Art of Fiction

Thomas H. Cook’s Book Bag: Must Reads on the Writing Life

The suspense writer Thomas H. Cook, whose new book The Crime of Julian Wells is out now, picks his favorite works about what it is to be an author.

On Becoming a NovelistBy John Gardner

I love a clarion call, so any writer who uncompromisingly declares that good suspense is about moral choices and consequences while bad suspense is about “just one damn thing after another,” has my ear. Gardner’s book—and voice—should not be forgotten.

Subway to SamarkandBy J.R. Humphreys

Let’s face it: only rarely is a “writing life” a moveable feast. For that reason, I found this lost jewel about a cancer-stricken one-shot novelist and creative-writing teacher in Manhattan splendidly uplifting, particularly its quietly triumphant but not at all bathetic ending.

A Box of MatchesBy Nicholson Baker

In my view, writing is first of all observation, and this small but deeply instructive book is devoted to the closest of observations, literally the space that can be illuminated by a single match. But be warned, the action here is mostly in the eyes of the beholder.

A Sport and a PastimeBy James Salter

The best books about writing are books that are well written, so what could be better than a passionate and sensual love story that is also a blueprint for how to pace and control a novel?

The PornographerBy John McGahern

Lastly, this book is a personal favorite in which a lowly hack writer confronts the big ideas of literature: love and death. The moral choices he ponders and the moral consequences he accepts would warm John Gardner’s heart. To read this resonant, beautifully written novel once is to remember it forever.