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The esteemed American writer Joyce Carol Oates became enthralled with reading at a young age, spurred by a copy of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland gifted by her grandmother. She’d later call the book “the great treasure of my childhood, and the most profound literary influence of my life. This was love at first sight!”
Oates began writing at the age of 14, after having devoured the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky, the Brontë sisters, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, and Henry David Thoreau. At Syracuse University, she started reading Franz Kafka, D. H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann, and Flannery O’Connor, all of whom she’s cited as major influences on her work.
On the power of the written word to promote empathy and expand one’s world view, Oates says:
Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.
In a piece on her favorite works of fiction for The Week, Oates included novels exploring the lives of others across time, place and culture. Read on for the list, and complement with her Masterclass on the art of the short story.
“In a politically fractious America in which “bearing witness” has been attacked as a motive for art in recent years, emerging writers have nonetheless written boldly across divides of class, ethnic identity, and gender. Outstanding among these has been Anthony Marra, a young American author whose first two books are set mainly in Russia and the former Soviet Union. In A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra’s debut novel, three survivors of the Second Chechen War band together in an abandoned hospital. In 2015’s The Tsar of Love and Techno, linked short stories follow various characters’ dreams and dashed hopes from the 1930s to the present, and then beyond.” -JCO
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish
“Atticus Lish’s award-winning first novel is, in part, an extraordinary immersion in the interior life of a female Chinese “illegal immigrant” in the Flushing section of Queens, N.Y.” -JCO
The Good Lieutenant by Whitney Terrell
“Before writing his third novel, Whitney Terrell twice worked as an embedded reporter during the recent U.S. war in Iraq. The Good Lieutenant, published last year, explores the tragic complexities of the war from the perspective of a young female Army lieutenant from the Midwest.” -JCO
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
“This extravagantly inventive, linguistically daring work skewers two different American cultures. Johnson, who is African-American, conjures the voice of a naïve young white student who arrives at the University of California, Berkeley, from the deepest of the Deep South.” -JCO
Version Control by Dexter Palmer
“Version Control is perhaps the strangest fictional work of appropriated voices and subjects. It’s set in a surreal near future — or several near futures — as well as in several pasts. Though issues of race play virtually no role in the stories, one character, an African-American physicist, recalls dropping out of a writing course because the professor thought he should be mining his heritage instead of inventing science fiction.” -JCO
(via The Week)