I started this list a month ago, and over the course of an afternoon I got to forty-nine without too much trouble—but then that last slot felt impossible to fill: How was I supposed to pick just one more book out of the many others that might have made this list? And then I spent the next month reading DeLillo’s Underworld, and immediately I knew it was going to have the same staying power as the rest of these books, that it was going to affect me as they did, not just during the reading but for months and years after. That recognition is a too-rare occurrence while reading, but there’s nothing else like it, and I’m so glad to have felt it again.
I haven’t annotated my list, but here’s the question I used to select them: If I was trying to get from a version of me before I was a writer to the version of me that’s the writer and reader I am today, what would be the fifty shortest steps? I think these texts would be one way to get here again, to who I think I am, at this exact moment.
- Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
- Angels by Denis Johnson
- Venus Drive by Sam Lipsyte
- The Open Curtain by Brian Evenson
- Last Days by Brian Evenson
- In the Aeroplane over the Sea by Neutral Milk Hotel
- The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus
- The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, ed. by Ben Marcus
- Civilwarland in Bad Decline by George Saunders
- Telling It Again and Again by Bruce Kawin
- Fiction and the Figures of Life by William Gass
- Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver
- Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
- Nightwork by Christine Schutt
- On Eloquence by Denis Donoghue
- Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson
- The Nimrod Flipout by Etgar Keret
- 1984 by George Orwell
- Michael Martone by Michael Martone
- Guide by Dennis Cooper
- God, Jr. by Dennis Cooper
- Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
- House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
- American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis
- U.S.! by Chris Bachelder
- Coming Through Slaughter by Michael Ondaatje
- Motorman by David Ohle
- Log of the S.S. the Mrs Unguentine by Stanley Crawford
- Girl With the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
- Endgame by Samuel Beckett
- Return to the City of White Donkeys by James Tate
- Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez
- Waste by Eugene Marten
- Grim Tales by Norman Lock
- Human Smoke by Nicholson Baker
- Burning Down the House by Charles Baxter
- John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead
- Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers by Stanley Elkin
- Killing Kanoko by Hiromi Ito
- The Dark Tower series, by Stephen King
- The Paris Review interviews
- The five AWP 2009 presentations on “Truth and Consequences in Non-Realist Fiction” by Brian Evenson, Laird Hunt, Joyelle McSweeney, Kate Bernheimer, and Eric Lorberer, later collected in Fence 21
- Europeana by Patrick Ourednik
- Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson
- Unsaid, especially Issue 4
- Underworld by Don DeLillo
Matt Bell is the author of Cataclysm Baby, a novella, and How They Were Found, a collection of fiction. His debut novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods will be published by Soho Press in June 2013. He is the Senior Editor at Dzanc Books, and teaches creative writing at Northern Michigan University.
5 thoughts on “Matt Bell’s “Literary Pillars””
Hey, Matt, just to let you know, people wrote books before 1993. As a matter of fact, there have been a lot of books written before 1993. You should check them out since you seem to like reading. Maybe start with something that was written in 1985 and work backwards.
The composition of Beowulf is dated between the 8th century and the early 11th century.
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949.
Stanley Elkin’s Criers & Kibitzers, Kibitzers & Criers was published in 1966.
William Gass’s Fiction and the Figures of Life was published in 1970.
Don’t forget Blood Meridian (1985), Motorman (1972), Log of the S.S. The Mrs. Unguentine (1972), Endgame (I’m guessing late 1950’s), as well as a good portion of the Carver stories which came out late 70’s through 1982.