Authors Affecting Authors

Austen - BurneyAll authors are influenced by other authors, whether that influence is conscious or unconscious. Most writers are not plagiarists, of course, but their reading of other writers has an impact — often manifested in their early work before developing a more original voice.

One of the most famous quotes about authorial influence was Dostoyevsky supposedly saying, “We all come out from Gogol’s Overcoat.” Fyodor was referring to Nikolai Gogol’s nightmarishly great 1842 short story “The Overcoat,” which had an effect on some of the legendary 19th-century Russian authors whose prime writing days would follow. A group that of course included Dostoyevsky, Leo Tolstoy, Ivan Turgenev, and Anton Chekhov.

Gogol (1809-1852) was a contemporary — albeit a geographically distant one — of Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849), who was also a major influence on a number of later writers. Poe managed to do this in at least three genres, being a horror-story pioneer who helped inspire the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, Stephen King, and others; a detective-story pioneer (with tales such as “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”) who influenced subsequent sleuth writing by Wilkie Collins (The Moonstone), Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes), etc.; and a producer of sea fiction (including The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket) that helped inspire Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Staying with 19th-century influencers for a while, Mary Shelley, then Jules Verne, and then H.G. Wells were science-fiction trailblazers who paved the way for Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Octavia E. Butler, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein, Ursula K. Le Guin, and others in the 20th century.

Charles Dickens’ funny, sprawling, socially conscious novels have some ancestral elements to what we see in John Irving’s books.

One 19th-century author influencing another was Honore de Balzac, whose realism and the placing of the same characters in different novels helped inspire Emile Zola.

Going back further in time, 18th-century novelist Fanny Burney was a favorite of Jane Austen, who even found her Pride and Prejudice title in a sentence from Burney’s 1782 novel Cecilia. (Austen is pictured with that book atop this blog post.)

Moving to more recent authors, a young Toni Morrison was an avid reader of Austen and Tolstoy — and it shows in her work, along with influences from such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez (magic realism), Zora Neale Hurston (rural/folklore elements), and James Baldwin (a finely tuned radar on racism).

Hurston was also one of the influences on Alice Walker, who found what was believed to be Hurston’s unmarked Florida grave in 1973 and then wrote an influential 1975 Ms. magazine article about Zora that helped revive Hurston’s unfairly faded reputation.

Again mentioning Marquez, his One Hundred Years of Solitude was clearly a partial template for Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. Both are multigenerational sagas with plenty of magic realism and political awareness.

A keen political/feminist sensibility, while almost never getting preachy, makes the 1955-born Barbara Kingsolver somewhat a literary descendant of the 1939-born Margaret Atwood.

Atwood’s canon of course includes several dystopian/speculative-fiction novels, which reminds me that George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four was obviously influenced by Aldous Huxley’s earlier Brave New World — if only to take a different approach to the future in having a society controlled by terror rather than through “pleasurable” distraction. Heck, Huxley was even briefly one of Orwell’s teachers at Eton.

Back in the USA, there’s a direct line of dark antiwar humor running from Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961) to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969).

America’s Southern Gothic genre also has its connections. Cormac McCarthy, with his rich prose and unsettling situations, is a literary heir to William Faulkner. In the more humorous Southern Gothic realm, Erskine Caldwell kind of led to Charles Portis.

Ernest Hemingway’s terse prose influenced numerous writers — with one of my current favorites being Lee Child of Jack Reacher series renown.

And when it comes to modernist, often-nonlinear fiction, contemporaries James Joyce and Virginia Woolf (both with 1882-1941 life spans) had some major literary similarities.

I realize I’ve just scratched the surface here. Any authors influencing other authors you’d like to discuss — including ones I mentioned or didn’t?

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 The latest piece — about a high school graduating class that went through a lot — is here.

A Few Favorite Fathers in Fiction

Silas MarnerToday is Father’s Day, so, in an effort to write a blog post with the most unoriginal theme ever, I’m going to discuss some of my favorite dads in literature — seven to be exact. I’ll go backward in time, starting with the most recent releases.

Subhash Mitra of Jhumpa Lahiri’s 2013 novel The Lowland marries Gauri, the pregnant wife of his revolutionary brother Udayan after the charismatic-but-irresponsible Udayan is killed. The uncharismatic Subhash becomes a devoted father to Bela even as Gauri turns out to be a distracted mother who eventually abandons the family.

Arthur Weasley of the Harry Potter series is fun, brave, and a bit spacey. That last quality is not surprising given how large the Weasley family is and how much he and other sympathetic characters in J.K. Rowling’s 1997-2007 books have to deal with the havoc-wreaking Lord Voldemort.

A secondary character in Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 post-apocalyptic novel Parable of the Sower is the wise and kind (but prone to wishful thinking) minister/professor father of protagonist Lauren Olamina, who calls him “the best man I know.” Enough said.

There’s of course Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). The widowed dad of Scout and her brother Jem is warm to his children, disciplines them some but not too much, and is of course a highly principled attorney who defends an innocent African-American man. The white Atticus doesn’t comes off as well in the early TKAM draft Go Set a Watchman, but…

Adoptive father Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables (1908) is shy, quiet, and far from confident, but is a gentle, kind farmer who develops a wonderful relationship with the precocious Anne.

Then there’s Silas Marner (pictured at the top of this blog post). He’s a bitter, lonely miser in the first part of George Eliot’s 1861 novel, so I didn’t see his heartwarming adoption of Eppie coming — and how effective (albeit somewhat bumbling) his parenting would be.

