We’d like to clarify an argument we began on Friday.
There is a particular kind of book we’re calling out for scorn. It’s not The Volcano Lover, and it’s not simply historical novels, and it’s not simply novels about famous dead people. (In the presence of Susan Sontag we drop to one knee. Plus, some of our favorite books are about famous dead people. The Bible, for instance. Or any of T.C. Boyle’s bio-novels featuring John Harvey Kellogg, Albert Kinsey, Frank Lloyd Wright, and so on.)
Instead we’re talking about recently published novels whose characters are famous dead authors (FDAs) from the Western canon. It just so happens that when you stack these books next to each other, you see that they focus on a small group of 19th and 20th century FDAs: the pale ladies and gentlemen who form the backbone of required reading lists in high schools across the nation. The books we’re talking about are overwhelmingly realist in style, emphasizing the major relationships in the FDAs’ lives. They promise, either directly or indirectly, to grant some insight into the psychological underpinnings of the FDAs’ great works.
If you can imagine The Fiction Advocate as a big, white sticker of Calvin, from the cartoon strip, on the back window of a Ford F150, then these are some of the books we’re pissing on.
“A delectable little book for anyone who ever admired the Bloomsbury group, Sellers’s first novel speaks in painter Vanessa Bell’s voice as she addresses her sister, Virginia Woolf. The story includes everything one ever imagined that happened in the intimate lives of the sisters and their astounding circle…” (PW)
“An independent young woman comes of age under the influence of Emily Dickinson…” (PW)
“…imagines a terrifying sequence of events as the inspiration for Dickens’s last, uncompleted novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” (PW)
“Bookish Eliza Esmond, having forever lived in the shadow of her prettier sister, has a chance encounter with famed writer and legendary lover Lord Byron outside a London bookstore and is thrilled when their brief conversation turns, over time, into his pursuit of her.” (PW)
Charlotte and Emily Bronte
“As his sisters spin the stories that will immortalize them, Branwell sinks under the weight of great expectations.” (from the jacket copy)
More books like these are on the way. Here are some new deal announcements from Publishers Marketplace.
Stegner fellow Suzanne Rivecca’s […] THE HABITANTS, a novel about a cross country trip Walt Whitman took with his mentally disturbed brother, a pivotal time in Whitman’s development as an artist and a man, to Jill Bialosky at Norton, at auction, in a two-book deal, by Elyse Cheney at Elyse Cheney Agency.
Kelly O’Connor McNees’s THE LOST SUMMER OF LOUISA MAY ALCOTT, imagining a romance that could have taken place in summer of 1855, when poverty forced the Alcott family to move to a New Hampshire village where Louisa may have fallen in love and ultimately had to chose between a man she loved and her dream of becoming a writer, to Amy Einhorn of Amy Einhorn Books, in a good deal, in a pre-empt, by Marly Rusoff of Marly Rusoff & Associates (NA).
Juliet Gael’s ROMANCING MISS BRONTE, bringing to vivid life both the dizzying triumphs and terrible sorrows of the literary Brontes, and how love unexpectedly and dramatically found Charlotte, to Linda Marrow at Ballantine, by Loretta Barrett, at Barrett Books (NA).
Sheila Kohler’s BECOMING JANE EYRE, about how Jane Eyre came to be written, which at the same time gives us a marvelous sense of Charlotte Bronte’s life with her father, two younger sisters and only brother in the isolated parsonage on the Yorkshire moors, to Kathryn Court at Penguin, by Robin Straus at Robin Straus Agency.
Sano Ichiro mystery series author Laura Joh Rowland’s THE SECRET ADVENTURES OF CHARLOTTE BRONTE, featuring the legendary l9th century novelist herself and her equally fascinating sisters, to Juliet Grames at Overlook, in a nice deal, by Pam Ahearn at Ahearn Agency (World).
As you can tell from those last three, it seems the Bronte sisters are the new Jane Austen. (We won’t bother listing the new fiction about Jane Austen’s life and loves. That trend has already jumped the shark. We’ve had Jane Austen book clubs, modern Jane Austen updates, Jane Austen “sequels,” Jane Austen vs. zombies, Jane Austen vs. Predator, and soon a Jane Austen who (according to Publishers Marketplace) “joins the vampire resistance in Bath when England is invaded by French forces.”)
Like most of our complaints, this one is partly a creative matter and partly a publishing matter.
On the publishing side, there are two possible explanations for the glut of novels about FDAs. Either publishers are cynical, and they realize that FDAs have brand recognition, so a typical reader who enjoyed (or just remembers reading) Wuthering Heights in high school will be more likely to purchase a debut novel that has Emily Bronte on the cover… or publishers are sentimental and egotistical, and when they get a chance to publish anything with the name “Charles Dickens” in the flap copy, they go all weak in the knees and pony up a big advance. Neither of these is a good reason for stocking the shelves with detailed psychological portraits of FDAs who are, essentially, boring people with world-class imaginations.
On the creative side, if you’re going to make a fictional character out of someone who really existed, and who is familiar to the public, you’re either playing with ancient notions of collective storytelling and myth-making (like when we talk about Chuck Norris), or you’re taking the postmodern stance of invoking all of our previous and sundry knowledge of the subject, and tweaking it in subtle and dissonant ways. But the books we’ve listed above don’t do either of these things. What they do is assume we have an interest in classic works of fiction, and then assume we have an interest in the authors of those classics, and then promise to show us what those authors were “really like,” by spinning another, inferior, contemporary fiction of their own. Are you following us? It’s like saying, “Did you enjoy the Transformers movie? Well then, you’ll love my indie action-adventure flick about the making of Transformers, in which the role of Michael Bay is played by a much younger actor!”
Just to bring the argument home, we’re going to break it down to a minimal pair. Joyce Carol Oates vs. Francine Prose. Oates write a book of short stories called Wild Nights!: Stories About the Last Days of Poe, Dickinson, Twain, James, and Hemingway. Prose wrote a collection of essays called The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists They Inspired. The Oates book is motivated by a desire to understand the psychology of the FDAs listed in the subtitle (all of whom are better writers than Oates). But it’s necessarily filtered through Oates’s abilities and perspectives as a writer, so it fails to deliver the blissful communion with the FDAs that it promises. If this were a decidedly postmodern book, then questions about the author’s intent and the futility of the exercise would come to the fore and make the project interesting. But despite a few tricks, the Oates book is rooted in a desire to “know” the FDAs, so it fails on its own terms. Francine Prose, on the other hand, writes nine essays about the women who inspired Samuel Johnson, Dante, Rilke, and Nietzsche, among others. She gives an interesting perspective on the FDAs, but the essay format makes it clear that Prose is arguing from her own point of view, and the overall conceit of an essay collection about muses forms the basis for a cogent argument about art and relationships. Prose’s choices about the form of the book offer a way to engage with her claims.
One of these books seems dishonest to its core; the other seems dishonest in the open, argumentative, interactive way of all good fiction. It’s a fluke of our categories that the former is called fiction, and the latter is called its opposite.