The New York Times published “Authors’ Authors” on 5 Dec. 1976. The piece “asked a number of authors, ranging from Vladimir Nabokov to John Dean, to tell us the three books they most enjoyed this year and to say, in a sentence or two, why.”
There’s of course something silly and even gossipy about such articles, which fall far from literary criticism, of course. But, simultaneously, these kinds not-really-lists are fun. I came across the article looking for something else, and ended up reading it all. There are plenty of my favorite authors as well as notable authors who contributed to the piece: Ishmael Reed, William H. Gass, Eudora Welty, Maurice Sendak, Henry Miller, Joan Didion, and loads more. What’s most interesting to me are the “new” books many books include—I mean books published in (or around) 1976. Some I’ve never heard of, others are classics (of one fashion or another) and many are long long forgotten.
John Cheever’s answer opens the list with an appropriate warning:
I’ve always thought the response to these questionnaires cranky and pretentious and associated them with the darkest hours of Sunday. I mention this only to make it clear that you are free to throw my reply away.
He selects the only book by John Updike I’ve retained, Picked-Up Pieces, cites Richard Condon’s The Manchurian Candidate as an airplane read, and reflects on Daniel Deronda:
It may be a reflection on George Eliot’s refinement or my grossness but my most vivid recollection of this estimable classic is a scene where Deronda enthusiastically seizes the oar of a wherry. It seemed the only robust gesture in the book.
(I had to look up the word wherry.)
Cheever’s pick Updike is on the list, providing a bit of satire on the whole business:
I also found some of Nabokov’s response amusing, although I don’t think it was his intention. He gives us “the three books I read during the three summer months of 1976 while hospitalized in Lausanne”: Dante’s Inferno (“in Singleton’s splendid translation”, The Butterflies of North America by William H. Howe (natch), and his own book, The Original of Laura. Nabokov describes it as
The not quite finished manuscript of a novel which I had begun writing and reworking before my illness and which was completed in my mind: I must have gone through it some 50 times and in my diurnal delirium kept reading it aloud to a small dream audience in a walled garden. My audience consisted of peacocks, pigeons, my long dead parents, two cypresses, several young nurses crouching around, and a family doctor so old as to be almost invisible. Perhaps because of my stumblings and fits of coughing the story of my poor Laura had less success with my listeners than it will have, I hope, with intelligent reviewers when properly published.
Nabokov never finished The Original of Laura. A version of it was published in 2009.
Conservative commentator William F. Buckley picked books by John McPhee, Hugh Kenner, and Malcolm Muggeridge. Joyce Carol Oates liked Ted Hughes’s Season Songs. Despite having “has no taste for contemporary fiction,” Maurice Sendak recommends Leonard Michaels’ collection I Would Have Saved Them If I Could. Maxine Hong Kingston breaks the rule of three, adding Nabokov’s Ada to her trio. Philip Roth includes Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles, which was part of a series of translations Roth “edited.” Robert Coles liked Walker Percy’s The Message in the Bottle. Lois Gould lists Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire, possibly one of the most enduringly popular books of 1976. Saul Bellow enjoyed Richard Yates’s The Easter Parade. Richard Yates enjoyed Larry McMurty’s Terms of Endearment. Nora Ephron loved Joan Didion’s A Book of Common Prayer. Joan Didion loved Renata Adler’s Speedboat. Cynthia Ozick gives only one title, Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James.
Henry Miller kept it short and sweet:
James Dickey loved something called Dreamthorp by Alexander Smith:
A book of gentle meditations on death in the remote English village: the quietest book of essays I know. To read it is like sinking under the leaves and views and grass of a gentle and caring cemetery and being profoundly glad to be there.
Eudora Welty sticks mostly to Virginia Woolf, recommending the second volume of Woolf’s letters (“Nothing in this book to get between the reader and the writer: Virginia Woolf in her own words, her own mind, speaking for herself”) as well as Mrs Dalloway’s Party. Welty also references Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, which I now must track down.
William H. Gass cites two bona fide postmodern classics and an oddity I’ve never heard of:
J R by William Gaddis. Perhaps the supreme masterpiece of acoustical collage. A real contribution to the art of fiction.
The Geek by Craig Nova. A hard, brilliantly visual novel which is equal in quality to early Hawkes. Few American writers have such a sensuous yet masterfully controlled style.
The Franchiser by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is a genius. I am happy he is also a friend. There are paragraphs in this book in which the language leaps from the page and flies away. The critics owe Elkin much bowing and scraping.
Ishmael Reed describes a book called Dangerous Music by by Jessica Tarahata Hagedorn, a writer I’d never heard of until now:
While the boys were drawing graffiti what were the girls doing? They were writing “Ditty Bop” books, black and white speckled composition books usually, full of gossip, desire, fashion, recipes, proverbs and boyfriends. Written in fire-engine red lipstick “Ditty Bop” books spell “cause” c-u‐z. Nikki Giovanni (“Gemini”) and Alison Mills (“Francisco”) have written classics of the genre. Now Jessica Hagedorn, who makes the S.F. rounds with her West Coast Gangster Choir, has penned the Latino‐Filipino version of the “Ditty Bop.” Reviewers describe “Ditty Bop” books as “sultry”; this one is that. It is a joyous, mean, mambo book blessed by the patron Saint of Latino‐Filipino Ditty Bops, Carmen Miranda.
He also recommends Shouting by by Joyce Carol Thomas, who, thankfully, is not Joyce Carol Oates.
Two authors picked up John Updike’s Picked-Up Pieces (Joyce Carol Oates and John Cheever).
Gabriel Garcia Marquez is cited three times on the list: twice for Autumn of the Patriarch (Lewis Thomas and Bernard Malamud) and once for One Hundred Years of Solitude (John Dean).
John Dean’s Blind Ambition shows up three times (Ishmael Reed, Bob Woodward, and Nikki Giovanni).
Somehow, Nikki Giovanni is the only writer to include Alex Haley’s Roots in a list.