The Art of Putting Artists in Literature

This is an edited/updated version of a Huffington Post piece I wrote in 2013:

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how worthy are thousands of words about literary characters who draw pictures?

Yes, some fiction features protagonists who are painters, cartoonists, or other kinds of artists. It can be a tricky proposition for authors, because the works artist characters create can only be described, not seen — unless the book is illustrated, or a graphic novel.

But there are advantages to having artists in literary roles. Those characters are of course creative, and they can also be quirky, bohemian, groundbreaking, pretentious, frustrated, low on money, etc. — traits and situations that all have strong dramatic potential.

The idea for this post occurred to me when I read Don DeLillo’s Underworld, an ambitious novel covering the second half of the 20th century whose large cast of characters includes artist Klara Sax. Parenthood and other things make it hard for Klara to reach her full artistic potential until she becomes famous in her 70s for decorating former warplanes. Underworld also features an African-American artist named Acey who has some success navigating the “white” art world.

Then there’s Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which focuses on middle-aged feminist painter Elaine Risley looking back at her life when she returns to Toronto for a retrospective of her work.

Also worth mentioning is Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, whose protagonist Tod Hackett is frustrated because he considers himself to be a “serious artist” but works in Hollywood painting movie backgrounds and designing costumes. (Which can of course be serious art, too.)

Back in the 19th century, one of the quintessential artist novels was Emile Zola’s The Masterpiece. It stars Claude Lantier, whose attempt to be a nontraditional painter partly explains why popular success eludes him. So he ends up as one of those obsessed “tortured” artists seemingly losing his mind. Does he recover with the help of — sexist stereotype alert — his ever-patient wife Christine?

Lantier was said to be partly based on Zola’s pal-from-childhood Paul Cezanne, though Cezanne was a much more successful painter and much more “together” person than Lantier. Whatever the similarities or differences, The Masterpiece ended that long Zola-Cezanne friendship.

Another novel featuring artists loosely based on real-life people is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, whose cartoonist protagonists Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay were inspired by the lives of “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

In Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers, a painting by the fictional artist father of protagonist Penelope Keeling figures prominently. The painting is called…”The Shell Seekers.”

Another novel with the title of a painting — a real one in this case — is Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. The painting’s 17th-century creator, Carel Fabritius, is not a character in the novel but his bird picture is central to the book.

There ARE novels that include real artists as actual characters under their actual names. One is Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, which contains extended scenes with painter Frida Kahlo (pictured above) and her painter husband Diego Rivera.

Michael Gruber’s The Forgery of Venus features a fictional modern-day painter named Chaz Wilmot who seemingly inhabits the body of real 17th-century master Diego Velazquez.

Susan Vreeland’s Girl in Hyacinth Blue is more about a (fictional) Vermeer painting than about Vermeer himself, but the painting is practically a character as readers follow it back in time to its inception.

And there’s Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, which co-stars paper-sculpting artist Clare Abshire.

There are also many novels featuring characters who aren’t artists per se, but draw and paint on the side. Those books include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, whose title character has some artistic talent; and Pete Hamill’s Forever, whose VERY long-lived protagonist Cormac O’Connor spots a sketch in 2001 that he himself drew during New York City’s Great Fire of 1835!

What are your favorite novels with artist characters in lead or supporting roles?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — featuring a Martin Luther King theme — is here.

Black and Biracial Characters in Books

Celie (Whoopi Goldberg) and Shug (Margaret Avery) in The Color Purple movie.

With tomorrow Martin Luther King Day and yesterday the actual birthday of the great civil-rights leader, it occurred to me to write a post about memorable Black or biracial characters in fiction. Adding to that inspiration were the recent deaths of magnificent actor Sidney Poitier and wonderful singer Ronnie Spector, and the announcement that renowned memoirist Maya Angelou is appearing on U.S. quarters — even as we wait for the promised picturing of courageous slave liberator Harriet Tubman on $20 bills.

I’ll focus on characters created by Black and biracial authors, while also mentioning — near the end of the post — several created by white authors. And I’ll mostly concentrate on three-dimensional characters, not the stereotyped ones we’ve too often seen — frequently in older fiction.

