Playing Favorites

In the previous post, Jackie Stodnick stated that the most common question she’s asked is how she ended up working on what she works on. I’m rarely asked this question — probably because I work on American literature — and I’m American — and women’s writing — and I’m a woman. I think people presume that my identity perfectly explains my area of expertise — and there may be some truth to that.

Instead, the question I am more likely to be asked is, “Who is your favorite writer?”

This is a perplexing question and, I think most literary scholars or avid readers would agree, unanswerable. To use a food analogy: Being asked to choose one favorite writer is like being asked to pick one kind of food that you will eat at every meal and enjoy equally under any circumstance. What food could possibly satisfy those criteria? Even something as delectable as hot-out-of-the-oven chocolate chip cookies — which are great under most circumstances — would become revolting if that is all you ever ate. Even something hearty and good-for-you like oatmeal — which I dutifully eat for breakfast every day — would not be satisfying as lunch and dinner. So too with literature: one needs a well-rounded diet with some vitamin-rich, intellectually stimulating fare, as well as some fun, sugary treats thrown in.

I have favorite authors and works in several categories:

FAVORITES TO TEACH: There are numerous works that I love to teach that are not necessarily works I would pick up and read for personal enjoyment. For example, I love teaching Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative. In fact, I’ve never met an American literature prof who didn’t enjoy teaching Rowlandson because her account of her captivity by Indians is so fascinating and rich, and enables the kinds of discussions about gender, race, religion, colonization, and self-construction that we teachers want our students to have. But, I can say I thoroughly enjoy teaching Rowlandson while simultaneously acknowledging that her prose is challenging and often dry, that I would never carry a copy of her narrative to the beach with me, and that I profoundly disagree with many of her value-laden conclusions about her experiences. Is she still a favorite? Absolutely.

FAVORITES TO WRITE ABOUT: There are works of literature that I write about and read scholarship on that, again, would not constitute pleasure reading for me. For example, I’ve written before about my current passion for the eighteenth-century American novelist Susanna Rowson. I’ve spent the past few years working on Rowson, reading a large number of her works, and the more I learn about her, the more fascinating and significant she seems to me. In this case, there is some overlap with the previous category, because I also love teaching Rowson — as many of my students can attest. But, there are other writers that I have published on (or will publish on) who I have never taught and probably will never teach — but they still constitute “favorite” topics for rumination and reflection.

FAVORITES TO READ FOR PLEASURE: Yes, I prefer some authors and books but, even here I would find it almost impossible to pick one — or even to pick one category. I read contemporary fiction, young adult fiction, sci-fi/fantasy novels, mysteries, graphic novels and comic books, blogs and online publications, and even some poetry. I enjoy all these genres for different reasons at different times — so “favorites” just doesn’t work for me.

Sometimes the “favorite writer” question is posed in the form of the desert island scenario: “If you were stranded on a desert island and could only take one book, what would it be?” This question conjures up terror in my heart — not just because I would be alone and likely starving to death on a desert island — but because of the prospect of ONLY ONE BOOK. All I can say is: I hope it would be long and complex, to keep me occupied as I waited for help to arrive.

How do you answer the “favorite author” question?

6 thoughts on “Playing Favorites

  1. I’m like a serial monogamist when it comes to favourite authors. I find one, read all of their books, and then move on. If they’re still alive, I will patiently wait for them to publish something else. Sometimes they annoyingly go and die on you while you are waiting.
    Some of my past favorite authors: Agatha Christie, John Wyndham, John Fowles, AS Byatt.
    Some of my all time favorite books: Donna Tartt’s _Secret History_, AS Byatt’s _Possession_, Ian McEwan’s _Atonement_ (I just want to say I read it long before anyone had heard of the film).
    Current favorite author: Kate Atkinson (you should try out her books if you don’t already know of them)

  2. Neil Gaiman. Maybe.

    And that’s cheating because I haven’t read everything he’s written.

  3. I like your take on “favorites for…” It’s true. I do not want to read gender theory while I’m camping, necessarily. And, like Jackie, I stalk. Mostly Erdrich and Atwood (my Sophia was going to be named Fleur).
    I love teaching and writing about all of my “forgotten” mid-century authors and those less forgotten ones. But, at least half of the authors are not so aesthetically pleasing that I would want to take them to the beach. Or to the library, for that matter.
    Favorites books to read and write about (besides those mentioned) are Ayn Rand’s works (don’t banish me…Dagny is impressive if flawed, Rachel Maddux’s Green Kingdom (one of the most beautiful works I’ve read by an author who has somehow been forgotten), and Elizabeth Stoddard’s The Morgesons. Lately, I’ve found real jewels from Goodreads by via Christie and Tim, among others. (Currently not sleeping because of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo).

  4. I am fixing to find out if I love teaching Rowson, too 🙂

    I am not sure I write about enough authors with any consistency to enjoy writing about them. I am beginning to realize that I teach certain books with insistence, including The Maltese Falcon and Eric Rolfe Greenberg’s novel The Celebrant, which I have used in many different courses. I think if I teach a “monster” 2329 next year, both of those novels may appear, because they say so much about “America.”

    As to favorite authors to read, well, at the moment, it’s Andrea Camilleri, and also Georges Simenon, for a long time now. “There comes a time in a man’s life when he reads only detective novels,” said Heywood Broun.

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