Lexifabricographer For when the right word just won’t do…

November 24, 2011

My writer DNA

Filed under: geekery,wordsmithery — lexifab @ 11:14 pm

The sad passing of Anne McCaffrey yesterday got me thinking about my favourite writers – those who’ve influenced me over the years, the ones who’ve been my go-to ol’ reliables at different times in my life, the ones whose back-catalogues I have hunted down and consumed to extinction. McCaffrey herself wasn’t actually one of those writers. I enjoyed the first few Pern books before I decided I could do without the melodrama, and I remember The Crystal Singer and its sequels fondly. From somewhere near the start of high school and for about the next fifteen years McCaffrey was always somewhere on the radar but she never quite made it to the top of my personal charts. Liked, didn’t love.

(That’s a crappy eulogy, I know, but she is remembered fondly by a legion of fans world wide and I think would be satisfied enough that I remember many of the particulars of Killashandra Ree’s adventures nearly three decades after first reading them.)

I inherited my love of reading from my mother, who got it from hers. Nan’s place was like a treasure trove to me – there was a laundry wall that was stacked from floor to ceiling (very much literally) with books. She kept her collection like a kind of treacherous dry stone wall of temptation. It was often very difficult to extract a book without bringing down a bunch of other ones. There were Christies andFrancises, as well as Ludlum and Heyer and Sayer and Marsh.I spent months working my way through my Nan’s library and probably didn’t read more than one or two percent of its contents.

But like every devoted reader, I was busy developing my own personal pantheon of writing demigods. They would speak, and at one time or another in my life I was entranced. Some have endured, their reputations remaining untarnished in the face of my evolving tastes and their occasional (to my eyes) missteps. Others were once ascendant and are now idle, recalled with warmth at best and at worst with distaste at their Icarus-like plummet from my regard. Yes, Piers Anthony, David Eddings and Dave fucking Sim, you get in that line over there. And you shut up.

Overwhelmingly my preferred authors are writers of fiction. Until relatively recently, I had little experience of well-written non-fiction. That’s on me. I’ve never really grokked reading non-fiction for pleasure, and even now I’m pretty much only going to look at historical writing, (auto-)biographies and the occasional bit of social or political analysis. The poppier the better. So I’m missing those genes altogether, which should give some indication of my lax attitude towards academic endeavour and research in general.

So, to the fiction. I’ve always had my nose in a book. My early heroes were Agatha Christie, Dick Francis, Alistair Maclean on the crime/action side, John Wyndham’s triffids and John Christopher’s tripods over at science fiction and…hmm, not that much fantasy until my teenage years. I think that’s when I glommed onto Ray Bradbury, who definitely held my attention for a good few years. I developed my perfectly healthy and charming and not at all obsessive lifelong fascination with Doctor Who back then, so I should probably add Terrance Dicks, Robert Holmes and Terry bloody Nation to the list.

That would bring us to the first of my personal Big Two: Douglas Adams. In my first couple of years of high school, I probably read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy twenty or thirty times. The first couple of sequels, likewise. The next couple – eh, they had some good bits. But HHGTTG was the big one, and probably did more to shape my brain than any other single book. It certainly helped shape my speech patterns, which tend toward overly elaborate constructions intended to withhold a punchy gag as long as possible and to overuse of adverbs (a crime of which Adams was not in fact guilty, but the devastating precision with which he deployed them clearly made an impression on my impressionable brain). He also wrote and script-edited for Who, of course, which only served to underline his genius as far as I was concerned. And yeah, I liked Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, even if he ripped off his own scripts to write it.

On the tail of Adams came Stephen King, who by virtue of being extraordinarily prolific at just the right time (the 80’s) gave me the second great influence of my formative years. Despite not being otherwise a particular fan of horror (it’s fine, but it’s not my thing per se) I devoured everything King coughed up, which was a lot. There are quite a few great novels in his back catalogue (The Dead Zone, The Shining and later Misery and Needful Things) but The Stand was the one that did it for me. Something about the epic end-of-the-worldiness appealed – I’ve read all 1000+ pages of it at least a dozen times. In recent years his even-more-epic multiverse-spanning Dark Tower series *might* have toppled The Stand from its place at the top of the King tree, but it’s a close thing for me. (Oddly, none of the above rank as King’s scariest, which are probably either Salem’s Lot or Pet Sematary, both of which feature murderous undead children. Go figure).

