It’s great being popular, no matter how the hip and niche rail against the notion. Jaded alternative comedians surely crave the big belly laughs sometimes, and I imagine that those at the more literary end of the literature spectrum would happily swap thousands upon thousands of their worthy words to write just one true page turner. Ira Levin wrote many: Rosemary’s Baby (1967), The Stepford Wives (1972), The Boys from Brazil (1976). And while those pages might tackle every subtext across gender, politics and religion, Levin never forgot that they must continue to turn, at pace. This is an absolute skill, a natural talent.
Use any figurative speech you want – his boiled-down plots are rendered of fat, streamlined and sharp as a tack. They connected to a recognisable, everyday America while others still sought horror in haunted houses and the castles of far-off lands – take his Antichrist in Manhattan, Midwest Nazis and sinister small-town amateur robotics. Levin’s debut, A Kiss Before Dying (1953), is the most delicious of the lot, with a plot twist seemingly more suited for the screen but here expertly handled in black-and-white print.
My literary hero is one who wrote words to be enjoyed and savoured; sharp and sleek plots which were still only the tip of the iceberg. Thrills are what we want in life, and Levin controlled them with a nod, a wink and the swish of a pen. [Alan Bett]
The first novel I read by César Aira, the Argentinian writer dubbed by the New York Review of Books as ‘the author who can’t be stopped’ for his publishing rate, was Ghosts (1990). It’s a mocking takedown of the Argentinian bourgeois, in which ghosts haunt a desirable, partially constructed apartment block, and is interrupted midway by a long treatise on perception. The Literary Conference (2006) manages to explore – not exclusively – lost treasures, a literary conference, a school play and Aira’s insecurities as an author. Meanwhile, An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) combines long descriptions of the Argentinian pampas, reflections on art and scenes of bloody disfigurement.
Each of Aira’s novels has proved equally weird, digressive, and inexplicable; each has showed Aira to be one of the most consistently interesting authors writing now. His guiding authorial principles – no editing, no planning and no explanation – seem to be working out pretty well. [Abby Kearney]
She has been posthumously psychoanalysed, politicised and iconised, but it took me until I was 27 before I finally turned the first page of The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. Since then, I have gone on to read everything she has written. Plath-land is both enchantingly bleak and sincerely hopeful at the same time and for that reason, it has the capacity to draw readers into her world freakishly quickly. Her poetry has been likened to disembowelled nursery rhymes and her novella is written in a succession of incredibly refined impressions. She is wordy, morbid and clever as hell.
‘And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.’ – Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
Part of the allure is the confessional nature of her writing. Plath unashamedly uses literature to explore and fathom her personal struggles, plumbing her questions deeply, complexly, yet also very directly. Her private life was famously troubled and to face her demons through her writing must have been a great challenge. At times, she seems to be talking to herself, testing her own nerve and pushing her own limits but she continues to write against the odds, and for the art's sake. I love Plath twice over: first for her work, and then for her great personal courage. [Emma Nuttall]
Reading Angela Carter is a hypnotic experience; her work stages hyper-pitched set pieces that play out in startling and odd ways. Literary allusions to writers like Carroll, Ibsen and Poe are sometimes deafeningly loud (at times, you can think of 50 writers who have fed into a single chapter of her work), but never work against her; she uses these echoes to imbue her writing, rather than drown or overshadow it.
To hitch onto the fairy tale, dream-like theme that she oft returns to, Carter is a poisonous apple of a writer. She takes all the things that you expect from her – masks, red rooms and forests – and explores them in ways that disrupt the reader’s preconceptions. Red herrings and plot duplicates serve to distract and disturb you in equal measure. She seamlessly fondles unconscious fears and desires at the same time. Commentary on gender, class and the violent conflicts of everyday life are worked through in the recesses of your brain, while your imagination is busy processing difficult scenes about incest and necrophilia. The politics aren’t handled with the heft of a sledge hammer, and you (thankfully) won’t find any hint of a cautionary tale.
I’d offer up The Bloody Chamber (1979), a rewriting of cultural legends and tales, as a relatively short, jolting introduction to her work and then hastily move onto Nights at the Circus (1984) – a gem of a book. [Holly Rimmer-Tagoe]
Sylvia Townsend Warner
She's observant, subversive, and wickedly funny. Her short stories are sharp and strange; her novels instantly appealing. She wrote in the time of Eliot, Joyce and Woolf, when the big dicks of modernism were really going at it. But while they were busy making a new literary canon about the fragmentation of modern life, Sylvia Townsend Warner set about describing a very different type of modern living.
Lolly Willowes (1926) is the first book I recommend to people – with universal success (so far). Lolly is a young woman with a small allowance living with her brother and sister in law in London. No one knows what on earth she's to do with herself, being unmarried and rather plain. She doesn't know, either – then she has an epiphany in a particularly sumptuous greengrocer’s, which leads her to Great Mop. It's a sort of off-kilter rural idyll, full of witches and wizards – and she has an excellent time.
And unlike so many books about quietly defiant women, this one doesn't marry her off to a man. Lolly takes care of herself, and reaches a sort of contentment that’s usually reserved for heterosexual couples. There’s something heroic in that. [Galen O’ Hanlon]