Authors From One Country Who Set Books in Another Country

It’s of course interesting to read novels set in countries other than where the reader lives. And those books can be written from two main vantage points.

One is for a novel set in a certain nation to be written by an author from that nation. Such a book most likely offers a local protagonist, deep knowledge of the culture, and so on.

The second vantage point involves novels that are set (or partly set) in countries other than where the authors live. That can often (not always) mean a protagonist from the writer’s country, a more superficial knowledge of the other country’s culture, etc. A non-native character who visits or lives in another nation is usually not truly representative of that country, but there’s the potential positive of the sojourning protagonist being sort of a guide or surrogate who helps readers understand the other country from an outsider perspective.

This blog post will focus on the latter scenario, and an excellent example is Mexico — one of the long/heavily researched novels by American author James Michener (pictured), and a book I’m currently reading.

It stars Norman Clay, a journalist born in Mexico to a Mexican mother and American father who has lived in the U.S. for many years before returning to his native country to write a story about a rivalry between two very different bullfighters. We see Mexico, and learn a lot about its present and past, through Norman’s eyes. Several of the novel’s fully Mexican characters are more interesting than Clay, but he is a guide/surrogate that a good number of American readers might relate to most.

Then we have novels in which we see the U.S. through the eyes of English authors and characters — with two examples being Martin Chuzzlewit (Charles Dickens jump-started sagging serial sales by sending Martin across the ocean) and Paradise News (David Lodge’s Bernard protagonist is a fish-out-of-water visiting Hawaii).

France? English author Charlotte Bronte gave her perspective on that country by setting Villette there. And Scottish author Sir Walter Scott did the same in Quentin Durward — though his perspective was on the France of the 1400s, nearly four centuries before Scott’s novel was written.

Plenty of novels have focused on white people traveling to Africa, for better or often for worse. Two American authors who made that happen with from-the-U.S. characters include Barbara Kingsolver in The Poisonwood Bible and Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky.

We also have the interesting case of Buchi Emecheta, the Nigerian-born British author whose semi-autobiographical novel Second Class Citizen is about a Nigerian woman who moves to England. The book was published in 1974, when the author was already in England for 12 years, so we had at that time a British author writing about Nigeria (early in Second Class Citizen) and a Nigerian-born author writing about England (later in that novel).

There’s a similar cultural juxtaposition in The Kite Runner by Afghanistan-born U.S. author Khaled Hosseini, whose family left his native country when the future writer was 11. Hosseini’s novel starts in Afghanistan, moves to the U.S., goes back to Afghanistan, and finally returns to the U.S.

Not a novel, but a book that almost reads like one, is Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. In that travel book, Twain is a highly observant and drop-dead hilarious guide who gave American readers a look at various European and Mideast countries in the 1860s.

Your favorite novels that fit this topic?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which discusses a pretentious, overpriced hotel coming to my town — is here.

Literature’s LGBTQ Characters: an Update

In honor of June 2019’s Pride Month, I’m going to revisit LGBTQ characters in fiction — LGBTQ of course standing for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer.

I previously wrote about this topic in 2013 (a year before starting this blog) and mentioned a number of novels with openly, closeted, or maybe-they-are/maybe-they-aren’t LGBTQ characters in lead or supporting roles. Among those books were Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Colette’s Claudine at School, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Margaret Drabble’s The Sea Lady, Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

This blog post will mention some of the novels I’ve read since 2013 with LGBTQ characters.

Despite the cruel right-wing intolerance in the U.S. and elsewhere that’s setting back various kinds of human rights these days, LGBTQ people are generally more accepted in many places than decades ago. This is reflected in recent literature — where there are more LGBTQ characters (from both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ authors), where these characters are usually treated more positively or at least more three-dimensionally than in the past, and where in many cases a big deal isn’t made of these characters; they’re one of the many parts of the human mosaic. That’s a good thing.

The five-person Lambert family that Jonathan Franzen focuses on in The Corrections (a great novel I also mentioned last week) includes daughter Denise, who’s had a bisexual life but is almost certainly lesbian. Her portrayal is satisfying and convincing partly because her sexual life is depicted as just one of many aspects of her — she’s also a conflicted daughter/sibling, a strong personality, very smart, a star professional chef, a hard worker, generous at times, unkind at other times, etc.

In Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy — which begins with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — the brilliant, abused, troubled, brave, vengeance-seeking Lisbeth Salander is bisexual. The most memorable character in those three riveting novels.

Among the many memorable characters J.K. Rowling has expertly created, from her Harry Potter series to her crime fiction, have been LGBTQ ones. For instance, in The Cuckoo’s Calling novel written under Rowling’s Robert Galbraith pen name, Guy Somé (pictured on the right in the above photo) is stereotypical in certain ways (he’s a fashion designer) but is depicted as a fairly complex person devoid of several other gay stereotypes.