Where to begin? I guess I’ll go chronologically by the novel’s publication date.

Alexandre Dumas — whose father, an officer under Napoleon, was half-Black — was best known for novels with white protagonists. Most notably The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. But Dumas did write the compelling Georges (1843) featuring a biracial title character who leads a dramatic slave uprising.

Ninety-four years later, Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937-published Their Eyes Were Watching God starred Janie Crawford — who resiliently navigates racism, sexism, multiple marriages, and more.

Richard Wright’s Native Son (1940) protagonist is Bigger Thomas, an impoverished young man who makes very wrong choices due to inexperience and living in an ultra-bigoted society, yet is in some ways a sympathetic character.

James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain (1953) stars John Grimes, a smart teen torn between a religious and secular future in a New York City as racist as Chicago was for Bigger Thomas.   

Wole Soyinka’s The Interpreters (1965) focuses on a group of five young Nigerian intellectuals — Bandele, a professor; Egbo, a foreign ministry clerk; Sagoe, a journalist; Kola, an artist; and Sekoni, an engineer-turned-sculptor.

Another Nigerian-born author, Buchi Emecheta, came out with Second Class Citizen in 1974. Its protagonist is the ambitious Adah Ofili — who deals with racism, sexism, a bad marriage, and time constraints (she’s a parent) while trying to get an education and do satisfying paid work.

Octavia E. Butler’s searing Kindred (1979) tells the story of a young woman — Dana Franklin — repeatedly yanked back in time from 1970s California to the brutal, pre-Civil War, slave-holding South.

The most memorable characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) are Celie, whose life starts off quite miserably; and blues singer Shug, who helps her. 

There’s also the proud, independent, haunted Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987); laborer-turned-detective Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990) and subsequent books; friends Savannah Jackson, Bernadine Harris, Robin Stokes, and Gloria Matthews in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale (1992); the two admirable women — Kiki Belsey and Carlene Kipps — married to less-than-admirable rival professors in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005); Ifemelu, the young Nigerian woman who goes through major changes after moving to the U.S. in Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s Americanah (2013); and Starr Carter, the brave teen girl who witnesses a racist shooting by police in Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (2017).

Among the compelling Black or biracial characters in novels written by white authors are harpooner Queequeq in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851); escaped slaves Eliza and George Harris in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852); the conflicted Ozias Midwinter in Wilkie Collins’ Armadale (1864); the troubled Joe Christmas in William Faulkner’s Light in August (1932); the kind, wrongly accused Tom Robinson in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960); scientist Ovid Byron in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012); and convicted-but-not-guilty attorney Malcolm Bannister in John Grisham’s The Racketeer (also 2012).

I’ve obviously just scratched the surface here. Anything you’d like to say about characters of color I mentioned or did not mention?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about the impact of COVID’s Omicron variant on my town — is here.

When Novelistic Brilliance Jumps Many Years

Herman Wouk in the 1980s. (ABC/Getty Images.)

If authors have two or more great novels in them, those books might be written within a relatively short period of time before the creative well dries up a bit or a lot. But other authors have written great novels many years apart; this post will focus on several instances involving a more-than-quarter-century gap.

I’m currently reading War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk’s devastatingly superb 1,039-page opus about World War II and the Holocaust. That 1978 novel — which frequently focuses on the lives of the fictional Henry family: U.S. Navy man Victor, his never-boring wife Rhoda, their pilot son Warren, their go-getter daughter Madeline, and their submariner son Byron (married to a Jewish woman, Natalie, trapped in Europe) — was published 27 years after Wouk’s terrific The Caine Mutiny (1951). A fairly large gap for brilliant books.

Published exactly a century before The Caine Mutiny was Herman Melville’s iconic Moby-Dick (1851), which predated Melville’s final stellar novel, Billy Budd, by nearly 40 years. Billy Budd was written shortly before the author’s 1891 death, and finally published posthumously in 1924.

Speaking of posthumous publication, Leo Tolstoy’s excellent short novel Hadji Murat came out in 1912 — two years after the author’s death and 45 years after the release of his legendary War and Peace (1867). Hadji Murat was written between 1896 and 1904 — still a long time after 1867.

