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From Kerouac To Rand, 'Harmful' Reads For Writers

Kilian calls Jack Kerouac's <em>On the Road </em>one of the 20th-century novels that has "done more harm than good to apprentice writers."
Alan Levine
Kilian calls Jack Kerouac's On the Road one of the 20th-century novels that has "done more harm than good to apprentice writers."

Columnist Crawford Kilian advises aspiring writers to avoid Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and eight other well-known novels.

But Kilian isn't saying they're bad novels — quite the opposite, actually. In a piece for the Canadian online daily The Tyee, Kilian writes, "their readable styles look so easy that they might seduce a young writer into imitating them."

Kilian tells NPR's John Donvan that he composed his list based on personal experience.

"As a teenager in the '50s, I read those books," he says. Take, for example, J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye. "It took me awhile to recover from [its] seductive influence ... because it meant I could essentially be a stenographer for my own teenaged whining."

And even Salinger couldn't take that theme beyond one book. "Salinger never followed up with anything remotely like it himself," says Kilian. "[So] why should we think that yet another teenaged kvetcher is really what the reading public is yearning for?"

Interview Highlights

On Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged

"It was a powerful book for a lot of young people, especially young Americans and some Canadians as well, simply because it seemed to be so confident of itself and its radical point of view. And an impressionable kid could read that and think, 'Oh, so that's the way the world really works. Well, now I know something, and I'm smarter than my folks and all the dummies around me who think that they should take care of each other.' And we have spent half a century dealing with the consequences of that."

On the right way to let great books inform your writing

"What you need to do is bear in mind that you are entering a conversation with everybody you have ever read when you start writing. And you don't want to simply say 'ditto, ditto, ditto' to the authors that you're conversing with. What you want to do is to say, 'That's a very interesting point you made. Now let me take it a little further and show you what could also be done in this regard.' ...

"There's a lot of great writing being done in translation from other languages. One of the authors I say you can't imitate but you can still learn from is Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude is one of the most astounding books of the century. ...

"These writers are telling you, in effect, don't worry about the choice of words, or the plot or the kind of characters we're using. Think about, for example, writing a century-long history of a family and what kind of family would it be if it grew up in Schenectady instead of Macondo, Colombia. You know, play games with what you've learned from the writers you love, and see what — they're not the last word. It's interesting gateways to somewhere else."

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