Novels about Writers

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


4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bruce H. on November 5, 2013 at 6:10 AM

    All of these are good, although I’m not a huge fan of Nabokov’s. I would also include a title or two by Jack Kerouac (“On The Road”), who wrote and who wrote about writing as well as anyone ever has; Charles Bukowski (“Women”), who brilliantly described the inner and outer life of a struggling writer; Stephen King (“The Shining”), who has written about struggling and succeeding as a writer even better than he’s written about vampires and haunted hotels; Saul Bellow (“Herzog”); William S. Burroughs (“Queer”); John Irving (“The World According To Garp”); and finally Louis-Ferdinand Celine (“Castle,” “North,” and “Rigadoon”), who wrote a trilogy of novels that deal equally with his terrifying, hilarious World War 2 experiences and his epic battles with his publishers.



    • Hello Bruce H.
      Here is my take on Jack Kerouac
      I haven’t read any of his other work besides ‘On the Road’ and did not know he had written anything about writers or writing.
      Here is my take on Charles Bukowski.
      I was awfully rough on Bukowski and his novel ‘Women’. I probably wouldn’t be so rough today. He is another wild man writer, and he does have a lot of insight into an average guy living a literary life. I just thought that a lot of ‘Women’ was just him bragging. I got in a bit of trouble with the Bukowski admirers on the Internet with that one.



      • Posted by Bruce H. on November 7, 2013 at 6:53 AM

        Wow, that David Fink guy was kind of a jerk, wasn’t he? I don’t know why lit lovers are so often rude snobs. Anyway, while I disagree with your take on Bukowski and “Women” I certainly don’t think that you (and others who aren’t into him) are WRONG. Art isn’t math, there are no right or wrong answers. Having said that, and believing it, I think that Bukowski (and Kerouac, for that matter) are often misunderstood because they wrote so close to the bone, basing so much of their work on their own lives. I think many of those who like him misunderstand him, too. They SEEM to be saying how cool they are, how free and uninhibited and wild they are, primarily because they’re talking exclusively about themselves, but I’ve always thought that was a dangerous assumption to make. I think that was only a starting point for them, a place they could filter their ideas about the human race and what’s wrong with it.

        Upon close reading it becomes clear that both Bukowski and Kerouac were extraordinarily sensitive, self-ostracized, brooding people who admired those that grabbed life by the collar and throttled it, like Dean Moriarty in “On The Road” did, even though by the end of the book Moriarty emerges as something of an uncaring jerk. Kerouac’s writing was a search for meaning in postwar American life, and he died without finding (or providing) a lot of answers. The “beat” in Beat Generation was about being beaten down, exhausted, too tired to fight anymore and open to anything that might provide a haven for a lost soul. Hitting the road only made Kerouac old before his time, it didn’t liberate him, which the hippies and others who emulated him (like me, in my twenties) didn’t understand.

        Bukowski, on the other hand, rather than emulating and mythologizing another person, tried to create this kind of character in HIMSELF, creating a myth about “Henry Chinaski” as a sardonic womanizer who sees the world as a waste of his precious time. He wasn’t like that in real life, he was too good a writer and too close an observer to be so blunted, but it served his purpose to make people think he was like that, and I believe in the end he became somewhat trapped by that myth, not unlike Hemingway or Fitzgerald or Mailer or etc. etc. etc. His Chinaski character was a wall, a remove from the horrifying world around him, a convenience that let people accept his reluctance to engage with them. I mentioned “Women” before because it probably says the most that he has to say about writing, but his best book, his funniest and his most relaxed, open writing, is “Hollywood,” about the making of the movie “Barfly,” which you mentioned in your article. If you ever try him again, try that one.

        Back to my original point, though, both Kerouac and Bukowski were writers who wrote much about writing just in the text of their books. Kerouac did create a philosophy of writing called “Spontaneous Prose,” and wrote pieces about how a writer’s first thought is his best thought and he should never edit (read: second-guess) himself, but frankly his best writing was his most edited, so I never put too much stock in that idea.

        That’s about it. Sure like your website. Keep it up.



        • Hello Bruce H.,
          That is an interesting thought that if Charles Bukowski really were Henry Chinaski, he wouldn’t have been able to produce the work he did.
          Bukowski’s non-fiction book ‘Hollywood’ about the making of Barfly sounds fascinating.
          I’m not sure about Spontaneous Prose either, but I do believe there is such a thing as over-editing.



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