Over the years, I’ve been embarrassed about my top ten favorite books, particularly the top five. The list changes every few years at the discovery of a new author or a favorite book, but my top five are pretty cemented: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, William Faulkner, and Brian Jacques. Sometimes, a different writer will edge out poor Jacques, but if I’m being honest, his books had as big of an influence on me as Tolkien’s work. Faulkner didn’t join the list until I took an undergraduate seminar were I read eight of his first and second tier books—hard not to fall in love with an author after studying his work so intently.
In undergrad, this list embarrassed me because none of these writers, sans Faulkner, were regarded as “literary” or “excellent” or truly “worth studying,” so I would mutter through them when somebody asked. Come junior year, I had a tattoo of Tolkien’s hand-drawn Gates of Moria so I couldn’t feel ashamed any longer, and grew proud of my fantasy influences, regardless of what people thought, name dropping them in my graduate school applications. If the Ivory Tower didn’t want me because I didn’t like Donna Tart, forget ’em.
Senior year of undergrad, a new worry crept on me, and I haven’t been able to shake it since then. Now in my second year of a three year MFA program, my favorite authors are all men, all straight (as far as scholars know), and all white. Sure, if I zoom out to my top ten, the next five are more diverse: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, Kelly Link, and Virginia Woolf. Many of these are new additions. I didn’t read Le Guin or Butler until 2015. I listened to Hamilton for the first time in 2015, too. Kelly Link I’d started reading as a teenager, but only added her to the list when I realized I couldn’t shake her haunting stories in Pretty Monsters and, later, Get in Trouble.
As a feminist and ally, my first five trouble me. As a writer, I worry if the influence of five men, all dead except Neil Gaiman, have left the cracks of another time period, another viewpoint, in what I hope to share with my writing. But if I’m honest, when I need a comfort book or need to be grounded in my writing, those are the authors I pull off the shelf.
In reaction to my fave five, I’ve taken months, even years, where I avoid certain books, focusing instead on women writers, writers of color, or, for 2017, books from LGBTQ+ writers. Maybe I’m simply being self-conscious and should just embrace being a “bad feminist,” as Roxane Gay would put it. Maybe it’s just a vortex of the time period—the authors on my childhood fantasy shelf were men. The books we studied in my tiny liberal arts college were written by the classic male figures. My writing professors were, and still are, men—all feminists and allies on some level, but not actively handing me women, PoC, or LGBTQ+ writers.
In 2017, perhaps the best I can do is learn from new favorites in these writing communities and make sure other people know and have access to these writers, too.