Tim’s Top Ten: Ingredients for Literary Success

Hamlet is not rock stratum. It was not produced by external forces of culture, education, politics, and family upon William Shakespeare. No, Shakespeare was a dazzling individual genius who forged Hamlet in the smithy of his imagination.

And yet…

Scrutinize the lives of great writers, and you will notice certain patterns (what I call “ingredients”). They tend to live in cities; they tend to live near wealth; they often have role models. Think you have the makings of a great writer? How many of these ingredients do you have?


10. Live in a great city. Some retire to the country to concentrate. But most of the greats find a way to concentrate despite the buzz of a great city. In fact, most of the greats associated with a great city:

  • Shakespeare, Dickens, Milton: London
  • Ovid, Cicero, Virgil: Rome
  • Fitzgerald, Joyce, Proust: Paris
  • Dreiser, Wright, Bellow: Chicago

Great cities offer the traffic for great stories—human beings at their most accomplished and most depraved.

9. Live near wealth. The starving artist is a romantic ideal. But for every penniless Rimbaud and Du Fu, there are twenty writers funded by rich patrons or a wealthy public. If you can keep your integrity, take the money.

8. Find a role model. Genius imitates. Just ask the nineteenth century Russians novelists and the Athenian tragedians. The great Russians—Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev—emulated Nikolai Gogol. “We all came out from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat’,” said Dostoevsky, nodding to Gogol’s famous story. The great Athenian playwrights—Sophocles, Aristophones, Euripides—imitated one another, prompting Velleius Paterculus, in the first study of the genius of ancient Athens, to say, “Genius is fostered by emulation.”

7. and 6. Have an absent/weak father and/or an overbearing mother. How to explain the scads of great authors with these parents? Did they write to fill the hole in the heart? To fix a world that seemed fundamentally cracked?

5. Get exiled. Scan any collection of great books. About one in four authors were exiled. Here’s a quick sampling: Ovid, the Apostle Paul, Athanasius, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Boethius, Molière, Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Victor Hugo, Karl Marx, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Henrik Ibsen, Dante Aligheri, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, and Albert Einstein. Each volunteered or was forced into exile. Although this begs a question: Did exile help their writing or did their writings cause their exile? Probably both.

4. Live in a politically free state. Wait, I just proposed exile as an ingredient for literary success. Now I’m advocating for political freedom? Yes. Think of freedom and exile as two edges of a sword. Freedom encourages creativity and truth-telling. Exile is the penalty for both.

3. and 2. Believe in a Higher Purpose and a Higher Power. Most important writers of the twentieth century tended toward atheism or agnosticism (think Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Franz Kafka). But within the overall scope of literary accomplishment, irreligion is rare. Charles Murray, historian and sociologist, researched the cultural factors that lead to human accomplishment. It’s worth quoting him here at length:

Imagine two cultures with exactly equal numbers of potentially brilliant artists. One is a culture in which those potentially brilliant artists have a strong sense of “this is what I was put on this earth to do,” and in the other, nihilism reigns. In both cultures, the potentially brilliant artists can come to enjoy the exercise of their capabilities. But the nihilists are at a disadvantage in two respects.

The first disadvantage is in the motivation to take on the intense and unremitting effort that is typically required to do great things. This is one of the most overlooked aspects of great accomplishment. Fame can come easily and overnight, but excellence is almost always accompanied by a crushing workload. Psychologists have put specific dimensions to this aspect of accomplishment. One thread of this literature, inaugurated in the early 1970s by Herbert Simon, argues that expertise in a subject requires a person to assimilate about 50,000 “chunks” of information about the subject over about ten years of experience—simple expertise, not the mastery that is associated with great accomplishment. Once expertise is achieved, it is followed by thousands of hours of practice, study, and labor.

The willingness to engage in such monomaniacal levels of effort in the arts is related to a sense of vocation. By vocation, I have in mind the dictionary definition of “a function or station in life to which one is called by God.”

1. Pursue an education in the classics. You think I’m plugging for Gutenberg? Maybe a little. But there simply is no better education for a writer than an education in the classics. Said John Updike: “Read the classics until you are excited by them. The basic teaching tool writers must use are other people’s books; the classics.”


These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Whom do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics—folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone, and …


Biblical Worldview Expressed

This year’s senior class will be graduating from Gutenberg in just under three weeks from now. The following quote was cited in one of the senior’s senior thesis this year. Personally, I know nothing of the novel or the author from which this quote was taken. But I was struck by how exactly congruent the sentiments contained in this quote are with the worldview that I have concluded is the worldview of the Bible. I am currently giving a series of talks on Biblical divine determinism and The Problem of Evil at Reformation Fellowship. The quote (from The Crossing, a novel by Cormac Mcarthy) expresses precisely the worldview that forms the basis of those talks:

There is but one world and everything that is imaginable is necessary to it. For this world also which seems to us a thing of stone and flower and blood is not a thing at all but is a tale. And all in it is a tale and each tale the sum of all lesser tales and yet these also are the selfsame and contain as well all else within them. So everything is necessary. Every least thing. This is the hard lesson. Nothing can be dispensed with. Nothing despised. Because the seams are hid from us, you see. The joinery. The way in which the world is made. We have no way to know what could be taken away. What omitted.