Erich Maria Remarque’s memorable All Quiet on the Western Front came out in 1929, and his even-better-in-some ways The Night in Lisbon in 1962.

Just two years shorter than that impressive 33-year span was the time between Victor Hugo’s classics The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) and Les Miserables (1862). 

Also clocking in at 31 years apart were Daphne du Maurier’s renowned Rebecca (1938) and her compelling time-travel novel The House on the Strand (1969).

How about a 44-year gap? Colette’s hilarious debut novel Claudine at School came out in 1900 and her most famous work, Gigi, in 1944. What I consider her best novel, The Vagabond, was published in 1910 — still 34 years before Gigi.

Also published in 1944 was W. Somerset Maugham’s gripping The Razor’s Edge — 29 years after his magnum opus Of Human Bondage (1915).

While they weren’t Charles Dickens’ best books, his very funny debut novel The Pickwick Papers (1836) and his very good Our Mutual Friend (1864) came out 28 years apart — with of course quite a few ultra-famous works in between: David Copperfield, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, etc. 

Margaret Atwood? Her depressingly terrific The Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1985 and its mostly excellent sequel The Testaments 34 years later in 2019 — with, a la Dickens, some wonderful novels in between: Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, etc.

John Steinbeck’s first major novelistic success was Tortilla Flat (1935) and his last was The Winter of Our Discontent (1961) — a healthy 26 years apart. Twenty-six years that saw iconic works such as The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden.

Any other large gaps between great novels you’d like to discuss? Any thoughts on the ones I mentioned?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about such topics as COVID’s latest impact on my town’s schools — is here.

A Roundup of Round-Number Anniversaries Comes Around Again

With the dawning of the new year, thoughts again turn to round-number anniversaries of memorable novels. Let’s do this chronologically, shall we?

Daniel Defoe (pictured above) had quite a 1722 — exactly three centuries ago. Fresh off the success of 1719’s Robinson Crusoe, Defoe came out in 1722 with both Moll Flanders (which I’ve read) and A Journal of the Plague Year (which I haven’t yet). Among the reasons protagonist Moll Flanders is fascinating is that she’s a resourceful, law-breaking, “low-born” woman — certainly an unusual lead character for literature of that time.  

Jumping to 1822 — 200 years ago — there’s The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott. I’ve read quite a few Scott novels, but not that one. The Pirate got mixed reviews, making it less well-received than some of the author’s other historical-fiction works such as Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, and Old Mortality.

Many more novels were churned out in 1872 than in 1822, and perhaps the most famous were Jules Verne’s entertaining Around the World in Eighty Days and Lewis Carroll’s whimsical Through the Looking-Glass — the sequel to his classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That 150-years-ago time also saw the publication of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (also known as The Devils and The Possessed), widely considered one of his better novels.

Among 1922’s highlights a century ago was Babbitt, the conformity-satirizing novel that was part of an incredible 1920s run for Sinclair Lewis along with Main Street, Arrowsmith, Elmer Gantry, and Dodsworth. Also published in 1922 was Willa Cather’s World War I-themed One of Ours — not among her best novels (like My Antonia) but quite good. A couple of 1922 books I’ve yet to read are Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and James Joyce’s Ulysses — the latter of which I’ll get to in 2222 or thereabouts. 🙂  

Fifty years ago, aka 1972, saw the publication of such novels as Richard Adams’ rabbit-populated Watership Down and Margaret Atwood’s talented-woman-artist-populated Surfacing — both great reads in their different ways.

Finally, 25 years ago was quite a memorable time for fiction. J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular wizard-world series and Lee Child’s riveting Jack Reacher thrillers got started with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone* and Killing Floor, respectively. Among 1997’s other notable releases were Arundhati Roy’s stunning debut novel The God of Small Things, Charles Frazier’s compelling Civil War saga Cold Mountain, Don DeLillo’s wide-ranging Underworld, and Anita Diamant’s feminist-take-on-a-biblical-character The Red Tent. All very worth the time. (*Renamed Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone when published in the United States in 1998.)

Any comments about the books I mentioned? Other novels you’d like to name with round-number anniversaries this year?

