Breaking Old Reading Habits: Modern Classics for Genre Readers

Breaking Old Reading Habits: Ten Literary Works That Might Convince You to Love Literary  

By Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Multi award-winning writer of fiction, poetry and author of
the much-honored #HowToDoItFrugally Series of books for writers

Because I so often hear, "I don't read literary novels," or even, "What's a literary novel?" when I taught at UCLA Extension’s esteemed Writers’ Program or when I’m talking to clients or writers a conferences, I've compiled a list that I hope might convince those who think they hate literary to try reading them--at least every so often. Those of you who already love literary, will find at least one or two books that aren’t already in your library.

None of these books are real classics--the kind you may have detested in high school. You know, a little hard to read (though perhaps worth the trouble!) Most have been popular in relatively recent history and a couple are books that Oprah should have picked if she had been doing that when these books were released.

Why not give one or all a try?  Sandwich them in somewhere between the romance, crime, and psycho-stuff that we tend to keep on our nightstands.

Here goes:

"To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee. This is one of my favorites of all time.

"A Painted House" by John Grisham. A recent favorite that few called "literary" but got blasted by Grisham’s fans anyway because, I think, they were all expecting his specialty, legal thrillers.

"The Chinchilla Farm" by Judith Freeman. It’s been around awhile but it one of the few good pieces of fiction set in Utah where I set my first novel.

"Dear Corpus Christi" by Eve Caram. This is a lovely little piece by my first writing teacher at UCLA. It deserves wider readership.

" A Child of Alcatraz" by Tara Ison who is relatively unknown because no one ever gives screenwriters much credit so very few are famous regardless of the fact that their talent or the lack thereof can make or break a movie. She has taught writing at UCLA and at Antioch University.

"The Sixteen Pleasures" by Robert Hellenga. Apart from an occasional lapse in drawing his female characters truly, this book, set in Florence during the Arno’s infamous destruction, is a winner.

"Angle of Repose" by Wallace Stegner. You can’t go wrong with this one or any other title written by this novelist and journalist.

"The Wedding" by Dorothy West. This was West's first and only novel because she didn’t get around to storytelling until she was in her last decade. She breaks rules and makes it work. She also makes us understand a portion of black history and black intolerance that many of us didn’t know existed.

"Travels with Charlie” by John Steinbeck is not fiction but it is literary. You might enjoy seeing nonfiction written with passion and style and artistry. Charlie was the last book Steinbeck wrote, the culmination of years of honing his craft.

"Dandelion Wine" by Ray Bradbury is a touching novel that will be loved by those who consider themselves science fiction fans. He is my ideal author of literary cross-genre.

"Dr. Zhivago" by Boris Pasternak. This book is worth the struggle required to sort out the Russian names. Hundreds of thousands of readers did it a few decades ago when we weren’t all so spoiled by authors who too often now cater to short attention spans and formulaic writing.

Okay.  So that's 11. I'll make it a baker’s dozen. 

“Anna Karinina” by Leo Tolstoy. This is a novel that holds up over the decades, especially for women (and men) who still suffer from gender prejudices.

And a little brag. My "This Is the Place" is no longer in print. I get no royalties so that fact  A review is always a lovely gift to give an author and it sure doesn’t get as many as any of those listed above. But, assuages my conscience a little to mention it. It is still available with Amazon’s new and used feature, usually for less than $1. Set in Utah and New York City, it's a little romantic, a little memoirish, a little historical, a little women's. They're all good categories but I prefer “a little literary.” If I didn’t include this book among my favorites, I wouldn’t be giving you the truest list possible. Maybe my next novel should examine the mirror image twins of false pride and false modesty as its premise. If you love it, feel free to review it on Amazon at

Readers' Tip: A nonfiction book, West of Kabul, East of New York, is much like the world’s best literature. The author is Tamin Ansary.  The publisher is Farrar, Straus and Giroux.



Carolyn Howard-Johnson is was named first Woman of the Year  in Arts and Entertainment by members of California’s legislature.  Rolf Gompertz, UCLA professor and Author of “Abraham, The Dreamer” says, “Carolyn Howard-Johnson is a magnificent writer.  Her book is a joy to read. It is a work of literary art.  It is an important book. It is a book that touches the heart, mind, and soul.” 

Learn more about her work at her new website,

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Terry Whalin said...


What a wonderful list of classic novels. I need to work on reading some of these novels. Thank you.

author of 10 Publishing Myths, Insights Every Author Needs to Succeed

Karen Cioffi said...

Carolyn, great list of classics. I've only read three on your list but will look into the others. I'm a Ray Bradbury fan and haven't read that one!

Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

Yeah, @terry Whalin, it definitely is not the usual list. And they're all entertaining. One this is more generally known by younger readers is The Wife, partially because it was made into a movie. My daughter-in-law is a voracious reader and she sent me her copy when she was finished reading it. That was not too long after its release. She knew I'd like it because of its feminist leaning but also because of its focus on writing! (-:

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