Saturday, September 15, 2007

Favorite Fiction About Writers

On his blog a few days back, Tim Stretton mentions a thriller he enjoyed despite the fact that the protagonist is a writer (which he describes as "usually A Very Bad Sign.")

In general, I have to agree. Telling stories about writers probably isn’t a great idea. As the movies have discovered, there isn’t much drama inherent in the process, and even less visual interest. The best Hollywood can do is to insist that we all still use typewriters, because the hammering of the keys and the bite of the letters into the page (often shown in close-up) at least offer some tiny sense of momentum. Not to mention the growing stack of pages, which can then be stolen, or, as in the 2003 film Love Actually—where Liam Neeson is still, of course, using a typewriter—be blown all over the place by an errant wind.

Word processing has eliminated the limited cinematic value we had, and the situation in prose isn’t that much better. Who wants to read about someone’s struggle to write? It’s like reading about someone’s struggle to get out of bed.

Nonetheless, I do have some favorite tales with writers as protagonists. If you ask nicely, I’ll tell you what they are.

“How to Become a Writer” by Lorrie Moore. A short story included in her wonderful collection Self-Help, but also widely anthologized. Begins with the famous line, “First, try to be something, anything, else.” Compresses a whole career into a few pages.

“Lost in the Funhouse” by John Barth. A short story, in his collection of the same title, where the protagonist must be interpreted as a younger version of the omniscient narrator. The narrator is not only intrusive but self-conscious and keeps interrupting himself with notes on how fiction is composed. Simultaneously hilarious and instructive.

The Hook by Donald E. Westlake. Blackly humorous crime story about a bestselling but blocked writer, plus a fellow writer who has fallen out of publication, and a pact. Grim yet funny.

Foul Matter by Martha Grimes. A writer arranges to have a literary writer dumped from a publisher's list, and the publisher finds the only way to break the literary writer's contract is to have the literary writer killed. Problem is, the hit men hired develop an interest in literature. Hey, everybody’s a critic.

The Calling by Sterling Watson. Hard to find these days. The story of a young writer who attends a writing workshop conducted by his literary idol. The dark side of writing groups, mentor-protégé relationships, and the war between artists and their loved ones. Has an autobiographical feel.

Famous Writers School by Steven Carter. A funny, cleverly constructed epistolary novel built around a fiction correspondence course. The chapters are composed of lessons, student submissions, and letters from the teacher. Pitch-perfect and squirm-inducing.

That’s my list. But no doubt I’ve overlooked some gems. Any suggestions?


Jake Jesson said...

No suggestions come to mind offhand, but I do believe Colin Firth plays the typewriter-using character in Love Actually. Liam Neeson plays the dad bonding with stepson. (I may have seen that movie too many times.)

Thanks for the blog link, by the way!

David Isaak said...

Ah, you're right--I've combined two characters in my mind.

As long as we're talking about movies about writers, though, I do give a big endorsement to Throw Momma From the Train...

Matt Curran said...

And then there's Stephen King who's made a helluva lot of cash from books about writers.

Oddly, he's never scared would-be novelists from writing, but has done much for clown phobias and "redrum".

I once wrote a story many moons ago about a policeman who became a writer - it was a hidden talent drawn out of him by something quite catastrophic:
he was killed in a house fire. (I can't think of many books were the main character has died to become a writer - so at least it was original!).

David Isaak said...


Oh, how could I have forgotten Misery? (I know the protag's a writer in The Shining, too, but it's integral to the story in Misery.)

Dying prior to becoming a writer is indeed unusual, and a step I wouldn't recommend to most folks just starting out. But dying before becoming known as a writer seems to often be a requirement. Did your policeman manage both steps in one swoop? Or did he end up as a dead and unknown writer?

Charles Lambert said...

I was going to say King but it's too late. So I won't.