One more thing: This blog’s 2021 statistics are pictured below. Thank you, everyone, for reading my weekly posts and for your MANY terrific comments!

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about COVID, congressional redistricting, and more — is here.

Christmas and Lit Are a Lyrical Fit

Yesterday was December 25, so I’m offering Christmas-time song snippets with silly revised lyrics about literature. 🙂

Sung to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”:

On the first day of Christmas
My book love sent to me
The Thorn Birds in a…trade paperback

Sung to the tune of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”:

I’ll be Sherlock Holmes for Christmas
Because I have multiple personalities
Please leave clues and booze by the tree
And money to pay my therapy fees

Sung to the tune of “Frosty the Snowman”:

There must have been some magic (realism)
In that Isabel Allende book they found
For when they put it on their sled
They were House of the Spirits-bound

Sung to the tune of “The Christmas Song”:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire
Herm Hesse nipping at some prose
The Steppenwolf in his character choir
Was not a wolf who hung with Eskimos 

Sung to the tune of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”:

Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer
Co-starred in The Red and the Black
And if you ever read it
Stendhal was clearly not a hack

Sung to the tune of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus”:

I saw Mommy kissing Outlander book nine
Underneath the mistletoe last night.
She didn’t see me creep
Through time-travel stones so steep
She thought I was watching reruns of Veep

Sung to the tune of “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”:

All I want for Christmas is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
Her novel White Teeth

Sung to the tune of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”:

Hark! The Los Angeles Angels sing
Their player Mike Trout has a better swing
Than Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout…d’oh
And John Grisham’s Calico Joe

Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bells”:

Dashing through the shelves
In your local library palace
The Lord of the Rings has elves
And hobbits with no malice

Sung to the tune of “Jingle Bell Rock”:

What a bright time, it’s the right time
To read more Reacher novels
Reacher book time, getting hooked time
As in left hook, right hook, villain grovels 

Sung to the tune of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year”:

It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With must-read-book gifts
You shouldn’t drop in snow drifts 
Because if you try to retrieve them
Your hands will be The Color Purple, I fear

Sung to the tune of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”:

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your Middlemarch paperback be light
From now on
The hardcover version’s out of sight

Sung to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas”:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Tolstoy
Everywhere you go
There’s war and there’s peace
And a train that didn’t cease
Anna Karenina…NO! 

Sung to the tune of “Christmas Wrapping”:

So deck those halls, trim those trees
Raise a cup of Christmas cheer
Just don’t spill it on your Kindle
Dousing To Eternity, From Here

Sung to the tune of “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”:

Later on, we’ll perspire
As we dream of the fires
In Fahrenheit 451
Burning books isn’t fun
Squawking in a quite asunder land

Sung to the tune of “White Christmas”:

I’m dreaming of a Woman in White Christmas
Reading the best book Wilkie Collins would write
May your novels be classic and long
And better than this badly revised song

Sung to the tune of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town”:

Making a TBR list
And checking it twice,
No one can read enough in their lives
Before The Grim Reaper is coming to town 

Sung to the tune of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)”:

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?
Another year over, a new book just begun…

Any lyrics you’d like to offer? 🙂

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s new mask mandate and more — is here.

Reimagining Characters in Literature

Lindsay Pearce as Elphaba in the current Broadway production of Wicked. (Photo by Joan Marcus.)

After seeing Wicked on Broadway last Sunday, I thought about how interesting it can be when characters in literature are reimagined.

The long-running musical — inspired by Gregory Maguire’s 1995 novel — features the Wicked Witch from L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and 1939’s iconic movie The Wizard of Oz. In Maguire’s novel and the Wicked play, the allegedly evil Elphaba is given a back story that shows why she turned “bad.” In fact, Elphaba/the Wicked Witch is depicted as not evil at all. 

It definitely makes one ponder things when a one-dimensional character is reimagined as three-dimensional.

While watching the excellent musical, I immediately thought of how the mostly not-nuanced “madwoman in the attic” of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) is given quite a psychological makeover in Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea (1966). That Jane Eyre prequel is much more sympathetic to Bronte’s “madwoman,” giving her a fuller personality and explaining how she became what she became.

