Original Ideas: Reward System by Jem Calder


Here is a list of the books that inspired me the most in the preparation and throughout the writing of my own book, reward system, a collection of interrelated short stories. Each of these books served as a guide for me to complete my debut. Some of them provided stylistic and structural inspiration for my work, others just kind of mystical nudge in the right direction.

Middle-walk by George Eliot

Everyone always says Middlemarch is so great and it turns out they’re right. It seems simplistic to compliment George Eliot on anything technical, his writing is so incredibly transcendent. For me, the density of his prose, his formal maximalism, is the most exciting thing. Reading the details of everyday life in large print is great fun, and it’s good to remember that such intricate writing can be so enjoyable.

Live Blog by Megan Boyle

Liveblog is a Middlemarch-sized account of Megan Boyle’s descent into drug addiction hell, cut and pasted directly from her online diary entries. If anyone else had tried to pull it off, it wouldn’t have worked, but Boyle’s book is funny, sad, and often beautiful. She deals with her own experience minute by minute with a rigor and attention to detail that is as anxiety-provoking as it is fun. Liveblog is electric and Boyle is one of my favorite writers of all time.

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

I was relatively late for Richard Yates, having been put off by the soapy-looking, Oscar-winning 2008 film adaptation of Revolutionary Road. I was wrong to have avoided him for so long; his work is almost entirely masterpieces. One masterpiece that trumps the rest, however, is The Easter Parade, a short book that chronicles the lives of two sisters in mid-century America. In particular, Yates’ depiction of the chaotic passage of time (the years go by faster and faster; people move in and out of your life rapidly) was something I tried to emulate in my work.

The beggar maid by Alice Munro

The definitive storybook. No Alice Munro book really seems “better” than another to me, but The Beggar Maid was on my mind a lot as I tried to figure out how intertwined my stories were. The semi-lengthy approach is something rare for Munro, who only occasionally has repeated characters in the understated realities of his other collections. Reading The beggar maid, however, you wouldn’t guess; the way her characters naturally resonate and reappear throughout her larger narrative, one would assume she wrote that way her entire career.

Chronicles of Mrs. Hempel by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

Another genre of novel told in genres of stories. These “chronicles” follow Mrs. Hempel, a young teacher who is starting her career. What I appreciate the most in Sarah Shun-lien Bynum’s writing is her flexibility; his descriptions are full of levity and his dialogue is full of jokes. She understands that a big part of good writing is charm.

The corrections by Jonathan Franzen

I can trace my interest in fiction back to the long weekend I spent reading The Corrections in my teenage bedroom. Very few books I’ve read since that one have captured my imagination with the same intensity. The best thing about The Corrections is that it’s basically five separate short stories (limited by two shorter chapters), which means it has that nice feel of episodic family drama Hannah and her sisters – each character main gets its own dedicated narrative thread. Much lighter on his feet and funnier, I think, than his reputation suggests.

oval by Elvia Wilk

The kind of book that creeps up on you; I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed until I was almost done. Elvia Wilk takes some big, weird swings in this novel and we should all be glad she did; Oval feels free and unconstrained in a way few contemporary novels do. The lesson here, I think, is to follow your writing where it wants to go.

Hello by Crispin Best

Certain lines of Crispin Best’s poetry have been stuck in my head for over a decade. ‘when i’m alive / i’m the first person to use sarcasm / everyone’s so confused / did i enjoy the rice pudding or not’. Like highly optimized technology, its writing attacks the most defenseless part of your brain. I continue to be greatly inspired by his work.

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