Friday Fiction: Comparative Lit 101 by Alex Snider

I have this fantasy where I'm hanging out with some of my favourite American authors: James Dickey, Cormac McCarthy, Robert Penn Warren, Wallace Stegner, Ralph Ellison, John Steinbeck and Flannery O'Connor. William Faulkner would probably be there, too, but only because the rest of them are all of a certain school of writers and he was kind of the godfather of their movement. We'd be in a bar, most likely, given the number of drinkers in the group (although several of them would probably feel better around a campfire in the mountains) and the probable need for social lubricant. Wouldn't want it to just be a lot of awkward silences while Warren and Ralph, BFFs, whispered amongst themselves.

Cormac would tell a story about how on his way to meet us he had wrestled a mountain lion, just for kicks. James would describe rescuing a stranded fawn from a rock in the middle of some rapids, the way he tells of reunion between doe and fawn would bring a tear to each of our eyes – such a poet! – although the only one to show it would be Ralph which would earn him a grudging respect. Wallace would tell his own harrowing story of a bunch of kids running across his lawn and we'd all let it go (though I suspect John would sympathize). William would be picking up the tab and kept from speaking mostly which would be hard given how slobbering drunk he'd get – hopefully he'd just pass out quickly. He might have been invited but given his statements in Life about wanting to shoot Black people in the street to save the South (oh dead gods).

I would want them to talk about writing, about their craft. I'd want to hear about their inspiration and influences (some of those influences would be sitting at our table). And how to write the perfect description of a river. I'd want to talk to them about the human condition and over-arching themes and how to go about social commentary without beating in the reader's head (NOT LITERALLY, CORMAC!). I'd want to hear them talk to each other about their experiences in the publishing industry, especially Flannery and Ralph, and about their works, about validation as writers. I'd love for the later writers to talk to the earlier writers about how they learned from them. I'd just love to hear their stories.

There are other authors whom I adore, who's work I absolutely could not live without, who I would probably have more fun having a beer with but the reason I picked these 8 authors (although I'll only be writing about 7 of them) is because these are the authors I want to write like. I don't think I'll ever be able to but if I could sell my soul for something...

When I say these are the authors I want to write like, I'm referring to the striking similarities I've found in their work. The way one novel could flow into the next, into the next. The themes and characters and social commentaries all seem to be hatched from the same brain but explored in different avenues.

All the same elements seem to exist in each author's work: religion, moral ambiguity, capitalist expansion, tensions between class or race, the unreliability of humanity and nature. Strangely, the untouched physical environment is ever present and un-threatened in many of the authors' novels, a character itself nature is constant and, while at times dangerous, always beautiful, lush and vivid. It's a very un-Westernized way of looking at nature and it's always stands out to me that these Western authors are prescribing to almost Indigenous views of the environment.

What keeps me coming back (aside from the complexity of the themes, no big deal or anything) is the sheer beauty of the writing, the lyricism that takes my breath away. In Suttree, on page 295, McCarthy writes of protagonist Cornelius Suttree that "a dark hand had scooped the spirit from his breast and a cold wind circled in the hollow there". Lines like that rattle against my ribs for days. Each of these author's works could be read aloud and easily be mistaken for poetry (both Dickey and Warren were Poet-Laureates).

This is a different Friday Fiction from what I usually do, as you may have noticed if your eyes haven't glazed over in boredom, as I don't have a list of novels but a list of authors. They're set up in a "If you liked that, you'll love this" format, comparing two of the authors at a time but they're all complimentary of one another so if you like any one of these authors then you'll love any of the others! I hope! Oh man, I'm really putting it all on the line, here! But my taste and experience is totally universal!