Moving on: in my late teens and into my twenties, there were comics. Moore, Morrison, Gaiman, Ellis, Ennis. Anything and everything by that lot, then and now. Terry Pratchett came to fill the gap left behind by Douglas Adams. Iain Banks, Neal Stephenson and China Mieville have all become somewhat indispensible (though Banks’ star might be starting to fade since the last couple of Culture books) and I was deeply gratified to have discovered Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books several years ago.

Thinking about this list there are some weird omissions. Tolkein was never a big figure for me – I didn’t read The Lord of the Rings until I was 27, and I’m *still* only halfway through The Hobbit. Asimov never really clicked with me. Nor did Clarke (except ‘Childhood’s End’ and ‘The Nine Billion Names of God’, of course). There are a great many classics of science fiction in particular and fantasy as well of which I am woefully ignorant (never read any Bester or Le Guin or Moorcock, sod-all Heinlein or Vonnegut or Zelazny or Vance). I’ve read a lot of Shakespeare but my attachment to most of that canon is tenuous. My ‘literary’ reading is piecemeal and honestly pretty random. I don’t do poetry. I read a bit of crime and mystery stuff, but I fall short of enthusiasm there. These days I reserve a lot of my admiration for television writers, but that’s probably another story.

So which writers are in your blood? C’mon, don’t be shy.


  1. I will lazily link to this >a href=”http://evildrclam.blogspot.com/search/label/ABC”>series of posts. I was never part of the Eddings train but was an enthusiastic devotee of Piers Anthony – I can still read ‘Macroscope’ with pleasure, the rest not so much.

    The McCaffrey I liked best were “Decision at Doona” and “The Ship Who Sang” – I went off her evetnually for the very adolescent reason that in her books blokes anything like me *never* get the girl.

    I’ve probably said before my favourite Terry Pratchett are “Strata” and “Dark Side of the Sun”: Diskworld I think was settling for second-best and in the end a waste of a career.

    Any full and non-Sphexishly alphabetical account of writers who are hardwired into my brain would have to cover Robert Benchley – the one I try to write and talk like when I am trying to be funny – Mark Twain – hmm, maybe ditto – and Lord Dunsany.

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — November 25, 2011 @ 9:11 am

  2. Actually, it seems I will not link at all, having typy-typy issues: trying again, here.

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — November 25, 2011 @ 9:12 am

  3. and er, trying again. Feel free to ban me if this one doesn’t work either.

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — November 25, 2011 @ 9:13 am

  4. Diana Wynne Jones, Robin McKinley, Andre Norton, Joan Aiken, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, Lois McMaster Bujold. I also rather like the Heinlein juveniles (and loathed all his other work).

    McCaffrey is a formative writer for me – I read a great deal of her early work repeatedly, but not in the last couple of decades.

    We both probably had a portion of our reading taste formed by Pimlico and Aikenvale Libraries. 🙂 I still remember exactly where Tanith Lee was located (“Silver Metal Lover” which I read at least three times, but doubt I would read now). Nicholas Fisk was next aisle over, by the windows.

    The Pimlico Library building is roughly the library building which Cass projects in “Stray”. 😀

    BTW – note that you gave a list of primarily men and I gave a list of primarily women?

    Comment by Andrea — November 25, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

  5. Clam: That was a cool essay, I had forgotten all about it. From now on I am going to refer to you as the Necessary Heretic (except that in five minutes I will have forgotten I made this glib promise…)

    I like ‘The Ship Who Sang’ fine, but ‘Decision at Doona’ never made an impression. I know I read it once, but even rereading a synopsis just now is sparking only vague memories.

    I never particularly liked ‘Strata’ or ‘Dark Side’, but I couldn’t tell you if that was just disappointment that they were not more Diskworld. I do hold ‘Small Gods’ and ‘Guards! Guards!’ up as exemplary fantasy (and ‘Reaper Man’ is a personal favourite, if for no other reason than his take on shopping trolleys continues to haunt my imagination).

