After our controversial cereal rankings, in which I angered the shredded wheat lobby and freaks who like Apple Jacks, I've decided we need to rank more ridiculous things around these parts. It's the football offseason, so feel free to suggest things that need an authoritative ATVS ranking. I've got the time.
So, in keeping with the spirit of rankings things, I'm going to bust out a wholly personal list and then ask for yours. This is a website that is primarily full of words, yet we don't spend enough times just talking about writers. So I'm ranking my ten favorite authors.
Now, I make no claims that this ranking is the definitive list, just the list of my personal favorites. These are the authors who challenge, inspire, or just make me happy. In other words, these are the people who got me interested in writing in the first place, and then kept me interested in it. It's all their fault.
10. Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is the first author I discovered on my own, so he will always hold a special place in my heart. He's definitely not the sci fi author you namecheck when trying to establish your bona fides, as he's not really en vogue with the nerd crowd, primarily due to the fact he didn't really care all that much for the science part. His fantastical stories were just a backdrop to deal with honest human emotions, and I loved how he always grounded his stories in the character. His style worked best as short story, and paranoid tales like the Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl or the devastating There Will Come the Soft Rains, telling the tale of a mechanical house that continues its daily tasks for a human race that has been wiped out by nuclear war.
9. C.V. Wedgewood
When I was in high school, one of my history teachers gave me a copy of The Thirty Years War, and I fell in love with both history and the author. There's a fine line that historians walk between academia and popular history. She could write in a way that made the action jump off the page, without sacrificing the actual work of being a historian. She would walk the fields on which the battles of the English Civil War were fought, and she constantly stressed that the way things turned out were not pre-ordained. In fact, the thing that really comes through in her work is how random most of history is. Events that we think were influenced by another often happened completely independently, and without any knowledge of the other. It's not that history is a series of random events, it's just that the way things ought to be is a mirage. It very well could have been something else if it had been a sunny day instead. Mainly, I love her work because she believed strongly that one could pull moral lessons from history, yet at the same time it is important to see each parties' point of view. Again, she threaded the needle between revisionism and classic history. Right on target.
8. Joe Posnanski
Sportswriting, particularly on the internet, I often the domain of the HOT TAKE. I find it exhausting, but also it makes us all a little bit dumber and meaner. Posnanski believes in the best in people, primarily due to the influence from his time spent as Buck O'Neil's biographer. He writes beautifully about his own family and old ball players, and he has a great eye for whimsy like his features on Pixie-foods, foods that you thought were delicious when you were a kid but now you can't stomach. He captures the open-eyed wonder of sports, and has been one of the few writers who has been able to fuse the old style of storytelling with modern statistics. I like the #fancystats crowd in principle, but it sure has given a platform to a lot of bad writers. Yes, his Paterno biography was a poorly timed misstep, but it was a failure due to the things that make him such a good read: he couldn't write a hatchet job, and to the end, he wanted to believe the best in people. In the era of outrage, he stands apart.
7. Marilynne Robinson
Gilead. Oh my God, Gilead. She wrote perhaps the most beautiful book I've ever read, and you should go out and find a copy. The problem with most Christian art of the past half century is that so much of it is terrible. A ham-fisted metaphor in service of a wonderful purpose is still a ham-fisted metaphor. So many great writers of the past half century have been rebels, rejecting the things which came before it. And I'm not going to lie, I like a lot of impassioned condemnations of the things which are wrong with the world. But Robinson reminds me that it is so much harder to build, and to forgive. Not a whole lot happens in Gilead, it is just a preacher's memoir and his theological struggles, most notable the very real ones in his own family. His son makes some terrible mistakes which have dire consequences, but ultimately, it is a story of love, understanding, and forgiveness. To forgive truly is divine.
6. Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy is the only author I know of who would feel so overwhelmed by emotion at having a son at an advanced age, that he would be inspired to write a post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son walking aimlessly from place to place. This is a man who knew how to find beauty out of darkness, so much so that there was not a dark cloud he could not find from any silver lining. McCarthy's only real drawback is that noted jackass and elitist snob Harold Bloom described him as one of only four living authors who deserve our praise. While I would hate to think there are only four authors on the planet worthy of praise (his others were Roth, Pynchon, and DeLillo), I also hate to give Bloom any credit on any topic. That sanctimonious jackass, who stands in for every literary critic who would suck the joy out of reading if he had his way, did get one thing right. McCarthy can turn a phrase. He's also the only one of Bloom's four who writes to an audience other than the Northeastern private school crowd (OK, DeLillo spends most of his time attacking the established order, but he's doing it from the point of view of someone within the system... and Underworld is pretty great). The Border trilogy should be required reading for every southerner. It's Faulkner for those of us who don't have two months to dedicate to reading one book.
5. Margaret Atwood
A lesson in labelling. Atwood has spent her life resisting the labels that other people have tried to slap on her to, let's be honest, dismiss her books out of hand. She has denied writing science fiction, preferring the term "speculative fiction." She's a hero to feminists, but she has denied that her work his Feminist Fiction, even something as anti-patriarchy as The Handmaid's Tale or The Edible Woman. And I get her point, once someone slaps a label on a thing, it becomes easier to just file it on that shelf and ignore it. Oh, she's just some feminist complaining about men. Got it. That is an awfully reductive way to looking at her work, but that's exactly what happens to not just dissenting viewpoints, but any viewpoint. People are so reluctant to read or engage with any viewpoint that is not their own, and it makes us all weaker thinkers, and a weaker society. Oh, and The Blind Assassin is f'n amazing.
4. Charles Bukowski
Every single writer likes to imagine him or herself as some dangerous rebel at some point in time. I mean, I write a silly sports blog, and I still like to think that I say what I want to say, man. Then I read some Bukowski and realize I'm completely kidding myself. Direct, forceful, and complete free of any and all bullshit. Bukowski wielded words like weapons, and he would pummel you into submission like he was in a street fight. He was a writer who told things exactly as they were, regardless of the harm it caused. Truth-telling is difficult, but he had no patience for lies of any kind. A brilliant writer that I genuinely admire, but as Modest Mouse says, Christ, what an asshole.
3. Michael Chabon
Chabon wrote a semi-autobiographical work called Manhood for Amateurs in which he talked about growing up in the same exact town I did. It turns out we had pretty much the same interests as kids and he lived one neighborhood over from me. I was about 4 to 5 years off in time of being actual real-life friends with one of my favorite authors on the planet. His alternative history of The Yiddish Policemen's Union about a Jewish homeland in Alaska (‘the frozen chosen") is already a classic, but I will love him forever for Mysteries of Pittsburgh. It's not his best book, but it is his first one, and I picked it up on a whim long before he won the Pulitzer Prize for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. There's something so exciting about an artist's first work. It's just so full of endless possibilities. Chabon is one of those few artists who didn't just entice me with a brilliant future, but actually delivered it.
2. Kurt Vonnegut
Wherever there are weird high school kids who don't quite fit in, there will be a need for Kurt Vonnegut. He's the gateway to an exciting world of possibility, a writer who openly challenged any and all conventions he could find. However, unlike Bukowski, Vonnegut has a great love for his fellow man. He might think mankind is a bit of waste (see the finale of Cat's Cradle), but he loved people themselves. It's just when we get together in big groups and start believing in things... that's when bad things happen. I love Vonnegut because he's the guy who said both of these things, by which I try and live my life:
ONE: "I tell you, we are here on earth to fart around, and don't let anyone tell you differently."
TWO: "Still and all, why bother? Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone."
In other words, like what you like. Have fun. Smile. We're all just fighting off loneliness together. What could be more anti-establishment than that?
1. John Steinbeck
Simple, direct, and forceful. I believe a lot of the same things about writing that I believe about music: stop cluttering things up with your arrogant showing off and just tell the damn story. To misquote Vonnegut again, a semicolon only shows you went to college. We often confuse stylistic complexity for actual complexity of thought. There's truth in the pounding, unrelenting style of Subject-verb-predicate or the same three chords on your guitar. Steinbeck was my dad's favorite author, and every time I read Steinbeck's prose, I think of him. Steinbeck was constantly outraged by inequity and injustice, and so was my father. But I also love that Steinbeck refused to be defined by his leftist politics. He cared first about people, which meant that he wrote in support of striking workers, migrant farmers, and US Army grunts in Vietnam. Be direct, but more importantly, care about people.