This article was originally published in April 2020.
A writer introduces his three go-to reads – short stories by JD Salinger and Denis Johnson, and a volume of essays and reviews by Martin Amis
For almost every author, writing ﬁction is not a commercial proposition. There are a few, household names, who make a good living, but every other novelist can only dream of swapping his or her daily scrabble for the spacious workdays of the big-name brands. Even for authors you know quite well, it is largely a labour of love: self-imposed stress feeding the publishing maw, pay per hour below the minimum wage, the number of copies needing to be sold to pay for a pint barely worth thinking about.
I live in Bristol and combine writing ﬁction with working as an editor in London three days a week. Reading novels shortens long journeys. I go through about 60 a year, which is probably more than the average commuter but less than the average novelist; this includes slack periods when my own writing reaches a critical stage. There are times in London therefore when I’m not reading a novel or I ﬁnish a book earlier than expected and ﬁnd myself with nothing to read at bedtime. I keep three books beside my bed for such moments, and as the editor of the Property Chronicle asked me to write about “any book”, I thought these were the place to start.
They are: Nine Stories by JD Salinger, published in the UK as For Esmé, with Love and Squalor; Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson; and The War Against Cliché by Martin Amis. None are novels, though all are by novelists. Nine Stories opens with ‘A Perfect Day for Bananaﬁsh’, published in the New Yorker in, I think, 1948 but which reads as if it had been written yesterday. Those who only know Salinger through the genre-creating The Catcher in the Rye will recognise the precociousness of Holden Caulﬁeld in the brittle protagonist of ‘Bananaﬁsh’, Seymour Glass, a regular in Salinger short stories. His name – ‘see more glass’ – hints at a transparency the talented but troubled war veteran cannot achieve.