On a lighter note, but also exactly along the lines of the argument that I have been making in my talks at Reformation Fellowship, I received the following in an email:

I Personally Do Not Believe in JRR Tolkien.

No man could call himself a good author and let all those evil creatures be in his book. And look what happened to Gollum… If Tolkien were real, he could have wiped out Mordor with a stroke of the pen. –Douglas Grover, USMC, USA


Tim’s Top Ten Dystopias

Does Hunger Games make my Top Ten Dystopias list? Its popularity would certainly punch up my blog-hits. And one of my students thinks it might belong among the great dystopias (you know who you are, G.) But I’ve neither read Hunger Games nor seen the movie.

So, sadly, Hunger Games does not make the list. But my blog-hits will increase if I mention it a few more times. Hunger Games, that is. The book, Hunger Games, and the movie, Hunger Games. Did I mention Hunger Games?

Enough joking. Let’s get to the horror.

This Top Ten list is about dystopias. What is a dystopia? The evil brother of a utopia. In utopias, life is lovely; the prince and princess live happily ever after. In dystopias, life is short, nasty, and brutish; the prince is a bloated bureaucrat, and the princess a drug-addled insect.

Here’s a sad fact: All but one of these dystopias were written in the last 100 years.

10. Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (1962). Orange makes my list for one reason–the language. Burgess invented a language to describe the ultra-violent adventures of his thugs.

Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him…

Translation: The thugs were not short of money, so there was no need for robbery; they would simply wreak havoc for fun.

I debated striking this book from my list because, well, it is ultra-violent and ultra-sexual. (Placing a book in my list doesn’t mean I actually endorse reading it.) Despite the grim subject, it’s a great dystopia for foreshadowing a society that prefers socializing criminals to redeeming them.

9. The Time Machine, H.G. Wells (1895). One of the earliest books of science-fiction, it launched two trends for future fiction: (1) time travel and (2) fears of a dying Earth.

8. Animal Farm, George Orwell (1945). The first of three “children’s books” on my list (although none are really for children). Each animal in Animal Farm represents a different character in Stalin’s rise during the Russian Revolution. What begins as a revolution culminates in totalitarianism where “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”

7. The Giver, Lois Lowry (1993). A children’s book that poses a very adult question: Is ignorance bliss? The year is 2065, and society has chosen a philosophy: “Sameness.” Jonas (age 12) is selected to become the one person allowed to see and memorize the past. But in memorizing the past, Jonas realizes that his society is happy because they are ignorant of the past. What ought he do? Remain in his shallow life or run away to a full life? (Thanks, N.R., for recommending The Giver.)

6. Lord of the Flies, William Golding (1955). A children’s adventure story, an anthropological discourse, a retelling of the Garden of Eden. Your first exposure to the dystopia genre probably happened your junior year when you read this classic. –Sigh, poor Piggy.

5. The Children of Men, P.D. James (1992). The sperm count for males has–for unexplained reasons–dropped to zero. Now, 27 years later, the last human born was just killed in a pub brawl. A team of dissidents (“The Five Fishes”) approach the main character, Theo, with a mission: Help smuggle a pregnant woman to safety.

4. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953). Every year, some politico cites Fahrenheit 451 in his screed against library censorship. Ironically, the screed demonstrates the politico hasn’t read Fahrenheit 451. The enemies in Fahrenheit are not censors, but us. We the people chose info-slush over Hamlet, Moby Dick, and Paradise Lost.

One of Fahrenheit’s keenest insights is this: Great books disturb the soul. In the most moving scene, the hero (Montag) forces his wife, Mildred, and her friend to listen to a poem. The friend bursts into tears but is unable to explain why she was so moved. Mildred screams at Montag for reading, “See–see what happens!”

3. The Road, Cormac McCarthy (2006). Father and son crawl across a post-apocalyptic landscape avoiding starvation, cannibalism, and rape. They seek the sea, while keeping “the fire”–the hope where the good are rewarded and the evil punished. The Road is a primordial search for spiritual goodness in the desert.

2. 1984, George Orwell (1949). Written at the height of totalitarianism, with the brilliant first line: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” 1984 foretold a world where truth is banished, history burned, and Big Brother searches for the tiniest hint of “thoughtcrime.”

1. Brave New World, Aldus Huxley (1932). Huxley admired 1984 but suggested that future dictators would smarten up. Brave New World tells what will happen under smarter dictators: Soft hedonism would replace blunt force.

