You can’t write without reading. Says, well, pretty much everyone.
It’s something that I’ve fallen off the wagon with over the past few years. As I’ve been developing a career in lifestyle, travel, and health writing, my consumption of non-fiction content has increased dramatically. However, I never intended to turn my back on fiction, writing or reading, and this year, I’m refocusing my efforts on this part of my writing life.
With a lot of time to think about what I’m reading over the past month (hello, lockdown) and a lot more time to dedicate to it, I decided to select books more intentionally. If I’m not reading as much as I used to, then the books I’m reading should offer greater impact, right?
This is a reading list of some of the biggest literature winners of the last decade, from Nobel Laureates to recipients of the Man Booker Prize. While I have a soft spot for old literature, the importance of reading contemporary work can’t be overstated (especially if you are, after all, an aspiring contemporary writer yourself). These writers have creatively approached old subjects, defined and redefined their genres, and broken boundaries: I dare you not to be inspired by their works.
The Collected Short Stories of Lydia Davis
The 2013 Winner of the International Booker Prizer, Lydia Davis is an American short story writer renowned for her ultra-short stories with a poetic prose format. Her style is uniquely clipped, often in a first-person stream-of-consciousness format that immerses you in a vivid recounting of the every-day.
The Vegetarian, by Han Keng (translated by Deborah Smith)
Winner of The Man Booker International Prize in 2016, I’ve been told repeatedly by friends to read this book by South Korean author Han Keng. It’s described by Ian McEwan as, “A novel of sexuality and madness that deserves its great success,” and the first line had me hooked. It’s a short one (I finished this one in around five hours), but impossible to stop thinking about.
Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo
A self-described experimental novel which Obama called one of his favourite books of 2019, this book won The Booker Prize in 2019. It follows 12 different characters, predominantly black British women, as it explores an often-overlooked side of British history.
Milkman, by Anna Burns
You’ve probably seen this one around bookstores: it’s received a lot of attention in the past year. It won the Man Booker Prize in 2018, the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction in 2019, was shortlisted for The Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 and Fiction Book of the Year at the British Book Awards, and was Book of the Year for the Guardian, Irish Times, and Financial Times, to name a few.
Flights, by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft)
Winner of the Man Booker International Prize in 2018, Flights was the first novel by a Polish author to win the award, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature the same year (although officially awarded in 2019). It’s a story about travel, telling the overlapping narratives of those who have moved, migrated and traversed the globe over the centuries.
Less, by Andrews Sean Greer
This satirical comedy was the winner of the 2018 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction and tells the story of a failed novelist running away from the problems in his life. A New York Times Bestseller, it’s a romantic comedy with a gay protagonist, which I’m hoping means a spin on tired tropes.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize For Fiction and shortlisted for the Man Booker Prizer 2018 (missing out to Milkman), this book blends the tales of nine characters with the stories of trees. It’s a commentary on how humans interact with the natural world, which feels even more urgent as the climate crisis intensifies. Margaret Atwood said, “It’s not possible for Powers to write an interesting book,” which is some pretty solid praise.
The Sellout, by Paul Beatty
Another satire (I have a bit of a soft spot for this oft-overlooked genre), The Sellout was the winner of the 2016 Booker Prize. The Guardian described it as, “The most lacerating American satire in years,” taking aim at stereotypes and anxieties about race in the States.
Grand Union, by Zadie Smith
I still remember when Smith’s debut novel, White Teeth, came out in 2000 — the hype around it was insane, both for the political content of the story and the fact that the author was just 21 when she wrote it. Smith has shown herself as a talented writer and storyteller again and again, with multiple award-winning novels under her belt, and the short story collection Grand Union was shortlisted for The Story Prize 2020. I’ve been meaning to read her work for years, so I’m starting with this most recent work.
Middle England, by Jonathon Coe
I first read Coe’s work back in 2014 while studying contemporary English literature. It was around this time I was getting a taste for satirical writing, and What a Carve Up! was probably the first satirical novel I enjoyed without resistance. Winning the 2019 Costa Book Awards, I’m looking forward to diving into Middle England with a bit of satirical social commentary about Brexit and the atmosphere that allowed it to happen.
Gingerbread, by Helen Oyeyemi
I was first introduced to award-winning Oyeyemi’s work with Boy, Snow, Bird, and love the way she plays with magical realism and weaves fairytale narratives into her stories. Her stories aren’t simply fairytale retellings but look at the way that folklore and mythology frame our lives, and this mother-daughter relationship explored through the framework of Hansel and Gretel is described as a ‘mind-bending’ read.
The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood
This was the first book I read this year, and I devoured it in just three days. A brilliant follow-up to The Handmaid’s Tale, which everyone thought a sequel to was impossible; Atwood proved, 35 years after the first book, that some stories have staying power and that sequels don’t always have to continue a story in the way you expect them to.