Why We Read Simple Books in This Class

by Cathy Day

My favorite novel of all time is Faulkner’s Absalom! Absalom! but I didn’t teach it in my novel writing seminar this semester. I taught books that are much less ambitious, less innovative, less formally interesting. They are not “bad” books, per se, but they aren’t necessarily “great” books either, if by great we mean “likely to win a book prize” or “be lauded by critics and writers and remembered for all time.”

The novels I taught:
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
Now, you can make fun of my reading list if you want, but I stand behind it wholeheartedly. Why choose “simple” books in a novel writing class?
Because it increases the likelihood that students will consciously or unconsciously model their novel after one of these books. Which I think increases the likelihood that they will actually finish a draft in the course of the semester. Which is the only outcome I’m “grading” them on. 
I was pleased to see this interview in which a novelist says something similar:
LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS | The LARB Interview: Helen DeWitt

“From a practical point of view, if a book has a linear narrative, is written in a single voice, these things improve the odds of completion: You are unlikely to run into structural problems, so if you return to the book after a long gap the only challenge is resuming the well-established voice. If it involves no research the odds are even better: It is not burdened with a mass of notes, once fresh to the mind, which must be gone over again before work can be resumed. The practical is not, of course, the only point of view. This kind of book can offer a kind of formal satisfaction: The reader learns the rules of the game. Constraints can give it intensity, momentum, energy.”

Next semester, I’m not going to give students all linear novels written in a single voice. I’m going to give them four different forms:


1. loosely linked collection of stories–Caitlin Horrocks’ This is Not Your City
2. novel-in-stories–Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad
3. novel in vignettes/flash–Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge
4. linear novel, single voice–still deciding, maybe Hunger Games again


Will fewer students finish? Or will they do better because they’ll be given a wider variety of forms to emulate? 


I’ll let you know what happens.  
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2 Comments on “Why We Read Simple Books in This Class”

  1. Patty says:

    In my novel-writiing class (for high school students), we read first novels. This year we read/are reading: LEAVING ATLANTA by Tayari Jones; THE HANDBOOK FOR LIGHTNING STRIKE SURVIVOVRS by Michele Young-Stone; HOPE AND OTHER DANGEROUS PURSUITS by Laila Lalami (novel-in-stories); MOTHER OF SORROWS by Richard McCann (also a novel-in-stories type of book); plus books for the VCU First Novelist Award. I love hearing what you read/teach in your class.

  2. Cathy Day says:

    That's an excellent idea, Patty. Thanks so much and thanks for visiting this blog.


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