[Orwell] foresaw rule by terror. What I believe is that, in the future, dictators will find, as the saying goes, “You can do everything with bayonets but sit on them.” If you want to preserve your power indefinitely, you have to get the consent of the ruled. And this they will do, partly by drugs … and these new techniques of propaganda … by bypassing the rational side of man and appealing to his subconscious and his deeper emotions.

Anyone who lived in the shadow of Hitler and Stalin fears 1984. Their children ought to fear Brave New World. To see the Huxley interview in 1958 by the (recently deceased) Mike Wallace, click here.


These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like others who studied the classics–folks like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone…


Tim’s Top Ten Literary Feuds

Want to be a great writer? Here’s some advice. Find a rival.

Feuds fuel writers. Competition breeds creativity. Hate, rage, and jealousy are great motivators. Having trouble rolling out of bed and putting pen to paper? Just remember he is hard at work, he is writing a bestseller, he isn’t lazy. There, that should spur you to work. As iron sharpens iron, so one writer sharpens another.

But what about that poor writer who takes Jesus’ words seriously. The writer who strives to love his enemies, lose his life, and die to himself. Is he permitted an enemy’s spur?

Yes. But how? An answer is found in my number one literary feud.


10. James Joyce versus Marcel Proust. The first meeting between two of the most influential authors of the twentieth century was doomed from the beginning. They met at a restaurant in 1922. Joyce later recalled, “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No’. Proust asked me if I knew the Duc de So-and-So. I said, ‘No’. Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of Ulysses. Proust said, ‘No’.” —A feud without hot words, just one cold word.

9. Tom Wolfe versus Norman Mailer, John Updike, and John Irving. Mailer and Updike publicly dissed Wolfe’s much-anticipated Man in Full (1998) for being “entertainment, not literature.” The white-suited Wolfe counter-punched. He called Mailer and Updike “two piles of bones” who preferred navel-gazing to story-telling. John Irving (author of A Prayer for Owen Meany) defended Mailer and Updike. Any page of Wolfe’s novel, he said, “would make me gag.” Wolfe countered: “Why does [Irving] sputter and foam so? Because he, like Updike and Mailer, has panicked. All three have seen the handwriting on the wall, and it reads, ‘A Man in Full.” —A tough feud to top for sheer pettiness. (Side note: Norman Mailer was not afraid of a fight; he once decked his nemesis Gore Vidal at a dinner party; but Vidal got the last word: “Words fail Norman Mailer yet again.”)

8. Mary McCarthy versus Lillian Hellman. During filming, television host Dick Cavett asked novelist Mary McCarthy what writers she believed were overrated. Pearl Buck, she said, and John Steinbeck; but most of all (playwright) Lillian Hellman “who I think is tremendously overrated, a bad writer, a dishonest writer, but she really belongs to the past.” Then McCarthy went farther: “I once said in an interview that every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.’” —Hellman was watching the Dick Cavett show and promptly slapped McCarthy with a $2.25 million lawsuit. The spat went on and on. See more here.

7. F. Scott Fitzgerald versus Ernest Hemingway. Fitzgerald had just published The Great Gatsby. Hemingway was an unknown. Their first meeting was rocky. In a Paris bar called Dingo, Fitzgerald peppered Hemingway with invasive questions on the order of Had Hemingway slept with his wife before they were married? But Fitzgerald soon became Hemingway’s advocate, advising and editing an early novel. The friendship faltered, however, as Hemingway ascended and Fitzgerald faded. Nonetheless, Hemingway would later describe Fitzgerald’s talent as “the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.”

6. Edmund Burke versus Thomas Paine. Another friendship that ended in feud. Burke and Paine WERE friends until Burke wrote that natural rights ought not be considered a rationale for violent revolution (Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1791). Paine was offended. He took Burke’s book as a personal insult and defended natural rights against Burke in The Rights of Man (1792). The disagreement swept across Europe and continues (albeit in a different form) even today.

5. Erasmus versus Martin Luther. Both scholars adored the Christian Scriptures and demanded reformation of the Church. But their temperaments and strategies diverged wildly. Erasmus was a dove; Luther, a bull. Erasmus was ecumenical; Luther, sectarian. Erasmus was a scholar; Luther, a reformer. See their temperaments and theologies on full display in their debate over free will.

4. Leo Tolstoy versus Ivan Turgenev versus Fyodor Dostoevsky. In 1870 the three titans were battling for the title of Russia’s greatest novelist. The battle was not just over art but over the future of their country. Tolstoy and Dostoevsky loved mother Russia and mistrusted the West; Turgenev chose the West over Mother Russia. Turgenev and Dostoevsky were obsessed with the new Russian philosophies (like nihilism); Tolstoy developed his own philosophy based on Christianity trimmed of eternal life. The three novelists’ beliefs were like magnets that repulsed one while attracting the other.

