10) George R.R. Martin
I’ve only read one work of George R.R. Martin’s, a work that isn’t even complete. But having read just the first four books of his mammoth undertaking of epic fantasy, A Song of Ice and Fire, I’m prepared to say that Martin is one of the most accomplished fiction writers on the planet. With his ongoing saga, he has out-Tolkiened the man himself. Not only has he fashioned a world with a history and culture vast and complex as Middle-Earth’s, but Martin’s characters and sense of story structure are infinitely superior to Tolkien’s. This is who you read if you want your fantasy to be adult in every sense of the word.
Start with: A Game of Thrones, 1996
Then try: A Clash of Kings, 1998
9) James Ellroy
If the English language has an intrinsic gender, James Ellroy has ensured that it is a male. The Demon Dog uses words like they’re jabs and hooks, sentences like head-butts, paragraphs that are swift kicks in the cajones, and characters that move with the animalistic single-mindedness of a pack of wolves. He throws these ingredients into a heady brew and what he serves up are stories of crime and redemption that explode in a mushroom-shaped plume in the sky over White Sands. Even if his style is so bare-knuckled it turns you off, you can’t deny it: Ellroy has balls!
Start with: L.A. Confidential, 1990
Then try: The Black Dahlia, 1987
8) Raymond Chandler
Chandler wrote almost exclusively about his most famous creation, archetypical private eye Philip Marlowe. Chandler wrote in style that is now synonymous with hard-boiled fiction in general. But read a little closer and his artistry becomes easy to identify. Chandler brought a poetry to his lean and mean prose that cut right to the bone of the existential conundrum of human life, what makes people live as darkly as they do and what makes a decent man like Marlowe stand eyeball-to-eyeball against the darkness and refuse the turn away from it. But that will only occur to you after you’ve absorbed the dynamite story Chandler laid out for you.
Start with: The Big Sleep, 1939
Then try: The Lady in the Lake, 1943
7) David Mitchell
I grow green with envy whenever I meet someone who is experiencing the work of David Mitchell for the first time. Born in Britain but having lived and traveled wide and far around the globe, his writing reflects his status as a genuine citizen of the world. A postmodernist in the best sense of the word Mitchell blends and twists genres and styles with stunning alacrity. But despite his prosaic pyrotechnics, Mitchell never forgets that his first job is to tell a story. With indelible characters and ingenious plotting he does this better than most writers twenty years his senior.
Start with: Cloud Atlas, 2004
Then try: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, 2010
6) H.P. Lovecraft
Bottom line: H.P. Lovecraft was the greatest short story writer who ever lived. Every practitioner and fan of horror and suspense, whether they want to admit it or not, owes their undying allegiance to Lovecraft’s legacy. Yes, the more of him you read you recognize the archetypes he returned to time and again. Yes, he expressed certain socio-political views we find hard to stomach today. But the man understood fear, where it comes from and how to tap into a reader’s. In his relatively brief career, Lovecraft wrote stories that not only can turn the night dark and stormy eighty years later, but keep you reading them over and over.
Start with: “The Call of Cthulu”, 1926
Then try: “The Colour Out of Space”, 1927
5) William Shakespeare
Yes, I read Shakespeare for fun. And so can you! I understand that the poetry is daunting at first. But if you can find your own Rosetta Stone into the text, his stories and characters are as enthralling and comprehensible as anybody’s. Shakespeare shared the point of view of the common man. He possibly did more to destroy the concept of the Divine Right of Kings than anyone by showing just how fallible and human the divine can be. Use that as your entryway into the plays and, I assure you, you will find stories that are more rich, colorful, daring, and entertaining than ninety-nine percent of anything else you could pull of the shelves.
Start with: Macbeth, 1606
Then try: Othello, 1603
4) Thomas Pynchon
He’s one of the most divisive writers in the history of literature, truly love-him-or-hate-him. Check out Amazon’s reviews if you don’t believe me. The vehement dismissal is understandable. Pynchon is discursive, difficult, vague, and he breaks every rule you learn in Writing 101. And yet, I absolute love him. Like Philip K. Dick, Pynchon broke through with the emergence of the counterculture due, in large part, to his liberal depictions of recreational drug use and his embrace of the intrinsic incomprehensibility of the world around us. But Pynchon takes it a step further and frees the writer – and reader – with adherence to a deceptively simple maxim: in a world where the rules are unknowable, maybe there are no rules.
Start with: Gravity’s Rainbow, 1973
Then try: Mason & Dixon, 1997
3) Alan Moore
Try reading Alan Moore, a man committed to practicing the craft and realizing the magic of sequential art, and tell me he is not every bit complex, intellectual, and entertaining as any novelist you could read. Like a mad seamstress he weaves together seemingly unrelated threads of both narrative and theme until you are looking at a tapestry, one that is immediately pleasing but requires distance and deep thought before it can be fully appreciated. Possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of a wide array of interests that have nothing to do with costumed crime-fighting, Alan Moore uses the comics medium as the perfect vehicle to tell any story his frighteningly fertile imagination can conjure.
Start with: Batman – The Killing Joke, 1988
Then try: Watchmen, 1987
2) Isaac Asimov
The depth and breadth of Asimov’s interests and respective acumen is staggering. He is the only writer to have at least one book represented in, save one, each section of the Dewey Decimal System. Whether writing his iconic science fiction, hard science, or history, Asimov wrote in a clear and simple voice that sucks you in and makes even the most esoteric minutiae palatable to any reader. All that minutiae makes the worlds he brings to life, be they hundreds of years in the past or many millennia in the future, completely believable and totally absorbing. He was an honest-to-science genius who never lost sight of the joy of learning, a joy he never neglected to instill in his readers.
Start with: I, Robot, 1950
Then try; The Caves of Steel, 1951
1) Kurt Vonnegut
I don’t know how to start explaining why Kurt Vonnegut is the greatest. His writing is so simple and straightforward, he makes it look too easy. Which, of course, means it’s deceptively difficult to pull off. And he pulled it off in masterpiece after masterpiece. I consider even his less celebrated novels, like Slapstick and Galapagos, to be masterpieces. Vonnegut was heartbreaking, funny, whimsical, suspenseful, and silly; and you never knew which side he was going to show with each turn of the page. But it was his empathy with people and his understanding of the slings and arrows of an average life that keeps him resonant with each successive generation of readers. Read him when you’re feeling down. You’ll feel he wrote the book only for you. Kurt Vonnegut once said that he considered Mark Twain to be “an American saint.” I would say the same of Kurt Vonnegut.
Start with: Slaughterhouse-Five, 1969
Then try: Deadeye Dick, 1982