Stay Dead

 whitman

At a book store last night we saw two novels from Random House, published a week apart, about famous dead people. One of them fictionalizes an episode from the life of Henry David Thoreau, and the other fictionalizes an episode from the life of Charlie Chaplin.

Which reminds us of other recent books whose protagonists are famous dead authors. Some of these books are supposedly quite good. The Master by Colm Tóibín. March by Geraldine Brooks. The Hours and Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham. Fall of Frost by Brian Hall. And a cheeky take on this phenomenon, An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England by Brock Clarke. We haven’t read any of these books, because we don’t particularly care what a contemporary author thinks a famous dead author would think, if that famous dead author could talk (more than they have already talked, in their books). Besides, we could just read Henry James, Louisa May Alcott, Virginia Woolf, Walt Whitman, et al. instead. There’s a reason those authors got famous before they got dead. 

Not to name names, but we’ve seen other books on the shelves recently that make even poorer use of famous dead authors. Like, you’ll have a domestic drama with a historical setting, and in addition to being about a timeless romance, and the arrival of immigrants at Ellis Island, and the invention of the electric elevator, it ALSO features an appearance by Edith Wharton. And we, the potential readers, are supposed to think: “Well, it sounds like a good enough book, but look. It’s also got Edith Wharton! She doesn’t just show up in just any old novel, you know. Must be something special about this one.”

Bite us.

Here’s what we’d like to say, but it’s probably not true. Authors are the new characters. We’re experiencing a mini-boom in novels that resurrect a beloved author from the past and take the holy corpse out for one last spin. These novels are often sepia-toned in their depiction of the dead masters, and they don’t hesitate to capitalize on people’s reverence for the literary canon. Many of today’s writers lack the imagination to come up with new characters to address the concerns of the present day (and a corollary: many of today’s writers have spent too much time in libraries). They would rather dwell on questions like, “What did Louisa May Alcott eat for supper on Wednesdays when she was a girl?” than explore our actual lives. Publishers believe the only people who still read books are batty old widows, with dusty shelves full of classics, who are scared as hell of the future.

And here’s the argument we came up with to calm ourselves down. Borrowing is as old as literature itself. The Iliad was a mash-up of famous heroes. Don Quixote was pirated for fan fiction almost immediately after it was published. If we didn’t make fiction out of famous dead authors, there would be no Flann O’Brien. There would be no Tao Lin. There would be no Almost Famous. (Okay, we could use some better examples. Help us out?)

Still, why the fuck would we have any desire to read a ponderous novel about the inner life of a famous dead author, especially when we can read that author’s books instead?

[shrug]

What do you think?

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3 Comments

Filed under Bad Fiction, Speaking Ill of the Dead

3 Responses to Stay Dead

  1. I was at a commercial publishing house that shall remain nameless during the heart of the “steal Jane Austen’s name to sell a million books” phase (still going on, btw) and was there at meetings when we discussed which dead author would best to resurrect next. Edgar Allen Poe almost got co-opted. Others have since then.

    I think the whole thing is ridiculous, but like any fad in publishing on that line b/w literary and commercial, it will die out sooner or later. To be replaced by some other obnoxious gimmick by lazy fiction writers.

  2. Oh, I don’t know. I’ve noticed that lately I have a real admiration for and have taken a lot of pleasure in reading books that are, in fact, historical fiction. Like Susan Sontag’s THE VOLCANO LOVER, in which authors and painters and politicians are woven throughout her novel on the Napoleonic period of Europe. I think there’s a distinction between historical fiction in the vein of Harlequin romance novels in search of a background in which to place yet another staid plot and authors who resist the Modernist urge to simply write about themselves and instead delve into history, which has plenty of freaks and assholes and whores and lunatics to exploit for their own narrative needs. What if it’s not laziness so much as obsession? I’d rather read an author’s obsession with Emily Dickinson (ha!) manifest in a weird novel than stagger through yet another tome on addiction or divorce or middle age crises. It’s a tired point of argumentation, I know, but isn’t it really about quality of writing and the depth of insight? I think that if it’s done well and made clever and investigative, reanimating an author in text can be a worthwhile read.

  3. fictionadvocate

    Way to thwart my whole rant with a salient point about “quality,” Jessa. Yeah, I’m not taking swipes at Susan Sontag. One of these days I’ll spend an hour at Barnes & Noble cataloging all the mediocre literary fiction where Charlotte Bronte arrives in Chapter 22, just in time to help the Victorian protagonist out of a jam.

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