Writers who shaped the consciousnesses, and influenced the styles, of Scholars and Rogues.
As a reader of mostly non-fiction, with its division by subject rather than author, this is kind of a tough one for me. It forces me pretty far back, and hence sounds cliched to me…but here goes.
Conrad and Dostoevsky for their examination of the dark recess of the human psyche. Dickens for teaching me that it’s okay to laugh at starving orphans. Melville (Billy Budd) and Conrad (Heart of Darkness) have always impressed me enough to reread and reread for the admirable ability to get whole novels into very short works. I’ve been through Billy Budd looking up and writing down every word that I couldn’t define and would probably have to look words up if I read it again tomorrow; that impresses me. Moby Dick needed an editor.
Joseph Campbell has probably influenced me the most. A good part of that is the subject matter on which he wrote: myth and religion. But if I could be someone, it would be the type who thought, “I should read War and Peace, but I’m sure the translation doesn’t do it justice. I’ll learn Russian in order to read War and Peace.” Campbell was the kind of man who actually carried out that sort of threat. It gave his writing a depth that I admire and would love to possess. He could tell a story. But more than anything it was his style of comparing, rather than contrasting. He was one who could see and explain connections amid apparent disparity. And as the man who gave Star Wars its structure I kind of owe him at least part of my childhood.
In 12th grade I took Ron Quick’s AP English course at Livonia Stevenson High School. The pastel shirts, striped Yves Saint Laurent ties, and his love for Danielle Steele novels were apt to make you underestimate him. He was an English language slave driver. He taught me to write, and he expected first drafts with no mistakes. He was a big fan of William Zinsser (author of On Writing Well). He gave us an assignment that entailed reading X number of pieces by a journalist of our choosing. I bitched and moaned about it at home because I wanted Literature.
My stepfather handed me a copy of The Great Shark Hunt, Vol. 1 and it was all over. Hunter had me from the first incoherently perfect paragraph. Here was someone who broke every rule of writing that I’d been taught, and it came out sounding like it was how writing was supposed to sound. Not many people can write like they talk; or maybe it’s talk like they write. When I’m at my best it’s because I can almost hear Hunter slurring, “go on, just fucking say it…quit being a pussy and let it roll.” Quick’s on the other shoulder, but Hunter’s cooler.
I first read Harold Pinter early in my playwriting career as one of about a dozen diverse playwrights I really studied closely. As someone with a radio background, I had an ear that was particularly attuned to voices and rhythms, and so Pinter strongly resonated with me because he was SO intentional about the rhythms in his writing: the rhythms of dialogue, rhythms between characters, rhythms in scenes, and the overall rhythm of a play.
But the more I read his work, the more I found things that translated beyond playwriting to other genres, as well (certainly rhythm is something that all writers should be conscious of). He taught me a lot about subtext, about what’s NOT said, about why people don’t say the things they want/need to. He wrote a lot about the fallibility of memory, which is something I’ve become really interested in, particularly from an historical angle.
Much of his work is hard to fathom but it’s thought-provoking and challenging — and much of it is political, too. He’s definitely a writer worth reading if you’ve never had the chance. The Birthday Party and The Dumb Waiter are probably considered his best-known works, but I would suggest starting with Betrayal, Old Times, or The Hothouse.