Speaking of Jane Eyre-related books, Jasper Fforde’s 2001 novel The Eyre Affair features a “prose portal” in which literary detective Thursday Next enters Bronte’s novel and meets characters such as Edward Rochester, who’s portrayed somewhat differently than he was in 1847. 

Then there’s Zorro, the 1919 character creation from writer Johnston McCulley. In Isabel Allende’s 2005 novel Zorro, she fleshes out the swashbuckler’s personality and gives him a fascinating origin story. 

Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (also 2005) gives Penelope a more prominent — and more feminist — role than she had in Homer’s Odyssey, the ancient epic poem. 

I haven’t read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Seth Grahame-Smith’s 2009 take on Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. I imagine (and reimagine) I never will. 🙂

Do you have any literary reimaginings you’d like to mention? What do you think of the concept?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s township attorney getting an ill-deserved continuation of pay after resigning over a racist remark — is here.

An Anniversary Appreciation of Emile Zola

Emile Zola, as painted by Edouard Manet in 1868.

The almost-over 2021 is the 150th anniversary of the first of the 20 novels in Emile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart cycle. So, I’m writing this appreciation of the French author just in time. 🙂

Zola is nowhere near the best-known novelist of the 19th-century, but he’s in the top couple dozen — and I’m a big fan. 

While Zola had some writing success before 1871, notably with the 1868 potboiler Therese Raquin, it’s the Rougon-Macquart cycle for which he’s most remembered. Those vivid novels are considered “naturalist” and realistic, with each heavily researched book focusing on a specific theme — art, trains, laborers, retailing, alcoholism, prostitution, etc., in 19th-century France — while also offering gripping plots and compelling three-dimensional characters. The Rougons and Macquarts are two family branches, the first more upper class and the second more working class, whose members share various hereditary tendencies that tend to be on the negative side. In a number of cases, each of those women and men are secondary characters in some of the 20 books and get a star turn in others.

A major inspiration for Zola was earlier French novelist Honore de Balzac, whose “The Human Comedy” cycle also took a societal approach and also included characters who turned up more than once.

Zola’s 20-book series began with The Fortune of the Rougons in 1871, started to hit its stride with the third novel — The Belly of Paris (1873) — and then entered masterful mode with the seventh entry: The Drinking Den (1877), about an admirable, hardworking woman slammed by circumstances. The mature, riveting works that followed included Nana (1880), about a prostitute; The Ladies’ Paradise (1883), about a big department store that, a la Walmart, overwhelms mom-and-pop shops; Germinal (1885), which depicts a mining strike and is almost universally considered Zola’s crowning achievement; The Masterpiece (1886), about a struggling painter; and The Beast in Man (1890), featuring a breathtaking railroad theme. 

Interestingly, Zola might be best-known to some readers as the writer of the newspaper-published “J’Accuse” open letter defending Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer wrongly accused of treason by the French army. Zola’s courageous 1898 public stand against anti-Semitism resulted in plenty of critical and legal pushback — even forcing him to flee France for a time. So much pushback, in fact, that Zola’s 1902 death at age 62 by asphyxiation from a blocked chimney is considered a possible murder.

Yet many people admired Zola for his principles and his writing, and he would eventually be honored with burial in France’s Pantheon building, where I took this photo of his crypt during a 2018 visit to Paris:

I have one other slight connection with the author, having heard a talk by his scholar great-granddaughter 14 years ago in Aix-en-Provence, the city in the south of France where my French professor wife Laurel was also giving a paper at an Emile Zola-themed academic conference. One memorable part of the 2007 Aix visit was a long conference-attendee hike up beautiful Mont Saint-Victoire to see the dam Zola’s father was involved in building.

If you’ve read any of Zola’s work, any thoughts about it?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s township attorney belatedly resigning after making a racist remark — is here.

Why Mark Twain and L.M. Montgomery Belong in the Same Blog Post

Two renowned authors born on the same day were very different writers yet had a connection of sorts, and some similarities.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) and L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942) each came into the world on a November 30 — so their birthdays were last week.