    Andrea: That’s a pretty damn good list (though I don’t know Aiken at all). The Aitkenvale library was certainly a factor. Oooh, Fisk! I was trying to remember his name, because I loved ‘Trillions’. I’ve read a little Tanith Lee, but for the life of me I can’t recall what.

    I was quite curious about the over-representation of men in my list, because I don’t *feel* like I discriminate when it comes to an author’s gender, nor ever have that I recall. I certainly sampled as widely as I could, especially when I was younger. Nowadays I mainly operate by recommendation, though still pretty impulsively. I suppose I must be responding to themes in works by men that women might be less likely to address (maybe? pretty wishy-washy thesis, this) but I couldn’t really tell you what they are.

    I do know that up until relatively recently nearly every murder mystery I ever read – aprt from a sampling of Arthur Conan Doyle – was written by either Christie, Marsh or Sayers (and possibly one other author I’m not quite putting my finger on).

    Bujold would have made my list if I’d started with the Vorkosigans back when she started writing them. I love those books.

    Comment by Lexifab — November 25, 2011 @ 9:19 pm

  6. You haven’t read Aiken? Shame! How’s your catching up on the Diana Wynne Jones canon going, BTW?

    I had also noticed – from the expanded version of Andrea’s list in ‘Autumn Wright’ – that it was 100% XX, which made me feel less bad that my alphabetical list was 90+% XY.

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — November 26, 2011 @ 8:48 am

  7. I haven’t even *heard* of Aiken. Looking at a biography ‘The Wolves of Willoughby Chase’ sounds faintly familiar, but not convincingly so. What are her standouts?

    The Wynn Jones thing proceeds slowly. I need to get to a library, which I haven’t done for several years (I am ashamed to admit)…

    I think that if I were to do an alphabetical list (a) there would certainly be more women on it but (b) Zelazny would probably still win over Zimmer Bradley.

    Comment by lexifab — November 26, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  8. The Dido books (which are part of the series which begins with Wolves) are the stand-out. Wolves is a little…Victorian and not as great as the rest, but it’s worth reading as the kick-off of a fantastic world which only gets better and better. It’s an alternate universe, both grim and enchanting.

    I don’t think the male/female bias is that surprising – particularly for books which are “loved it” emotional responses. I like bunches of classic SF male writers and also probably should have included Rex Stout on my favourites list, since I just laboriously collected all his books and re-read them – and on the non-fic side I keep coming back to Bill Bryson, who is just so lightly enjoyable to read. And I have bunches of Pratchett and Gaiman. But in terms of emotional connection, of hitting exactly the right notes to keep me coming back, the absolute top tier are all women.

    There’s been a ton of debate recently about representation and recognition of women in SF awards, and how women aren’t seen to be SF writers (which is always a weird disconnect for me because I started with McCaffrey and Norton and so SF _is_ women to me). I figure I just have to make sure not to be one of those people who won’t read a book because it’s written by a man/woman or has a male/female protagonist (there really are people who admit to this!).

    It’s a particularly strange debate at the moment (for me at least) because in YA there’s a huge upsurge of post-apocalytpic and dystopian books written by women which are very popular in the YA world – and I sadly can’t get into most of them because I just can’t believe the worldbuilding. I’ll happily read romance-oriented SF (though with a preference for the romance to be secondary to the main plot) but I just can’t work up enough interest in the premises of some of these dystopian novels.

    Comment by Andrea — November 26, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  9. Right there with you on the baffling disconnect. I especially don’t understand people who are taken out of a story by the gender of the protagonist alone. I’ve heard of it too, but I don’t comprehend it.

    Double Dead aside, I haven’t seen much of the post-apocalyptica or dystopianism. I assume it’s something to do with The Hunger Games making a squillion dollars?

    Comment by lexifab — November 26, 2011 @ 11:46 pm

  10. Yep – driven almost entirely by The Hunger Games.

    Comment by Andrea — November 27, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

  11. Remarkably similar to Andreas list, minus Aiken, Ngaio Marsh, Agatha Christie, plus some others (Mercedes Lackey,Jennifer Roberson, Tamora Pierce, Garth Nix, Patricia McKillip –must stop adding authors). The sameness is possibly due to the same access to books in my teen years.

