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?