The connection? Twain was a big fan of Montgomery’s 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, which Twain obviously read late in life. He said Anne Shirley “is the dearest and most moving and delightful child since the immortal Alice” of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

Similarities between the American and Canadian authors? Both created what are among literature’s most memorable early-teen/pre-teen characters — Montgomery with Anne, and Twain with Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Those protagonists are not only beloved and/or admired by young readers, but by adults as well. And the novels they appear in are highly entertaining, even as they’re also periodically depressing in subtle or overt ways.

While it’s not what they’re most famous for, both authors wrote compellingly about the horrors of war, too.

Twain did this most memorably in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court — his hilarious time-travel novel that’s also scathingly antiwar, something Hollywood pretty much sanitized in the 1949 movie version starring Bing Crosby.

And Montgomery wrote movingly about “The Great War” (now known as World War I) via the characters in Rilla of Ingleside — one of her best Anne of Green Gables sequels.

WWI is on my mind this week as I’ve been reading Pat Barker’s powerful novel Regeneration. Her historical-fiction work grippingly depicts the harrowing mental and physical effects of that brutal, bloody, almost totally senseless war on traumatized men who had been soldiers on the front and are now in a psychiatric hospital. Some of the characters are based on real people.

Regeneration author Pat Barker in 2001. (Photo by Suki Dhanda.)

While reading Regeneration, I saw it expertly reviewed on Robbie Cheadle’s blog:

And, speaking of skilled bloggers, Rebecca Budd mentioned Twain’s birthday and posted a great Twain quote the day I began writing this piece:

Also worth mentioning is that Twain and Montgomery shared the attribute of being VERY funny in their writing when they wanted to be. This is well-known with Twain, but perhaps not as well-known with Montgomery. Her novel The Blue Castle, for instance, expertly mixes hilarity with poignancy.

Here’s the only known film footage of Twain, from 1909. (Complete with typo in the clip’s headline. 😦 ) I couldn’t find any footage of Montgomery.

Anything you’d like to say about Twain and/or Montgomery?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — which laments increasingly higher rents in my town — is here.

Not Always 100% Narrative and Dialogue

Bel Kaufman with Sandy Dennis, who starred in the movie version of Ms. Kaufman’s novel Up the Down Staircase.

We admire the ingenuity of authors who include nontraditional elements in their novels, even as that sort of thing can get a bit annoying when overdone.

Most novels of course consist solely of narrative prose and dialogue. The exceptions are when authors throw in poems or songs or letters or emails or texts or newspaper clippings or memos or lists or recipes or drawings or… 

All this can make a novel more interesting, but also less smooth to read. We might feel interrupted, thrown out of our page-turning zone. Especially if the non-prose, non-dialogue elements are long or frequent. It can be hard to leave the comfort of our usual reading habits.

I just read Bel Kaufman’s Up the Down Staircase. It’s quite good — hilariously, frenetically, and at times movingly capturing the challenges faced by an idealistic new teacher in an urban high school where many students are troubled, classes are large, administrators are insanely over-bureaucratic, and supplies are in short…supply. But the semi-autobiographical 1964 novel is not always easy to get totally absorbed in, as it’s written entirely in the form of letters, lesson plans, student assignments, inter-school memos, meeting minutes, and so on. Still, a reader has got to hand it to Ms. Kaufman for creativity, for the social-justice bent in her best-selling book, and…for living an impressively long life, from 1911 to 2014.

Nontraditional elements didn’t significantly slow down another recently read book: J.K. Rowling’s Troubled Blood. That crime novel features many text messages (in bold type), but they’re brief — as text messages usually are. And the book’s full-page drawings by a police-detective character losing his mind are used sparingly. The texts and drawings definitely enhance the novel, as nontraditional elements can do.

Among the other novels that include nontraditional elements are A.S. Byatt’s Possession, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Wilkie Collins’ Armadale, H. Rider Haggard’s She, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Fanny Burney’s Evelina, to name just a few. Those Burney and Goethe novels are a reminder that a number of 18th-century novels feature plenty of correspondence between characters — the epistolary format.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme? Do you like or not like it when novels include lots of content other than narrative prose and dialogue?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — containing local news to be thankful and not thankful for on Thanksgiving — is here.

