I’m not ashamed to admit it: I’ve been a fan of Eminem’s work for far longer than I’ve loved any of my favorite novelists. It started at my 10-year-old sleepover party when my parents finally caved and got me a long sought-after copy of The Eminem Show.
Say what you will about Eminem, but to me, his songs are more than catchy tunes to play at a frat party; they show incredible craft and wordplay. Though he has very few directly stated literary influences, his lyrics are incredibly prosaic (he’s a master of puns, for instance), and like much great literature, he’s used his work to tackle issues like race and censorship. Admittedly, he doesn’t always nail it (“I’m strong enough to go to the club or the corner pub, and lift the whole liquor counter up ‘cause I’m raising the bar” comes to mind), but which writer does?
Below is a list of books that Eminem could have gotten inspiration from while composing some of his greatest tracks. It can also serve as a reading list for anyone who’s a fan of America’s favorite white rapper.
“My Name is” and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
When Eminem’s first major studio album was released in 1999, he received considerable criticism for its single “My Name is.” “Eminem is on some serious Dangerfield shit,” Rolling Stone commented, and Entertainment Weekly gave the entire album a C+.
Reading through these negative critiques, Eminem could have taken solace in the fact that Dave Eggers also received flak for being self-indulgent a year later for his break-out work A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The titles of their works are, admittedly, somewhat self-absorbed, but both The Slim Shady LP and Eggers’s novel went on to become huge successes, so who’s to say it wasn’t justified?
“Kill You” and The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
Plenty of Eminem’s albums feature songs that you wouldn’t want to play for your favorite women’s studies professor, but “Kill You” off The Marshall Mathers LP has to be the worst. An ode to not only every woman in Eminem’s life (including his mother), but every woman in the world, “Kill You” features charming lines like, “A bloodstain is orange after you wash it three or four times in a tub, but that’s normal, ain’t it Norman?” — a shout-out to Norman Bates that could be directed at Norman Mailer, who stabbed his second wife in 1960.
Eminem might be able to relate to Mailer’s blatant hatred of women; “A little bit of rape is good for a man’s soul” sounds like it could be a line from any track off The Marshall Mathers LP. Yet despite each man’s sexism, Eminem and Mailer both produced accomplished compositions in their genres, leaving female fans to grapple with their problematic words.
“White America” and Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Although the content of Eminem’s song and Henry Miller’s novel are different (“White America” addresses race and censorship; Miller’s work is a partially autobiographical book about life as a writer), each man faced censorship for the content of his work. Eminem would probably be inspired by the fact that Miller’s work changed censorship policy in America. In fact, during a 2001 congressional hearing on censorship in which “Kill You” was specifically mentioned, Recording Industry Association of America President/CEO Hilary Rosen defended the track by saying that Eminem’s song wouldn’t be facing the same censorship if it was a novel.
“Rabbit Run” and Rabbit, Run by John Updike
“Rabbit Run” isn’t the best-known rap on the 8 Mile soundtrack (that title goes to “Lose Yourself”), but it is the most literary. The track’s name is a reference to the nickname “Rabbit” of Eminem’s character in the movie, Jimmy Smith, but it’s also an intentional allusion to Updike’s novel. The screenplay for 8 Mile opens with a line from the work: “If you have the guts to be yourself … other people’ll pay your price.” “Rabbit” is also, of course, the nickname of Rabbit, Run’s main character, Harry Angstrom.
“Mockingbird” and Selected Poems by T. S. Eliot
Maybe the only Eminem song that isn’t in some way offensive, “Mockingbird” details his love for his daughters. The rapper could have been inspired by another famous misogynist, T. S. Eliot, who wrote the poem “Marina,” an ode to Pericles’s reunion with his daughter. Because he expressed plenty of derogatory opinions of women, it’s difficult to understand how Eliot could write a gentle fatherly account like “Marina” — unless you’re Eminem, of course.
“3 A.M.” and Falconer by John Cheever
Like all great artists, Eminem and Cheever both had their vices. (The rapper was addicted to sleeping pills, and Cheever was an alcoholic.) “3 A.M.”, off of the album Relapse, and Falconer are the works that each man completed following a stint in rehab — but for having been produced post recovery, both are surprisingly dark. In “3 A.M.,” Eminem envisions himself as a serial killer, and Falconer is a story about a man who murders his brother. Reading Cheever’s work could have been a good reminder to Eminem that, even when addiction stops, it still leaves a cloud hanging over the mind of the artist.
“Love the Way You Lie” and Tell All by Chuck Palahniuk
Sometimes, good people go bad things. Sometimes, one of your favorite rappers has Megan Fox star in his music video and one of your favorite novelists writes a book that’s basically the literary version of celebrity gossip. Both “Love the Way You Lie” and Tell All are disappointments — and, like Megan Fox in Eminem’s music video, Tell All has its fair share of name-dropping. But hey, everyone makes mistakes, and at least Eminem has Palahniuk’s novel to comfort him when he wakes up every day and realizes that the man who wrote “Kill You” would probably murder the dude who let Rihanna lend the chorus to his single.
“Rap God” and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
There may not be any rappers who can compete with Eminem’s 97 words in 15 seconds (that’s 6.5 words per second, folks) in one verse on this single off The Marshall Mathers LP 2, but Eminem definitely would have respect for David Foster Wallace’s 388 endnotes in Infinite Jest. Though Eminem, like the novelist, faced criticism for earlier productions, both the rapper and Wallace each proved himself as a god of his genre with these works. In fact, a self-declared rap god probably wouldn’t read anything but this literary heavyweight.
So what do you think? Has this booklist made an Eminem fan out of you or are you still unconvinced that there are parallels to be drawn between his songs and novels? Are there any books that you think Eminem might have gotten inspiration from that aren’t on this list? Or are there any other tracks by him that seem highly literary but are missing above? Let us know in the comments!
Adina Applebaum is Michigan native studying English and creative writing at Barnard College. Her crowning achievements in life are memorizing all the lyrics on The Slim Shady LP and eating an entire gallon of chocolate-covered raisins during orientation week of college.
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