If You Like Flannery O'Connor, You'll Love James Dickey:

Flannery O'Connor was always classified as a very "unladylike" writer, because at the time she was writing (40's and 50's) it was shocking that a woman would write shocking fiction. And her work is shocking, her stories and novels build the tension dropping hints and clues to the ending but often seem too outlandish to be believed. From the first page of A Good Man is Hard to Find the escaped convict, the misfit looms so large it's genuinely shocking when he dispatches the entire family at the end of the story. In The River, it's easy to ignore the child's obsession with the river and baptism so that when he drowns in attempt to baptize himself the reader is taken aback. Dickey utilizes the same tools to build tension, the three major events in the novel (now made famous by the film) must have absolutely scandalized despite all the forewarnings that shit would be going down. I think it's also the challenge of social taboos that sets O'Connor and Dickey apart from other writers. Having an entire family killed, deaths of children and the rape of a man is more than a shocking turn of events it's a throw-down to social sensibilities. It's really brave. Considering how many novels (often some amazing novels!) shy away from having anything over the top happen it's a refreshing change to read of such dramatic events. Of course other writers attempt taboo topics, McCarthy is never one to shy away from controversial visuals (*cough* necrophilia *cough* incest *cough*), but it's a hard thing to do without the skill of O'Connor or Dickey (or McCarthy).

If You Like James Dickey, You'll Love Wallace Stegner:

In Deliverance, the protagonist, Ed, is a city slicker; a middle-aged studio photographer living with a mortgage, wife and kid. He goes on the weekend canoe trip as a way of shaking off the shackles of suburbia for a few days, despite the relative easiness of the trip (it's if I wanted to break free of the city and get back to nature by going camping in a National Park with friends for a long weekend). Of course things go horribly wrong and a number of people die and Ed will probably have PTSD forever but still, kind of an American everyman. Strip away the murderous hillbillies and all the trauma and it's rife with the same kind of existential angst that fuels most of Stegner's novels. Changing times are at the root of the angst. For a lot of Stegner's characters (particularly in Spectator Bird, All the Little Live Things, Crossing to Safety, Recapitulation and the present-day half of Angle of Repose) it's the act of aging and the rapid progress around them that instigates the stress. While the protagonists give off an air of gruffness and come across as crotchety old-timers resentful of youth, the anxiety only exposes their vulnerability and makes them all the more relatable.
If You Like Wallace Stegner, You'll Love John Steinbeck:

The West looms large in half these authors' works, the South in the rest. There is often the theme of traveling West in the promise of a better life: while there might be better land and better opportunity (certainly that's the case for the Trask's in East of Eden and the Ward's in Angle of Repose) there is still the same family secrets, same betrayals, same tensions that won't be left behind. These books warn of the power of old hurt to destroy, to erode a family for generations.

If You Like John Steinbeck, You'll Love Ralph Ellison:

Ellison like Steinbeck managed to highlight some very severe problems within American society, managed to speak to social justice issues while writing gorgeous, entertaining novels. Steinbeck dealt with class in Grapes of Wrath and Ellison eviscerated racism in Invisible Man. The narratives in each novel follow the protagonists as they get kicked further and further down by the dominant society. In Grapes of Wrath the hope is kept alive and even in the direst of situations the Joad's never despair completely, always using kindness towards others as their guide. The unnamed Black narrator of Invisible Man is broken over time by the overt and the insidious racism that has dominated his life. At the beginning of the novel he lives in a paranoid state but by the end he will be ready to re-emerge into the world to tell his story. There is hope in Invisible Man but it's more wary and less flashy than the hope in GoW. I feel like in every social justice movement both of these types are needed, the idealistic and the realistic; the hopeful and the angry. Great companion books.

If You Like Ralph Ellison, You'll Love Robert Penn Warren:

These two were buds! That just warms my cockles! And makes me feel like a real fan for noticing the clear similarities between the two, especially All the King's Men (Warren's only novel) and Juneteenth. Both deal with assassinated politicians, although both differ wildly in politics with Warren's Willie Stark an idealistic yet corrupt Democrat and Ellison's Adam Sunraider is a hate-mongering Republican. Both novels span back over Stark and Sunraider's lives searching for clues as to how they became what they did, with AtKM focusing more on Stark's adult life while Juneteenth is more about Sunraider's childhood. Just as much as the novels are about Stark and Sunraider, they are about those closest to them, those who have played a part in making them who they are, those who are devastated by the loss despite the wrongs heaped on them by each man. In the same way that Stegner and Steinbeck illustrate ways that relationships can break a person down, Ellison and Warren show how relationships can withstand storms and make us stronger.

