I want to tell you something about myself, something that will come as a surprise: I am a huge nerd. Last year, when I bought new bookshelves, I got to revel in the glory of the opportunity to properly alphabetise my entire personal library (so much fun!). Then, I bought more bookshelves, and got to do it all over again (even more fun!) It inspired me to put together a list of classic books for every letter of the alphabet.
Since then, my alphabetising fingers have been getting itchy… then I came across this series from the inimitable Simon over at Stuck In A Book: his thoughts on an author for every letter of the alphabet. I thought I might shamelessly steal that idea for a single post, and try to put together a list of must-read authors for every letter of the alphabet. Can I do it? Even for X? You’re about to find out!
A: Jane Austen
You’re not surprised, right? I mean, if we’re talking must-read authors in my Anglophone corner of the world, and you’re going alphabetical, you’ve got to start with Austen. Despite her surprisingly small oeuvre (only six completed novels, a handful of stories and an incomplete manuscript), she has influenced English literature more than any other Regency author. Read my full reviews of Pride And Prejudice here, Sanditon here, Northanger Abbey here, and Emma here.
B: The Brontës
Yes, this is a bit of a cop-out, but I couldn’t possibly narrow it down to just one! The Brontës were the most talented literary family of the Victorian era. Their novels – originally published under androgynous pseudonyms – were proto-feminist women-centred works of art that blazed the trail for female writers who came after them (let’s just forget about the Brontë brother, Branwell, who preferred drinking and dirty dancing to poetry and prose). Read my full reviews of Wuthering Heights here, The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall here, and Jane Eyre here.
C: Truman Capote
Look, Truman Capote was hardly a stand-up guy. He was pretty liberal with the ol’ creative license. He loved blowing his own horn. He barely hesitated to sell out his best friends when his career needed a boost with a salacious tell-all. And yet, be damned if he wasn’t an incredible writer. He revolutionised the true crime genre, steering it away from sparse journalistic re-tellings and using the conventions of fiction to weave a compelling story for the reader. Everything he wrote was carefully considered and expertly crafted. Read my full review of In Cold Blood here.
Honourable mentions: Maxine Beneba Clarke
D: Charles Dickens
It’s all too easy to forget that the serialised novel was the primary medium of family entertainment back in the Victorian era. Authors like Charles Dickens were paid by the word so they tended to stretch things out, which means they’ve gained an unfair reputation for being bloated and dull. In fact, Dickens worked incredibly hard to keep his stories interesting and entertaining, to keep his circulation numbers up and keep the cheques coming. Love romance? Dickens has you covered. Military history? Same. Adventure? Crime? Character study? There’s something for everyone in his catalogue, I swear it. Read my full reviews of David Copperfield here and Great Expectations here.
E: Bernadine Evaristo
Bernadine Evaristo shot to international fame last year when she was awarded the Booker Prize for her novel Girl, Woman, Other… in tandem with Margaret Atwood for her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. It was a controversial decision, and it ate up plenty of space in the Opinion and Arts pages, which was warranted but also a bit of a shame. The scandal has overshadowed Evaristo’s many other works and achievements: being the first black British writer to assume the No. 1 spot on the UK fiction paperback chart, for instance, not to mention her previous eight novels and novellas. Read my full review of Girl, Woman, Other here.
Honourable mentions: Nora Ephron, Jennifer Egan, and Jeffrey Eugenides
F: Elena Ferrante
Oh, Elena Ferrante. I think I could write a book about how much I love Elena Ferrante (and I’m not the only one). It’s not just the mystique – she’s the world’s best-known living pseudonymous author – that appeals. Her writing is lyrical, but never overwrought, and translated beautifully into English by the inimitable Ann Goldstein. You should, of course, begin with her Neapolitan Quartet, her series of novels following the lives of Lena and Lila, two girls who grew up together in mid-20th century Naples with all the violence, poverty, and oppression that entailed. Read my full review of My Brilliant Friend (Book One) here, and The Story Of A New Name (Book Two) here.
Honourable mentions: Karen Joy Fowler
G: Helen Garner
Helen Garner is basically the Madonna of the Australian literary scene. She’s had her ups and downs, she’s come in and out of fashion, but she reinvents herself so constantly and completely that it’s impossible for anyone of any age or inclination not to respect her and her work. She’s written everything – from essay collections to thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction to true crime – and her craft is second to none. I’m yet to encounter a work of Garner’s that I haven’t enthusiastically devoured, and immediately flagged to re-read.
H: Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway can be a bit hit-and-miss. Case in point: I fell in love with his short story, Hills Like White Elephants, in an undergrad English Lit unit, but I was exhausted and bored by The Sun Also Rises. He never actually wrote the six-word short story for which he’s well-known (“Baby Shoes”, you know the one), but I’ve heard The Old Man And The Sea is one of the finest pieces of literature ever written. It would seem that different Hemingways appeal to different readers: the only way to find yours is to give his books and stories a go for yourself. Read my full review of The Sun Also Rises here.
