Authors I Keep Meaning to Try

Picking up a book by an author you’ve never encountered before can be a bit daunting. Perhaps, like me, you’ve heard people praise particular authors for a long time and have wanted to give their writing a try, but simply never known quite where to start. For me, a few that keep coming to mind, bringing with them a twinge of guilt each time, are Haruki Murakami, Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.

Joyce Carol Oates in 2007, via Wikimedia Commons.
Joyce Carol Oates in 2007, via Wikimedia Commons.

Oates published her first novel at age 26 and has written around 50 of them since; she’s also a prolific short story writer and essayist, such that her total output numbers some 70-plus volumes. Yet the only piece I’ve ever read by her is a 1966 short story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, which was assigned reading for my freshman seminar at college. Where in the world should I start with her novels?!

Likewise, Updike is a huge figure in twentieth-century American literature – with, again, about 70 books to his credit, including not just novels but also short stories, poetry, autobiography, and literary criticism – but I’ve barely read a word he wrote.

Rather than shrugging my shoulders in disillusioned frustration and deciding not to try these intimidating authors after all, I’m going to try to put a reasoned plan in place. As I see it, there are five strategies I could take:

  • Start with their first book (this is what Laura of Reading in Bed is doing this year, to decide whose complete works to read)
  • Start with their most high-profile book – the one that won a major prize, or was on the bestseller list for weeks, or became a ubiquitous book club selection
  • Start with their latest book
  • Start with their most unconventional work
  • Start with whatever comes to hand first (public library holdings might be the limitation)

So, which strategy do you recommend for the three authors I mentioned above? I’ll plan to try all of them this year. Which of their books should I be sure not to miss?

(Adapted from a longer article I wrote for Bookkaholic in 2013 – and still I haven’t tried Oates or Updike!)

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21 thoughts on “Authors I Keep Meaning to Try

  1. Murakami is amazing – lucky you to have all his books to read! Where to start? Personally I’d start with The Wind up Bird Chronicle. My reasoning being that if you don’t like this then you probably won’t really like any of his other books, so it could save you a lot of time!
    The Wind Up Bird Chronicle was actually my first Murakami and within a few pages I was completely hooked.

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    1. Oh Penny, it’s reaching the stage where if you recommend a work of fiction, I’ll know it’s not for me. I can’t get on with Murikami at all! Keep the non-fiction suggestions coming though ….
      Rachel, I’ll be interested in what you think.

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  2. From the perspective of a reader, I’d suggest picking one which a trusted friend (or two) has recommended, someone who knows your reading taste. From the perspective of a reviewer, I would choose one of the canonical works for each (like Wind-Up Bird as Penny suggested – it was, actually, the first of his which I’ve read too), so that you have that context, and make reference to it, even if you don’t choose to read another of their works. Hope you find some new faves in the mix!

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  3. I have Joyce Carol Oates on my reading list or this year. My suggested approach would be to start with their highest profile/most well regarded book. You don’t want to get put off an author by reading one of their more challenging books. Time to go back and read those if they find favour.

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  4. I’ve dabbled with Murakami and Updike – and liked some, disliked others. I couldn’t get on with Norwegian Wood but loved The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; enjoyed The Witches of Eastwick, but loathed the first Rabbit book. I think any of your strategies could work – then again, they might not!

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  5. Well I’ve only read one JOC and it was We Were the Mulvaneys and it was excellent, just awesome. Read it!

    I’ve never read Updike or Murakami, and Murakami is on my shortlist so I’m going to try his debut, even though I’ve been advised that this is NOT a good place to start with him. Oh well!

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  6. I usually check which books my library has first. Sometimes this helps to narrow it down, but sometimes the selection is pathetic or non-existent, and I have to go with another strategy. I also like to have recommendations from friends or bloggers if I can!

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  7. I can only speak to Murakami: Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was the first of his I read, too, and while it pissed me off deeply for the first dozen pages, like another commenter above, it won me over after that. I’ve heard people say Norwegian Wood is a better (/more conventional) novel to start with, but hey, maybe jumping in at the deep end is a good thing!

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  8. No real suggestions for Updike. I guess he’s not very fashionable to read nowadays? I think I’ll go for Endpoint, his final collection of poems. Katie Roiphe’s The Violet Hour gave me a taste for it. Might seem a strange place to start, but I can always move to his Rabbit novels later on.

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  9. Hi Rebecca – thanks so much for the follow. I’ve been pondering over my own list of ‘authors to read’ thanks to this post! I like to think I have more a strategic approach to reading new (to me) writers but it’s usually whatever copies the library has offered up (i.e. ‘whatever comes to hand first’). It’s potentially hit and miss but I have ended up reading some great books recently that I knew nothing about – often different to reading an author’s best known works, which I usually come to with some prior knowledge/expectation. I read Oates’ short story collection ‘Give Me Your Heart’ in July last year and really enjoyed it. I’ve also got her 2008 book ‘My Sister, My Love’ sitting by my bed at the moment. Both were library books picked up on a whim. Fingers crossed for the book… And good luck with your reading!

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    1. Hi Faye! Library holdings are indeed likely to be the issue with my choice of JCO’s fiction. I’ve had another recommendation for one of her story collections, that one more on the horror end — which rather puts me off. I’d prefer to start with a novel, but we’ll see. I’ve been forgetting I have her recent memoir A Lost Landscape on my Kindle (a NetGalley find, I believe) as well.

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  10. I’ve never read any Updike, but I’ve tried both Marukami, Joyce Carol Oates and neither were for me (at the time of reading anyway). I’ve read one Oates book and the beginning of a Marukami. Something about their writing, both so different, didn’t speak to me. Perhaps I should try again.

    I would probably try starting with their most recommended book, that is most raved about. As it’s probably the easiest way in.

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  11. I agree with Buriedinprint. Also, I read some of Updike’s collected stories but not the novels, if you like White American Males talking about people’s horrible marriages, you’ll like him, Cheever and Roth. In my opinion. I’m not massively keen. Murakami is a marmite writer; my husband really rates him but there’s a horrible one with upsetting cat deaths in (isn’t there? Is that him?). His running book is great, though! Have fun with these!

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    1. I’ve read a couple of Roth novels but have always meant to read more. Everyman stars his usual angsty, oversexed Jewish alter ego, but is a very good and short meditation on life and death. I do expect something vaguely similar from Updike.

      Yes, I think Murakami has a thing for cats…but I’m sorry to hear some of them die in his books!

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