If You Like Robert Penn Warren, You'll Love Cormac McCarthy:

The whole time I was reading All the King's Men, I kept stopping to scour the interwebs for any hint of a connection between Warren and McCarthy's Blood Meridian. All I could find was that they worked with the same editor at Random House, Albert Erskine (incidentally so did Faulkner and Ellison as well as another one of my favourite authors, Malcolm Lowry). But still I was haunted by the similarities. There was the poetic lilt and descriptions scenery (although at the very beginning the description of the road was so reminiscent of Grapes of Wrath) but more than anything there was the moral relativity and the moral ambiguity from which it sprung. Both are dealt with so masterfully that the main characters participation in corruption (Jack Burden of All the King's Men) and a scalping party (the Kid in Blood Meridian), didn't leave me hating them. There are far worse characters and Jack and the Kid are hurt (emotionally and physically), yet in neither novel does that leave me feeling sorry for them necessarily – in not hating them, neither do I quite work up a strong attachment. I am in awe of authors who can write whole novels without sympathetic characters, but not have that be a draw back in any way. I was talking about Donna Tartt's The Secret History with a friend last night and we were both saying how much we liked the book, but how much we hated all the characters. In Blood Meridian and All the King's Men, that's not a but.

If You Like Cormac McCarthy, You'll Love Flannery O'Connor:

Further up I wrote that in order to get away with writing about certain subjects whether taboos or extreme violence, the writer has to be incredibly skilled. I believe that to be true, but that is a pretty easy way out, of course for most novels to be "great" the author must be skilled. My inexpert opinion then is that there are two ways of dealing with the stomach-turning unpleasantness present in both McCarthy and O'Connor's writing: humour or pacing. McCarthy writes the most violent, graphically horrific things I've read outside of The Iliad, often sickening details are added in for no apparent reason. There are so many dead babies in his books that it could actually be the most depressing drinking game of all time (because of the dead babies and because reading is a pretty solitary endeavor). The thing is, McCarthy never dwells on the gruesome, he (or the characters) mention is and move right along. It sets the mood, atmosphere for the novels and sets up the feeling that maybe they're not in Texas or Mexico or Knoxville, maybe there's a case to be made for one of the rings of Dante's hell. Not pulling a Palahniuk or Ellis and glorifying that violence is what sets McCarthy apart and what, I feel, keeps his work from becoming gratuitous. Flannery on the other hand, uses humour to offset the trauma forever present. It's hard for me to figure out at this point when I read her if there is always that element of the sinister or if I've read so much of her work that I just expect it at this point (chicken or the egg???!). Her work is certainly full of the grotesque, horrible people have horrible things happen to them, melancholy con-men and killers hurt the innocent. The innocent, who with few exceptions, I never feel quite sorry for given their penchant for racism and Christian hypocrisy. That is where the beauty of O'Connor's genius lies, she sets up BAD people against GOOD people but by the end you kinda feel like they're all just lower-case bad (maybe not the misfit, he's upper-case bad); everyone is just, well, rotten – some you can just tell from the outside. And it's funny in a very grotesque, dark way. Takes the edge right off. Wait, maybe that adds the edge?

Also, can someone please buy me this book that discusses McCarthy and Stegner and the gendering of the West? Pretty please? Thank you!

Happy, happy, happy Friday!


Image of Flannery O'Connor from

Alex Snider sometimes gives into hyperbole but never when it comes to books. She sleeps, eats, studies, reads, writes and drinks in Toronto. This post originally appeared with different photos on her blog, What Fresh Hell


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