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The Rules Don’t Apply to These Nonconformist Novelists

Ian Haydn Smith's succinct biographies in Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know entice even seasoned bibliophiles.

Cult Writers: 50 Nonconformist Novelists You Need to Know
Ian Haydn Smith
White Lion Publishing
June 2020

In the introduction to his slim yet thorough volume, Curzon Magazine editor Ian Hadyn Smith takes on the task of defining cult writers, and more specifically, to quote the title, “nonconformist novelists you need to know.” In discussing his rationale, Smith explains his choice of authors while also critiquing the very practice of culling a selection of “the best” of anything. He notes that the definition of a cult writer is transient, always a product of its time.

The chosen time for Smith, then, is authors who published in the 20th or 21st century. Although the established category is nonconformist novelists, Smith also determines that fiction writers might include novelists who are best known for their nonfiction, journalism, or hybrid works. Examples include Joan Didion, better known for her nonfiction, and the poet Sylvia Plath, also known for her influential novel, The Bell Jar. Smith also notes that the category of “cult writers” is not the exclusive domain of male, white, or English-speaking authors who comprise the traditional canonical literature. From this perspective, then, even an avid reader is likely to come across an author whose work is unfamiliar.

Each of the 50 biographies is succinct and compelling. For those who have read the featured authors, the tightly-rendered profiles offer biographical details that can enhance the reader’s understanding of authors they appreciate. Italo Calvino, for example, despised the far-right politics in Italy and joined a Communist group toward the end of World War II. Cormac McCarthy, beloved for his writing about the American West, is originally from Rhode Island and attended the University of Tennessee. He demonstrates that sometimes the outsider who embraces a new place can best capture the essence of local culture.

The diversity of the cult writers here signals both Smith’s far reach as a reader and his role as an accomplished researcher. Counted among the cult writers are those with a vast international reputation, like J.R.R. Tolkein or James Joyce, as well as authors whose work may not be as widely known to contemporary audiences, such as Françoise Sagan. After being expelled from two schools for bad behavior, Sagan enrolled at the Sorbonne but left without graduating.

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(courtesy of Quarto Publishing)

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(courtesy of Quarto Publishing)

Her first novel, Bonjour Tristesse, was published in 1954, when she was 18 years old. The story of 17-year-old Cecile vacationing with her adulterous father and experiencing her first romance quickly became an international sensation, as did the young author. Smith notes that Sagan continued writing, publishing more than 20 novels along with plays, short story collections and essay collections, despite her growing addictions to various drugs. She died in 2004, at the age of 69. For each of the writers, Smith finds a narrative or details that leave a lasting impression on the reader.

The book’s design is delightful, with illustrations and author portraits by Kristelle Rodelia. She has also illustrated the other books in Quarto’s Cult series, including filmmakers, artists, and musicians. For Cult Writers, each author profile fits on a double page spread with a readable, attractive typeface, Rodelia’s excellent illustrations, and a tag for the author. Charles Bukowski is “The Dauphan of the Dispossessed”. The often-underrated Douglas Coupland is “The Digital Age Sauvant”. Elena Ferrante is “The Anonymous Author”, as her anonymity is central to the public’s shaping of her identity and has an intriguing influence on how critics and readers perceive her work. William Burroughs is “El Hombre Invisible”, along with Ralph Ellison, “The Visible Writer”.

There are some exceptions to the two-page spread, like Burroughs, whose portrait follows his profile. Camus’ profile, accompanied by the quote, “A novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images,” includes a striking illustration of the author in suit and overcoat, with a cigarette between his lips. In contrast, Joan Didion’s portrait does not seem to capture her essence, as Camus’s does. That Didion has been continually photographed for decades as her image changes likely contributes to this feeling.

While there is no prescribed checklist for the makings of a cult writer, certain themes come up repeatedly: early play with language and writing along with early experiences of parents’ deaths, expulsion from school, difficult marriages and romances. More cult authors in this collection choose solitude over suicide, although both choices might evince the stereotypical “tortured soul” of great writers.

For the reader who wants to dig deeper into quality writing, or the bibliophile looking to branch out into new genres, Cult Writers is an inviting source to decide what to read next. A list of key works by each author facilitates the selection process, especially for the more prolific writers in the collection. Along with the opportunity to consider where to go for new reading material, this collection of short profiles may also remind readers of the cult authors they most enjoy reading.

RATING 8 / 10
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