Author Picks

 

Sometimes metafiction gets a bad rap, because it can steal from the reader that feeling of getting lost in the narrative. All the time I hear people talk about how wonderful it is to forget they are consuming art. “That movie was so good, I forgot I was sitting in the theater!” “I was so engrossed in the book that I missed my stop on the subway!” I suppose what these readers admire about storytelling is its capacity to blend into real life, to erase the line between fiction and reality. But I’m not one of those readers. I like art because it’s art—because it’s different from reality—because it’s (all right, I’ll say it) better than reality. I don’t want my art merging seamlessly with my quotidian life. I like being constantly aware that I’m sitting in a theater watching a movie or holding a book in my hands, turning pages. I’m also one of those people who would rather see how magic tricks are done. I’d rather take a Disney ride with all the lights on, so I can see how the audioanimatronics actually work. I’m a writer, and the reason I’m a writer is because I’m in love with the mechanisms behind the stories. So here are five fictions that won’t let you forget that you’re reading a story—because they’re all about how stories are made.

 


 

Pylon
by William Faulkner

 

This is my favorite Faulkner novel, and one of the least read. It’s about a ménage à trois of air show performers in New Orleans—except it’s really about the newspaper reporter who’s writing an article on the trio. His fascination with the subjects of his story is obsessive, craftsmanlike, and beautiful. The more engrossed he gets in writing about these people’s stories, the more frequently he crosses the line into influencing and embellishing not only their stories but also their lives. The book is a study in the dangerously compulsive relationship between a writer and his subject. For a less Faulkner-y version of the same dynamic, try Martin Amis’s London Fields.

 


 

Lost in the Funhouse

by John Barth

 

You don’t talk about self-referential fiction without talking about John Barth. His pyrotechnics have a reputation for being cold, cerebral and emotionless, but I disagree. I get teary every time I reach the end of the story “Lost in the Funhouse”—which is a kind of coming-of-age story about a fledgling writer (Künstlerroman is the fancy term for it). Ultimately, the tragedy of Barth’s tale is that the narrator, because of his love of reading stories, becomes a writer—but, in the process of learning how to write, he loses the capacity to enjoy (at least innocently) reading. It’s a bittersweet catch-22, and a very sincere writerly heartbreak.

 


 

The Canterbury Tales

by Geoffrey Chaucer

 

The best thing about Chaucer is the way he slaps the snobbery off the face of the writerly craft. In The Canterbury Tales, everyone is a storyteller—whether you’re rich or poor, erudite or illiterate, graceful or vulgar. Chaucer reminds us why we read stories in the first place: because perfect people are boring and flawed people are gorgeous, and the most generous and profound writers understand that humanity doesn’t need to be prettified.  

 


 

The Crying of Lot 49

by Thomas Pynchon

 

This book isn’t about fiction in a literal sense, but it is about a woman whose life, as a result of becoming the executrix of her ex-boyfriend’s curious will, goes from being predictable and mundane to being a wonderland of fantasy and mystery. The book invites you to see spectacle everywhere you look—to embrace the fictions that fray the edges of our sensible everyday lives. In this version of Through the Looking-Glass, our Alice opens her eyes to all the glorious possibilities of fabulation—and her existence is made better through the stories she tells herself.

 


 

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

 

This is the seminal book about fiction—about the difficult relationship between reader and writer, about how the writer tinkers with reality to transform it into fiction, about fiction’s ability to get at a higher order of truth. Plus, it’s just an amazing read. Sure, it’s about Vietnam on the surface, but, really, the book is about how to tell stories about Vietnam—or about anything else for that matter. If I taught a writing class, I would start the first day with this book. O’Brien teaches writers to let go of their stubborn reliance on reality and to embrace fiction—because, once we get down to brass tacks, isn’t everything a kind of fiction anyway?

 



 

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Joshua Gaylord graduated from NYU with a Ph.D. in twentieth-century American and British literature, specializing in postmodernism and narrative theory. He has taught courses in literature and film at NYU, the New School and the Ramaz Upper School.  He is the author of four novels, the most recent of which, When We Were Animals, was published by Mulholland Books in April 2015.

 


 


 

BUY THE BOOKS

 

 

When We Were Animals

 

 

Pylon

 

 

Lost in the Funhouse

 

 

The Canterbury Tales

 

 

The Crying of Lot 49

 

 

The Things They Carried