The Secret History‘s Francis Abernathy is gay but that’s not overemphasized in Donna Tartt’s compelling debut novel. Her emphasis is more on the insularity and strangeness of the small group (including Francis) that protagonist Richard falls in with when he goes to college.

It’s not secret history that there’ve been LGBTQ people throughout time, and one example of this is in Philippa Gregory’s excellent novel Earthly Joys. Set in the 17th century, it features a master royal gardener (John Tradescant) who’s married to a woman but ends up having a same-gender sexual dalliance with a charismatic “bad boy” duke.

A novel that sort of/sort of not fits this blog post is Abigail Tarttelin’s excellent Golden Boy, which — like Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex — features an intersex character. The hermaphroditic gender confusion embodied in protagonist Max Walker has echoes of what transgender people face.

Your favorite novels featuring LGBTQ 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — which comedically compares my town in 2019 vs. 1796 — is here.

Is Overwriting a Thing?

We admire authors who are great prose stylists. But overwriting can sometimes be a problem.

There are novels that make readers gape at how well authors put sentences together. Evocative descriptions, awesome grasp of language, clever wordplay, scintillating dialogue, etc. The question is whether the writer is showing off, and whether the wonderful prose can be a bit distracting to things like the plot, character development, and the emotions we want to feel. On the other hand, maybe that wonderful prose is a joy to read and makes everything better.

I thought about all this last week while reading The Corrections, in which Jonathan Franzen unleashes writing fireworks even when describing relatively mundane things. One example:

“Chip sat on a freezing guardrail and smoked and took comfort in the sturdy mediocrity of American commerce, the unpretending metal and plastic roadside hardware. The thunk of a gas-pump nozzle halting when a tank was filled, the humility and promptness of its service. And a 99-cent ‘Big Gulp’ banner swelling with wind and sailing nowhere, its nylon ropes whipping and pinging on a galvanized standard. And the black sanserif numerals of gasoline prices, the company of so many 9’s…”

Impressive? Sure. A bit over-the-top? Probably. Franzen also periodically overdoes the language thing in his later, more-famous Freedom. But despite that and despite both novels having quite a few cringe-worthy characters, I liked the books a lot. Franzen’s skillful depiction of dysfunctional-family dynamics and his scathing social satire certainly help.

I’m also a fan of most novels by Cormac McCarthy, who’s seemingly incapable of writing a straightforward sentence — instead using rich prose that gets almost biblical at times. That’s also the case in Herman Melville’s work. Gabriel Garcia Marquez often uses lavish, bountiful wording that I feel doesn’t go overboard. And Mary Shelley, in novels such as Frankenstein and The Last Man, is a master as well at the kind of “overwriting” that’s totally welcome.

Marcel Proust is a bit of a different story for me. I was bowled over by his language and imagery when I read In Search of Lost Time, but I also found that famous fictional work frustrating enough, and sometimes almost boring enough, to give up after several hundred pages. I know that many literature lovers feel differently.

Then there’s Henry James. I’ve greatly enjoyed his early and mid-career novels, which are full of excellent literary writing but not too dense; The Portrait of a Lady is my favorite example of that. I also liked The Ambassadors — the one late-career James novel I’ve read — but it was at times somewhat of an overwritten slog to get through, even as a good deal of the prose was exquisite.

William Faulkner also elicits mixed reactions from me. I loved Light in August, liked As I Lay Dying, abandoned Absalom, Absalom! fairly early, and ran screaming from The Sound and the Fury after 30 or so incomprehensible (to me) pages.

Toni Morrison? I admired the very ambitious Beloved, but got lost in it at times and ended up liking rather than loving it. Something like Morrison’s Sula is much more straightforward, albeit not as interesting as Beloved — which wrestles with The Big Issues (virulent racism, the true meaning of good parenting, and more) amid the often-superb writing.

Umberto Eco? Big fan of The Name of the Rose; got a headache reading the overwritten Foucault’s Pendulum.

I haven’t sampled James Joyce and Virginia Woolf widely enough to comment on their most challenging works, but I really liked some of Joyce’s Dubliners story collection (especially “The Dead”) and all of Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway.

George Eliot, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky have the reputation among some novel-goers of being “difficult” authors, but I find them VERY readable — even as they satisfy those of us seeking fantastic prose, literary flourishes, psychological nuance, and a deep dive into “the human condition.”

Anyway, I’m sure your opinions will vary about which novelists overwrite and which don’t. Your thoughts, and the authors you feel fit this topic? Or is there no overwriting problem if a novelist is good enough?

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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — covering everything from a march against draconian anti-abortion laws to an anti-war take on Memorial Day — is here.