Some Blog Posts Have Staying Power

If you’re a blogger, I’m sure you periodically go “backstage” on your site to look at viewership statistics. When I do that, I see a recurring thing I’d like to mention this week.

My most-read posts at a given time are of course the most recent ones. But continuing to lurk in second, third, or fourth place every week and month is a piece I published three-and-half years ago — on June 3, 2018. You’d think most people would have read it by now, but WordPress users (perhaps newer ones?) keep finding it, as do people searching the Internet for that topic. 

The post is “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction,” and I guess it struck a nerve. Many people are fascinated with real and fictional women in the arts, and the 1800s certainly had plenty of iconic female authors and protagonists such as the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, and their creations. Some male authors of that era created memorable women characters, too. All during a time that was sadly ultra-patriarchal.

In addition, the novel as a genre really came into its own during the 1800s — so there’s a LOT of interest in fiction books of that era. The large number of great, iconic 19th-century novels is hard to count. 

Anyway, here’s a link to that 2018 blog post, which I also cut-and-pasted after the next paragraph.

If you’d like to add any new comments about the 2018 post under today’s post, please do. And if you’re a blogger, which of your posts keep getting read the most — months or years after you first published them? Also, why are those pieces popular, if you have any theories about that.

Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction

June 3, 2018

We look back on the 1800s as a time of rampant sexism, patriarchy, male dominance, gender inequality — whatever you want to call it. And it was indeed that sort of time. But a number of 19th-century female novelists, and a few male ones, managed to directly or indirect speak against that in some of their books.

I thought of this last week while reading Lelia by George Sand (born Amandine Lucile Aurore Dupin). In that fascinating 1833 novel, the independent, intellectual, skeptical, cynical, depressed, world-weary, God-doubting title character in some ways sounds like she could be living in 2018 — if the eloquent language used in Sand’s philosophical book were more casual and not densely rich like a lot of 19th-century prose was. Lelia is not always an easy book to read, but you’ll rarely see better writing than penned by Sand.

Anne Elliot of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1818) is another strong heroine. The capable Anne is in love with Captain Frederick Wentworth, but lives a very useful life even as the relationship between her and Wentworth is thwarted for years.

The star of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) has strong feminist leanings that come out in various ways — including her pride in being smart, her need to work, and her insistence that she be an equal in marriage.

Helen in Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848) courageously leaves her abusive/alcoholic husband to save both her son and her own self-worth. It’s a novel so feminist that Anne’s not-quite-as-feminist sister Charlotte unfortunately helped prevent wider distribution of it after Anne’s death.

Of course, some of the 19th century’s male critics and readers slammed works that dared depict women as equal to men. Undoubtedly one of the reasons fewer women back then tried to write novels — and a number of those who did write them used male or gender-neutral aliases.

Another author with a George pseudonym, George Eliot (born Mary Ann Evans), created a number of strong women — including lay preacher Dinah Morris of Adam Bede (1859). And Eliot lamented the second-class citizenry of female characters in novels such as The Mill on the Floss (1860), in which Maggie Tulliver’s less-brainy brother is treated much better than her by their parents and society as a whole.

Jo March, who thirsts to be a writer, is another non-stereotypical 19th-century female — in Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel Little Women.

And Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899) depicts Edna Pontellier’s memorable rebellion against her constricted role as a wife and mother.

Can 1900 be considered the last year of the 19th century? If so, Colette’s Claudine at School belongs in this discussion with its assertive, mischievous, hilarious protagonist.

Some male novelists of the 1800s also created female protagonists who didn’t act like stereotypical women of their time. Examples include Jeanie Deans in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian (1818), Judith Hutter of James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer (1841), Becky Sharp of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847), Hester Prynne of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), Marian Halcombe of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859), the title character in Thomas Hardy’s The Hand of Ethelberta (1876), journalist Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady (1881), and the martyred protagonist in Mark Twain’s historical novel Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896).

Of course, there were also strong women in pre-1800s novels, with just two examples being the very different stars of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722) and Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778). Moll has a tougher exterior than Evelina, but the latter protagonist also has lots of inner strength.

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about a coming “Greenway” and some local leaders treating my town’s library in a mean way — is here.