Honourable mentions: Chloe Hooper
I: Kazuo Ishiguro
The man won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. He’s got an OBE. And a knighthood. Just about everything he’s ever written has been shortlisted (or won!) for a major literary prize. What more do you need? Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated and lauded English-language authors in the world – he’s a must-read if for no other reason than simple curiosity. The good news is, as far as I’m concerned, his books totally hold up. They’re slightly strange, but not too off-the-wall. They’re sparse, but not underdone. Read my full review of An Artist Of The Floating World here.
J: Jonas Jonasson
I’ve always said it’s such a shame that the Scandinavians are so well-known for their gritty crime noir, when they’ve got brilliant comic novelists like Jonas Jonasson. From humble beginnings as a Swedish blogger, Jonasson has gone on to hit international best-seller lists with his delightful novels about unlikely heroes. His writing is guaranteed to tickle your funny bone and warm your cockles, all at once. Read my full review of The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared here.
Honourable mentions: Tayari Jones
K: Stephen King
Stephen King has published over sixty books, and combined they’ve sold some 350 million copies around the world. While he tends towards the darker side – horror, thriller, the supernatural – he still has plenty of options for readers who are, shall we say… a bit chicken (myself included!). Still, he’s called the “King Of Horror” (yes, a pun on his name) for very good reason. If you’ve got the stomach for it, you should definitely check him out at his gore-iest. Read my full review of Under The Dome here.
L: Anita Loos
Wondering who the heck Anita Loos is, and what she’s doing in an A-Z list of must-read authors? You’re probably not the only one. I certainly hadn’t heard of her before I read Gentlemen Prefer Blondes from the Keeping Up With The Penguins reading list (in fact, I wouldn’t have known Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was anything other than a Marilyn Munroe film). This, Keeper Upperers, is one of the great travesties of our time. Anita Loos was a brilliant comic screenwriter, the first salaried one in Hollywood, and she suffered from that awful chronic condition that affects so many successful women: loving an arsehole of a husband who sucked her dry and kept her in the shadows. Don’t let him win, folks. Don’t sleep on Anita Loos. Read my full review of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes here.
Honourable mentions: Melissa Lucashenko
M: Carmen Maria Machado
There’s no delight quite like that of discovering an author at the beginning of their very bright career. I first encountered Carmen Maria Machado at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, where she had been invited to speak after her debut book – a collection of short stories, notoriously difficult to sell – won her international acclaim. She has since also published an incredible memoir, In The Dream House, a true work of art that promises to revolutionise the genre of memoir and has already carved out a spot in the queer literary canon. I can’t wait to see what she writes next! Read my full review of Her Body And Other Parties here.
Honourable mentions: Ottessa Moshfegh, Herman Melville, and Toni Morrison
N: Vladimir Nabokov
I don’t know if it helps or harms Vladimir Nabokov’s reputation that his name has become synonymous with Lolita, a book written from the perspective of the pedophilic Humbert Humbert about his twisted obsession with his teenage stepdaughter. It’s stomach-churning subject matter, to be sure, but to write a book so fascinating, so captivating, about someone so abhorrent is surely a feat not many could manage. Add into the equation the fact that English was Nabokov’s second language, and yet he mastered it so completely as to write more lyrically and more beautifully than any of his Anglophone contemporaries… well, that’s just gob-smacking, isn’t it?
O: Susan Orlean
Susan Orlean won herself a new legion of fans when her drunk tweets made the headlines last month, giving those of us who have long loved her writing ample opportunity to say: told you so! She is perhaps best-known for her book of The Orchid Thief, based on a piece of investigative journalism into the case of (you guessed it) some stolen orchids. My personal favourite, however, is The Library Book – her surprisingly intimate, incredibly detailed, booklover-catnip exploration of the Los Angeles Central Library Fire of 1986. The point is, there’s something in Orlean’s oeuvre for everyone. Read my full review of The Library Book here.
Honourable mentions: Maggie O’Farrell
P: Sylvia Plath
I had a devil of a time tracking down a copy of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in my local secondhand bookstore haunts. It turns out, readers are still so enamored with her work that they’re unwilling to part with their copies. I suspected, prior to reading her work, that her enduring popularity was due to the mythology surrounding her life and death. She was depressed! Damaged! Beautiful! But it turns out her writing is just as beautiful as she was. Every time I pick up one of her books, I fight against the equal and competing urges to throw them across the room and hug them to my chest. Read my full review of The Bell Jar here.
Honourable mentions: Max Porter
Q: Daniel Quinn
It’s an over-used phrase, to be sure, but Daniel Quinn was surely ahead of his time. He was using fiction to explore environmentalism and the dangers of an anthropocentric worldview long before it was cool. Some of his ideas were controversial (if I understand correctly, international efforts to aid countries ravaged by famines made the famines… worse, somehow?), but he still managed to merge philosophy and fiction in a way that the average person (i.e., me) could understand. Plus, he coined a whole bunch of phrases that have slipped into common parlance in certain circles (see: the boiling frog, the Great Forgetting).
