The Amazing Books that Inspire Writerly Envy

Over Christmas vacation I read only one book, which is far fewer than I normally consume on long, lazy days, but it was the best book I’ve read in a very long time–Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, which is a rare gem in that I loved it, but it didn’t elicit the usual “book envy” my favorites do. If any of you readers are aspiring writers, particularly of the poetry or fiction persuasion (and I know you’re out there!), then you know what I mean when I talk about “book envy”–that often-confusing mixture of both delight and jealousy that accompanies finishing a wonderful book, the type that makes you sigh, “I wish I had written that.”

I’ve had far more book envy moments than I can possibly be proud of, but I’ll estimate the number in at least the hundreds. While I certainly don’t envy the author of every book I read, I think that high figure can be attributed to all the different types of books I envy, and all the different reasons that prompt me to wish I had written them.

Epics/Literary Game-Changers

These are the ones that they teach in high school and university literature and creative writing classes; the ones that your teachers and professors and TAs swoon for; the ones that inspire such phrases as, “And if you ever make it through <blank>, you can pat yourself on the back, because that is a huge life achievement.” At least, that’s what my post-modern lit. professor said about Infinite Jest, which is not only my favorite novel of all times, but probably the longest and most rewarding book I’ve ever read. (Full disclosure: David Foster Wallace is the only author I get fangirly about but MAN do I get fangirly!).

I should point out that I don’t just indiscriminately envy every classic ever published. For example, I’m perfectly fine not having my name associated with Moby Dick and all the references to whale sperm therein, nor am I super-jealous of Bleak House or other Dickens novels, though I enjoy the put-upon orphan genre as much as the next semi-sadist.

For me, the game-changers I envy most are those books that are experimental and kind of punishing, that require serious commitment, but have an intense pay-off at the end.  Note: The pay-off is less about bragging rights amongst the English Majors crowd and more about a greater insight vis-a-vis a theme the reader wouldn’t have been able to excavate entirely on her own, in her personal life.

Infinite Jest is the best example of this. Infinite Jest is the best example of everything (ok, I’m stopping now). As someone who has never been homeless, substance-addicted, or disenfranchised in any way unrelated to experiencing general misogyny, Infinite Jest taught me an incredible amount about recovery, faith, hope, and pride.

Because I didn’t mean to go on so long about one category, I’ll stop myself and list a few other epic novels that I personally envy:

Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce (and I haven’t even read it except for a few completely head-scratching pages! But my envy knows very little reason, and almost no logic!)

Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (except if I wrote this Arwen and Eowyn [especially Eowyn] wouldn’t be such whiney stinkers)

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (this book combines my love of historical fiction set during WWII with my love of absurdism and very, very light touches of magical realism/fantasy)

Stylistic Gems

At first glance, this header probably makes no sense, but bear with me. These books are post-modern to infinity degrees and they employ such a creative mode of story-telling that they make your own writing look as conventional as See Spot Run. It’s probably best to explain each of these individually:

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson: This is a collection of first-person stories told by a heroin addict who bobs through life, interacting with other marginalized characters, seeing but not really seeing horrific events (overdoses and fatal car accidents), narrating often without clear-cut beginnings or endings or other typical plot devices, leaving a fragmented chain of mini-plots that ultimately coalesce into a story about forgiveness (kind of).

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins: Ok, this one is something like a bedtime story a child might tell–aliens! mystical redheads! princesses! bombs!–and when you read a plot description it sounds insane and stupid and like it’s so nonsensical it couldn’t possibly work, but it does. And it’s one of the funniest and most earnest books I’ve ever read.

House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski: This really does take the cake for pure weirdness, not to mention extremely explicit descriptions of sex and orgies. BUT it is pretty cool that Danielewski narrates a story within a story about someone reading the script of a documentary that was made about a house with odd, cannot-be-explained-by-physics measurements (if I’m remembering correctly; it was intensely confusing at times). Then it turns into a horror novel, with the inhabitants of the house exploring and getting trapped in passages of the house expand from the inside. Their journey into the evil that is the house itself is depicted on the page by words typed in spirals or upside-down, single columns down the middle of the page, etc.

Genre Novels

Since I don’t read as much sci-fi, historical fiction, mysteries, et. al., as I could, I’m sure you all will have many entries to add to this list. But for me, these are the books that so excel in excitement and creativity that I’m left thinking, “There is no way I would ever have thought up that character or dreamed of that plot device.”

Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle – In addition to Sherlock and Watson being lovable, complex, memorable characters, Doyle basically invented detective fiction (a lot of people credit Edgar Allen Poe and Murders in the Rue Morgue as being the first short detective story, but that was a good deal more macabre and good deal less clue-oriented than Sherlock and contemporary detective series). Also, as a child, I was always so fascinated by how Sherlock unraveled mysteries and I felt like one would have to be an exceptionally genius writer to imagine so many interlocking clues.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Really, I could include Oryx and Crake in here as well, but The Handmaid’s Tale wins out because it involves not only a dystopian hell, but it’s one of the only examples of truly feminist fiction (that I can think of) that isn’t heavy-handed or preachy or overly concerned with themes at the expense of plot and character development. It’s a creepy book without being maudlin or gorey, and I appreciate that in my suspenseful fiction.

The Hunger Games by Susan Collins – OK, I am likely preaching to the choir here, but this trilogy is excellent and shouldn’t be relegated solely to teen readers. I love that the majority of the first two books especially is devoted to outdoor action sequences, which Collins keeps high-paced and interesting. Also, I will always appreciate a female protagonist who is depicted with typically “male” flaws–Katniss is cold and calculating instead of sweetness and light, which is a nice change of pace from “softer” heroines.

There are so many more divisions of book envy I could think of (well-researched period pieces, anyone? Coming-of-age tales?), but I’ve been rambling too long already. What are your favorite books, and do any specifically inspire book envy?

11 thoughts on “The Amazing Books that Inspire Writerly Envy”

  1. Absolutely no author inspires more envy in my wanna-be writer self than Jose Saramago. Hands down. I’ve read and re-read many of his novels, but I marvel at his skill with every reading.

    Gotta agree with House of Leaves. That is my “project novel”–I’ve spent the better part of two years thinking and writing about that novel, so much so that my line of thought evolved into a dissertation (not related to House of Leaves directly, however).

  2. Sometimes a Great Notion. That will make you feel like you should just stop ever putting words in any kind of order ever, for risk of looking like you’re trying to do the same thing Kesey does and embarrassing everyone. Or maybe that’s just me.

  3. I read Infinite Jest last summer and I didn’t really know what to expect from it, except that everyone I know just praised it tremendously. And while I thought parts of it were very funny and had tremendous writing, I ultimately felt very ‘meh’ about the book.  It just didn’t move me as a whole. What am inspired by is the unbelievable complexity of the storytelling. It’s just so far removed from how I think and how I write, it’s like Wallace came from another planet. I do find him inspiring in that regard.
     

    1. I’ve had that reaction to a few hyped-up books too; most notably Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and, to a lesser extent, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Gilead bored me silly and The Road was very good but I don’t enjoy McCarthy’s writing style as much as more florid (in the good way!), involved writers like Wallace.

      And IJ is ultimately a tough one, because it’s SO long that if you take the time to invest in and finish it (it took me something like 4 months?) but it isn’t your cup of tea, you’re not thinking, “Meh, that was just ok.” You’re thinking, “WHY did I waste so many hours of my life on that piece of worthless poo??” At least that’s how I’ve felt after finishing some longer books that I didn’t like.

  4. I’ve read a few of the books on the list, but I’d have to put LOTR in the “huge lifetime achievement” category. I liked some parts, but mostly it was “200 pages down, 200 to go!”
    As for what does inspire book envy, I’d have to say anything by Margaret Laurence, especially The Stone Angel.

    1. I think I was too much of an LOTR geek the first time I read the book (middle school) to think of it as challenging–I was so sad when I finished Return of the King. Reading it again when I was older, I can definitely see where you’re coming from. The issues with female characters especially bugged me.

      I haven’t read any Margaret Laurence, but thanks for mentioning her, as I’m always on the look-out for good books to add to my list :)

  5. I feel bereft that I have only read The Hunger Games out of this list.  I started Infinite Jest but I think I only made it 200 or so pages and I couldn’t tell you anything I read in it.  You would probably throw down with me over my opinion of DFW though :)

    1. I will not throw down BUT should you ever decide to give DFW a try again, you might enjoy his short story collection Girl With Curious Hair. It’s an older book, and I think younger DFW is more coherent overall, plus it includes two of my favorite short stories ever–one’s about a young woman who’s won Jeopardy a phenomenal number of times in a row, and one’s about this weird, conservative, clean-cut guy who’s at a concert with his punk friends (and his nickname is Sick Puppy).

      But it has this novella at the end that it the worst. thing. ever. Seriously, it’s even more convoluted than IJ, with this really off-putting, obvious attempt to be “meaningful” running through it to boot.

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