3. Aristophanes versus Plato. The playwright Aristophanes accused Socrates (Plato’s hero) of being a comic eccentric—a “headmaster of thinkery” who had Spartanized young men after the war between Athens and Sparta. During his trial, Socrates mentions Aristophanes mocking play: “I loved The Clouds,” said Socrates, “When they laugh at me, it feels like a big party of good friends.” Aristophanes was present when Socrates was condemned to death by his beloved Athens.

2. William Shakespeare versus Christopher Marlowe. This rivalry makes the list not by virtue of hatred but of literary impact. Shakespeare is accepted as the greatest poet of the English language, and Marlowe was an early master of the Elizabethan stage. Marlowe’s Tamburlaine probably influenced Shakespeare’s early style. Shakespeare became Marlowe’s playwriting rival after arriving in London. But the rivalry was friendly and professional. Some critics believe Shakespeare nodded warmly to the murdered Marlowe through Touchstone the clown in As You Like It (1593).

1. George Bernard Shaw versus G. K. Chesterton. They could not have been more different. Shaw was the atheist, vegetarian Socialist. Chesterton was the Christian, meat-eating Distributist (a “third-way” economic idea that, sadly, never took root). Shaw was thin; Chesterton was fat. Shaw was strict; Chesterton was tolerant. Shaw was a teetotaler; Chesterton loved wine. Most amazing, these ideological enemies were friends. Moreover, they were asking the same questions and even debated the answers in London in 1928. Obviously, they settled the questions in radically different ways.

  • On belief in God: Shaw said, Quit pretending you believe, you don’t. Chesterton said, Rediscover the reasons for faith or our race is lost.
  • On property: Shaw said, Private property produced ghastly poverty. Chesterton said, Abolish ghastly poverty by restoring property.
  • On marriage: Shaw said, “Marriage is an adventure, like going to war.” Chesterton said, “A man may be a fool and not know it—but not if he is married.”

Their friendship is instructive. Shaw and Chesterton sharpened each other and had affection for each other that was warmer than chilled respect.


These top ten lists were inspired by the occasional debates among Gutenberg students about their favorite great books. Which is a better novel, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina or Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamzov? Which is Shakespeare’s best play, Hamlet or King Lear? Who do you more identify with, Plato or Aristotle?

Yes, we have such debates. We are bookish, nerdy, and classicist. Just like Winston Churchill, James Madison, Dorothy Sayers, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Hannah Moore, C.S. Lewis, John Milton, Søren Kierkegaard, William Gladstone.


Tim’s Top Ten: First Lines

I judge a book by its back cover. If I like the back blurb, I flip to the first line. The lines in this list might oblige anyone to take and read.

“An author’s first line,” said Ruth Kantzer, my first creative writing teacher, “is a contract with the reader.” The following are great contracts. Each grabs the reader by the ear and speaks softly what will follow.

10. “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”
–C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). A line that portrays one of Lewis’s many literary strengths, playful wit.

9. “Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know.”
–Albert Camus, The Stranger (1942). He can’t remember when his mother died? What’s wrong with him? Oh, I see.

8. “A screaming comes across the sky.
–Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). A postmodern tale about a nightmarish power that controls the post-WWII world. The power intimidates through foreboding death-forces and the mysterious Rocket 00000.

7. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
–George Eliot, Middlemarch (1874). The intelligent but disregarded Miss Brooke resembles the author (George Eliot was the pen-name chosen by Mary Anne Evans) in this story about community life in the fictional town of Middlemarch.

6. “What makes Iago evil? some people ask. I never ask.
–Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays (1970). Didion chose settings beyond good and evil–Hollywood, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert–for this novel about the moral emptying of America in the 1960s.

5. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
–Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859). Dickens’s unforgettable first line throws open the doors to his sprawling panorama of the French Revolution.

4. “124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.
–Toni Morrison, Beloved (1987). A chilling novel about a female slave returning to Kentucky to claim her children. Voted by New York Times readers in 2006 as the best work of American fiction of the past twenty-five years.

3. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
–George Orwell, 1984 (1949). A broken note in the opening chord of this brilliant dystopia.

2. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
–Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877). Tolstoy’s original title for this classic was Two Marriages. It contrasts the very unhappy Kareninas with Levin and Kitty’s earnest marital life. A superb start to what many believe to be the greatest novel ever written.

1. “Ships at a distance have every man’s hopes aboard.
–Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). A hopeful beginning that ends sadly, but not without Janie Crawford learning “two things”: “They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”


May we send you...?

Choose your subscriptions to our newsletter and/or email updates.


If this ministry is helpful to you, please consider supporting it as you are able. Even small donations help. Thank you.

Donate online