    I read my first SF at 10 or 11 – star kaat by Andre Norton and had the sensation sensation of a whole new world opening up – what was this new thing called SF and was there any more? Prior to that it was a lot of “girls own mystery novels/borading school novels” written in the 20’s to 50’s that I found in op shops and historical(auto)biographies of mainly women during WW2 – my dad is a big military history reader & I’d filch any interesting library books he borrowed. NB, I still haven’t fully read Black Beauty – because I felt I was supposed to.

    Much of my high school SF was from male writers, possibly due to access – I’d read anything remotely interesting & there weren’t that many books available to me, but as I started buying my own, I’ve tilted to female authors. If I can only pick one, its Lois McMaster Bujold & Miles is my favourite character.

    A quick scroll down my author list in my database indicates McCaffrey (43), Mercedes Lackey (44), Pratchett (43), Diana Wynne Jones (26) and Andre Norton (20) are the authors I’ve collected most of (they are are all prolific writers who I am generally happy to read). I have found that I can’t read any one author in a long glut and not get samey samey bored with them. Some just take longer than others. Ooh maybe I should do up a list for my blog with authors listed by how many of their books I own. If only I can figure out how to get the database to autosort & count 🙂

    There are a also lot of books I’ve read as a series/solo & can’t find anything else by the author (or never got my head around the interweb search option), but they are read and reread. I have done some searching and found some of those gems only produced one or two books.

    Comment by Jenny — November 28, 2011 @ 8:39 am

  12. Thanks Jenny. I remember the same feeling of the whole new world opening up, although in my case it might have happened a little earlier than that – because I’ve just remembered one of my major formative readibng experiences was Patricia Wrightson’s ‘The Nargun and the Stars’. It was probably the first work of completely novel (to me, knowing basically zip about any Aboriginal culture or mythology) fantasy that I fell in love with. It led to other significant finds: Susan Cooper’s ‘The Dark is Rising’, Wyndham’s ‘Chocky’, Nicholas Fisk’s ‘Trillions’, the Tripods series… All of those I discovered at the Aitkenvale School library, which led to further explorations in the city libraries.

    Interesting that you raise boarding school novels. We’ve been reading Enid Blyton’s ‘Naughtiest Girl in the School’ books to the Joey (an excellent primer on irrational and wholly counterproductive rebellion against authority, the selection of which will no doubt backfire on his foolish parents). I’ve realised that I consumed a vast number of those sorts of books during primary school – the ‘Just William” series, the ‘Malory Towers’, the adventures of Nigel Molesworth (‘Down with Skool’ remains a personal favourite). I suspect that my fondness for Harry Potter is rooted as much in nostalgia for that genre – which as far as I can tell has not otherwise survived – as for the fantasy elements.

    Comment by lexifab — November 28, 2011 @ 11:13 am

  13. Argh, that ****ing Whiteleaf School! Spouse-of-Clam made stop reading them to the children because I couldn’t resist savage mocking asides about the good little automaton drones who think they are in charge of their school but really are just accomplices of THE MAN. I guess I am still one of those devoted to irrational and wholly counterproductive rebellion against authority.

    Comment by The Once and Future Dr Clam — November 28, 2011 @ 12:12 pm

  14. Do you know, I didn’t even realise that I *was* trolling for clams 😉

    I know what you mean though – with only the smallest amount of editing it could easily be repackaged as one of those quirky utopias that secretly masks a socially repressive automaton-factory ruled by despotic authoritarians wearing a pleasing face (like Mom’s Robots in Futurama). Suddenly Elizabeth Allen stops being pointlessly chaotic and becomes a heroic anarchist bringing down a repressive system that nobody else can see.

    Most of the older indoctrinaires at the school appear to be quite poisonous little toads, I’ve noticed.

    (I’ve also just realised that another boarding school series from my youth was X-Men, specifically from the point of view of Kitty Pryde. Who wouldn’t want to go to Xavier’s School and have an alien dragon pet and adventures and stuff? Answer: those Whyteleaf jerks!)

    Comment by lexifab — November 28, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  15. […] of that discussion we were having a couple of weeks ago about the writers that have influenced us, in which it was quite rightly observed that very few of […]

    Pingback by Reading women writers « Lexifabricographer — December 20, 2011 @ 4:04 pm

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