my next column, the only constant was that I kept reading and getting books in the mail I was excited about. Then it struck me: fuck drama; let’s talk books! Books are awesome. Books are medicine for the soul. Books are entertainment. As I keep pushing forward—and last week had a superb angle that I also wanted to write about but it involves things I can’t talk about yet—having books, writing, editing, reading, and teaching creative writing at the center of my life keeps bringing me joy, so I’ll share with you some authors that I discovered later in life that wished I’d discovered sooner. Hope you share some of yours with me later. Why? Because talking about books beats talking about drama any day of the week.

10. Henry Miller

Some consider the man a genius and others think of him as no more than a libidinous hack. For me, he masterfully walks the line between the two. His work is beautiful, deep pulp. His observations on art are art themselves and when he gets down and dirty, he doesn’t pull any punches. This duality is something I try to achieve in my work; to dance on that dividing line between what most call literary fiction and the blood, sweat, tears, and other bodily fluids of the genre gutter. Every time I find myself editing a paragraph in which I, to a degree, find that balance, I wonder how Miller’s prose would have helped shaped the malleable mind of a 14-year-old who desperately wanted to share his own stories.

9. Gwendolyn Brooks

Strangely enough, I devoured poetry as regularly as I did crime and horror in my early years. Oliverio Girondo, Mario Benedetti, Julia de Burgos, and Federico García Lorca quickly became favorites. Many years later, already living in the U.S., I encountered the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, online and almost by accident. Short, sweet, playful, and surprising in its depth, especially in her shorter poems, her work forced me to rediscover and rethink rhythm, to explore once again the way words can force you to read them a certain way because the author has infused them with the power to set the tone and cadence in the mind of the reader.

8. Jim Thompson

My crime education was packed with books by Elmore Leonard, John le Carré— whom I found a touch boring but read because his books were around—and James Ellroy, among others. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I moved to Texas that I finally acquired a few Jim Thompson books. His work blew me away. His novels were full of violence, unreliable narrators, surprisingly odd structures, and bizarre inner monologues, but those elements somehow added up to outstandingly beautiful crime novels. I’ve always walked on the weird side of things, and have no doubt Thompson would have helped me land on the right path much sooner if only I’d been lucky enough to have access to his novels earlier in life. In fact, this is something I often also think about Charles Willeford and Chester Himes, but it happened with Thompson first.

7. Cormac McCarthy

I’ve written extensively about the backlash my bilingual fiction has received, and every negative comment or angry 1-star Amazon review that complains about the Spanglish always reminds me of my first encounter with McCarthy’s work. Here was an author who wrote using his own set of rules, and he was respected and lauded for it. To this day, his work, along with that of authors and academics like Gloria Anzaldúa, gives me the strength to push forward and write things they way they demand to be written and not like monolingual readers would like to read them.

6. Mayra Montero

For a long time, I thought of Mayra Montero as a journalist who wrote great articles and opinion columns for my local newspaper. I knew she was a writer, but had no interest in checking out her work. Right before moving to Texas, I decided to read In the Palm of Darkness (I read the Spanish edition, Tú, la Oscuridad), and quickly realized that she touched on many of the things that obsessed me: identity, language, mystery, and syncretism. It immediately made me wish I’d started reading her sooner. 

5. Langston Hughes

When craving the stunning beauty that can be found at the heart of poetry, I systematically evade purposefully convoluted poems and turn to the simple, straightforward poems of Langston Hughes. For any author reading and writing across genre boundaries, there are times when gratuitously embellished writing seems tempting. Similarly, dense writing may seem impressive to some. However, once you read too many weak, plotless, beautifully written books, it’s almost impossible to go back to that while ignoring how satisfying undecorated simplicity can be. I wish I’d learned that sooner, and I’m sure that would have happened if I’d started reading Hughes back when I was reading poets daily before my 18th birthday. In a way, the same goes for Charles Bukowski, but that’s better left unsaid because mentioning him nowadays only brings hot takes and insults.

4. Chuck Palahniuk

For years, Palahniuk existed in the periphery of my reading habits. That movie everyone has seen had placed him on my radar, but other books, lack of disposable income, and limited access kept his books away from me. Finally, I dug into his work, years after the aforementioned movie had come out. It was an eye-opening experience. I always leaned toward weirdness, and this man was the patron saint of it. If I decided to study journalism because Hunter S. Thompson was a journalist, I lost all fear of writing bizarre narratives because Palahniuk had been successful doing it. I regret not delving into his novels the second the movie ended and his name was in my head.

3.  Edwidge Danticat

There is a collective Caribbean heart at the core of every Danticat novel, and reading her work is a master class in how to tap into it. For those inhabiting Otherness, literature can be a weapon, a tool, and a home. I found all those things in Danticat’s work and, as a bonus, developed a little voice in my head that whispers “It’s okay, keep going” whenever I stop to think if my writing is becoming so tied to a specific identity or place that it might be alienating for readers. 

2. Patrick Chamoiseau

Chamoiseau, like Danticat, came to me late and thanks to my time at the University of Texas at Austin. Also, like McCarthy, he showed me that mixing languages was not only acceptable but sometimes required in the name of authenticity. 

1. Harry Crews

Crews changed the way I looked at fiction, my understanding of weird narratives and characters, and shaped a few of my views on writing, and he did all of it in the last ten years or so. Before I moved to the United States, I hadn’t even heard of Harry Crews. His name was one I came across when I started looking for better, stranger fiction that none of my cohorts were talking about. I found it quickly, and I became a huge fan of Crews even faster. It’s impossible not to wonder what twenty years of his words would have done to my brain.

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