Excellent Novels about Writers and the Writing Life

One would think that there would be many, many novels about writers and writing. The advice to writers is always to write about what you know, and what does a writer know better than writing? However there are not many of these novels. These self-referential novels are favorites of mine if they are well done, not over-cooked. The below list are novels about writers and writing that I have found outstanding.

If you have your own favorites of novels about writers, the writing life, or literature, I’d sure like to hear about them.

“Possession” by A. S. Byatt (1990) – “Possession” took over the world about twenty years ago, dragging A. S Byatt out of semi-obscurity. This novel is about two modern-day academics researching two Victorian poets. It is made up of poetry, journal entries, and letters, juxtaposing the Victorian with the modern. This material sounds unpromising but is entirely compelling and captivating. I don’t believe any novel since “Possession” has had its impact.

“Flaubert’s Parrot” – Julian Barnes (1984) – a retired doctor goes to France to track down Gustave Flaubert’s stuffed parrot. Along the way, we find out all things Flaubert. This is a strong homage to this French writer.

“Pale Fire” by Vladimir Nabokov (1962) – John Shade’s 999-line poem with Charles Kinbote’s commentary. This is Nabokov’s comedic masterpiece; those who think it is “Lolita” are only fooling themselves. “Pale Fire” is one of the most humorous novels ever.

“Loitering with Intent” by Muriel Spark (1981) – This is the story of a struggling novelist who in order to get source material for her fiction gets a job working with the “Autobiographical Association”, an organization dedicated to helping people write their memoirs. Are the sleazy words “Loitering with Intent” a good description of the act of writing?

“Gertrude and Claudius” by John Updike (2000) This novel is a prequel to Hamlet. It tells the story of Gertrude and Claudius frolicking in the forest behind old father Hamlet’s back. Of all John Updike’s novels, this is my favorite.

“Wonder Boys” by Michael Chabon (1995) – Novelist Grady Tripp is trying to write a follow-up to his award winning novel; so far he has 2611 pages. This playful novel is great fun to read with many wacky scenes as well as insights into a writer’s life.

“The Wicked Pavillion” by Dawn Powell (1946) – Many of the aspiring writers in New York City hang out at the Café Julien where they drink too much and fall in and out of love. This is a wickedly funny satire. There is even a character in “The Wicked Pavilion” who is a thinly disguised Ernest Hemingway. This is one of Dawn Powell’s best. At one party one of the partygoers says, “There are some people here who have been dead twenty years.”

“The Tragedy of Arthur” by Arthur Phillips (2011) – Whose play is this anyway? A previously unknown play, “The Tragedy of Arthur” by William Shakespeare?, turns up in Minneapolis of all places. This is a shaggy dog story told in grand fashion.

“Nazi Literature in the Americas” by Roberto Bolano (1996) – a made-up compendium of Nazi writers in the Americas with short entries for each writer. These invented biographies are sometimes hilarious and sometimes mawkish and always interesting. This is unlike any other novel you’ve read.

“The Ghost Writer” by Phillip Roth (1979) – Promising young writer Nathan Zuckerman spends a night at the home of the famous novelist he idolizes. Insights into a writer’s life seen through Phillip Roth’s irreverent and wise-ass attitude.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Great list!

    I love Pamela Hansford Johnson’s Dorothy Merlin trilogy. The first volume, The Incredible Skipton, is still in print (I think).

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  2. Hi Frisbee,
    Thanks for bringing up the name of Pamela Hansford Johnson. She is an author I’ve wanted to read for a long time but haven’t read yet. She is another English novelist just waiting to be rediscovered.

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  3. Hmm… I have to say that I rather disagree. I don’t think that there’s a limited number of books about writing at all. In fact, my impression has always been the opposite – that it’s a cluttered, overflowing field with writers filling the pages with self-aware, self-centered nonsense. A writer main character is often enough to convince me to avoid the book, just to avoid the author’s own self-absorbed thoughts…

    Obviously this doesn’t apply to all books about writers, but I’ve encountered enough bad examples to stay far, far away…

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  4. Hi Biblibio,
    You make some interesting points as always. I can understand your viewpoint. You are correct that if a writer creates a character who is a thinly disguised version of himself or herself, they better be humorous and make fun of themselves. If they take themselves at all seriously, they are likely to be seen as self-indulgent.

    I think the Dawn Powell book ‘The Wicked Pavilion’ is a good example of a book that carries it off well. We get to see the world of the writers living in New York through a writer who is more of an observer than a particiapant.

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