R: Sally Rooney
Ah, Sally Rooney: the millennial wunderkind. She’s been called everything from the voice of a generation to the 21st century’s answer to J.D. Salinger. All this despite having only two full-length books (Conversations With Friends, and Normal People) under her belt. And she’s just 29 years old. What have YOU done lately? The world is waiting with bated breath for the next great novel from the pen of its newest literary darling. I’m sure she’s up to the challenge. Read my full review of Normal People here.
Honourable mentions: Jean Rhys
S: David Sedaris
I’m a relatively recent convert to David Sedaris, but holy heck – he’s got me hook, line, and sinker. He is truly the master of humorous autobiographical writing, and can find the funny in even the most dire of life circumstances. (Take, for instance, his musings on his failed attempts to panic-buy at the onset of a global pandemic.) His secret sauce seems to be a unique combination of cutting insight – no one is spared – and equally powerful self-deprecation. I can’t think of anyone else who could insult someone in such a way that they laughed ’til they cried, and make fun of himself at the same time, in quite the way Sedaris can. Read my full reviews of Me Talk Pretty One Day here and Dress Your Family In Corduroy And Denim here.
T: Leo Tolstoy
I couldn’t put together a list of must-read authors without including one of the Russian masters. Leo Tolstoy has a reputation for being wordy and, look, it’s not undeserved. War And Peace comes in at about 587k words. Anna Karenina at 340k. (For reference: most books published today come in well under 100k.) And yet, his popularity endures. That’s because his novels contain some universal truths, some enduring sensibility that we can all relate to. Either that, or people just really like showing off.
Honourable mentions: Maria Tumarkin
U: Gabrielle Union
Okay, fine, maybe I’ve been swayed by my love of late-90s teen comedy movies (and U is a bear of a letter). Still, I stand by the inclusion of Gabrielle Union in an A-Z list of must-read authors. She has parlayed her early success playing teenagers in various competitive and romantic dilemmas into a career as an activist in women’s health and well-being. Her thesis is We’re Going To Need More Wine, a sentiment that was oddly prescient given that it was published long before the world fell to pieces. She has since expanded her creative efforts to include children’s books, focused on positive representations of non-traditional families.
V: Sarah Vaughn
Yes, we’re getting down to the tricky letters, but I’m going strong! V is for Vaughn, as in Sarah Vaughn – not the jazz singer, but the British novelist and journalist. She has parlayed her illustrious career writing for outlets like The Guardian into best-selling fiction that explores power, privilege, and politics. Even with a bunch of success notches already punched into her belt – including film and television rights, awards, and over twenty translations of her work – Vaughan is still going strong.
W: Alice Walker
Alice Walker is, without doubt, one of the greatest living American writers and feminists (or, as per the term she herself coined, “womanist”). Most of her best-known full length fiction was published in the ’70s and ’80s, but it continues to resonate – particularly in the age of #MeToo and #BLM – with its searing depictions of racism, sexism, violence and resilience. But she’s not just a wildly successful and brilliant novelist: her poetry, her short fiction, her journalism, and (most importantly) her activism are also ground-breaking and vital contributions to contemporary life. Read my full review of The Color Purple here.
Alright, I had to reach WAY back into the archives to find an X I could get behind… but I found one! Xenophon was an Athenian philosopher, and I inherited one of his books as a result of merging marital bookshelves. Turns out, my husband is onto something: a lot of what we know of Ancient Greece is derived from his histories, as well as that which we know of his mate Socrates. He was also kind enough to write in Attic Greek – the old-timey equivalent of plain language – which means his books were more accessible to his contemporaries, and they’ve been a boon for translators in the modern world.
Y: Hanya Yanagihara
You’d be forgiven for associating Hanya Yanagihara’s name only with her international best-seller and near-universally acclaimed novel, A Little Life. It has won (and broken) hearts for five years now, and it’s still going strong. But Yanagihara is a multi-talented gal; she’s also a travel writer, a magazine editor, and she wrote a previous novel (based on the real story of virologist Daniel Carleton Gajdusek) that is arguably just as worthy of attention. She is a unique and powerful voice in contemporary literature, beloved by critics and readers alike. Read my full review of A Little Life here.
Z: Markus Zusak
Markus Zusak’s young adult novel, The Book Thief, made the Second World War tangible for youngsters in a way that not many other contemporary writers have managed. Through his story of the young girl who steals books and learns to read (narrated by Death, into the bargain), he’s captured their heads and hearts and maybe – just maybe – taught the kids enough about the horrors of world conflict to make them inclined to stop history repeating itself. What’s extra-interesting is that the success of that novel led him to take a decade-long break from writing and publishing, a dry spell only recently broken with the rains of his new novel, Bridge Of Clay (an epic coming-of-age story). Read my full review of The Book Thief here.