Finally, I’ll mention Bob Cratchit of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1843). Cratchit lives a difficult life as Ebenezer Scrooge’s underpaid/overworked clerk, but has a positive outlook on life and is a devoted dad to his six children — including the physically challenged Tiny Tim.

Your favorite fathers in literature?

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 The latest piece — which has a dual election theme — is here.

When Novelists Display Intolerance

Cormoran and Robin

J.K. Rowling is one of my favorite living authors. Her Harry Potter series is amazing, of course, but I also like her downbeat The Casual Vacancy novel and love her compelling crime series (written under the Robert Galbraith pen name) starring the pictured-above private investigators Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott.

So it was especially disappointing to learn that the mostly liberal, very philanthropic Rowling — almost always tolerant and humanistic in her novels — seemingly has some backward views about transgender people. Here’s a story from two days ago:

That once again brings up the subject — which I’ve covered before — of reading authors we might disagree with on some very important issues. Do we want to spend time with writers who have views that are racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, and/or whatever?

It’s a good question, partly answered by the fact that some authors with backward views keep those views out of their novels while other authors intentionally or subconsciously include those views in their fiction. Also, whether or not one keeps reading those writers can depend on how much you like their work. And of course there are few authors out there whose opinions any particular reader will 100% share. (I did reach that 100% threshold when proofreading my own two books before they were published. 🙂 )

Anyway, if I like a novelist’s work enough, I’ll keep reading them even if one or some of their views bother me. For instance, Rowling’s fifth Cormoran/Robin crime novel — Troubled Blood — is due out this September and I eagerly plan to read it. But I’ll feel some guilt doing so that I never felt before when enjoying Rowling’s superb writing.

I made a different decision with Orson Scott Card. I read one of his novels, which I liked but didn’t love, before learning that he was virulently/publicly anti-gay. Even though there was little indication of that in Lost Boys, I figured why bother reading more of Card’s books — there are countless other authors out there to try.

I reached a similar conclusion regarding the sexist Norman Mailer and John Updike — I just didn’t like their work enough to keep reading them after one book apiece. Ernest Hemingway’s sexism is also off-putting, though my feelings are mixed enough about him and his novels that I’ve read three of them.

Authors such as Jack London and H.P. Lovecraft are well-known for their racism (quite a lot of it in their personal views and some in their fiction), but I like their novels and stories enough to have read many of them despite my dismay over their bigotry.

I’ve also kept reading iconic 19th-century novelists such as Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Charles Dickens, and Sir Walter Scott despite some anti-Semitism in their work. It helps a bit to remember that they were “of their time” — anti-Semitism was pretty blatant in the 1800s, though the great George Eliot broke that mold with the memorable Jewish characters in her fabulous Daniel Deronda. It also helps that Dostoyevsky, Dickens, and Scott were masterful novelists whose anti-Semitic moments in their writing were nowhere near constant. With Dostoyevsky, it was basically some occasional asides in his novels. With Dickens, it was mostly the Fagin character in Oliver Twist, which the author later revised to make less objectionable. And Scott’s painfully stereotypical depiction of the money-lender Isaac in Ivanhoe was counterbalanced by the sympathetic, three-dimensional depiction of Isaac’s daughter Rebecca.

The “of their time” factor is of course also in the debate mix when seeing racism, sexism, and homophobia in older novels. Also, we should always think about whether authors are bigoted people themselves or are not-bigoted people periodically depicting bigotry in their fiction.

Finally, I have a little more tolerance for intolerance from novelists than from politicians, who have such direct lawmaking control over our lives. If those pols are very intolerant people, they won’t get my vote.

How do you feel about authors who espouse prejudiced views in real life and/or in their novels? Do you continue to read them or not?

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 The latest piece — about two huge Black Lives Matter rallies/marches in my town — is here.

Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature

Go Tell It

During a time when the media is full of news about America’s two most infamous racists — the depraved Donald Trump and Derek Chauvin (the hateful white cop who murdered black Minneapolis resident George Floyd) — I’m depressingly reminded of virulent racists in literature.

Some of those repugnant characters are in great novels, making those books both must-reads and exceedingly painful reads. But also at times inspiring reads as that racism might be opposed or avenged, individually and collectively.

Among fiction’s awful racists? We have the white New York City cops who arrest Richard, the brainy African-American father of protagonist John Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, for a crime he did not commit. Richard is beaten and jailed, and eventually commits suicide in despair — before John is born.

Another vicious white-supremacist cop is Norman Daniels, who raped a black woman in the backstory of Stephen King’s novel Rose Madder.

There are of course plenty of racist white characters who aren’t cops. One of them is Bob Ewell, who falsely accuses a black man — Tom Robinson — of raping his daughter Mayella in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Disastrous consequences follow.

Then there’s the racist white mob that kills Sam (a black man) because he and Katherine (a white woman) fall in love in Louis Sachar’s Holes.

Going back to 19th-century literature, we have the racist Henri in Georges — the only novel the partly black French author Alexandre Dumas wrote that focuses on characters of color.

There are plenty of cruel white slaveowners in fiction, too. Among the better-known ones are Rufus Weylin of Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred, Simon Legree of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Tom Lea of Alex Haley’s Roots.

All of the above characters are overtly racist. There are of course countless other white people in literature more subtly racist — some of them quite wealthy, like Trump allegedly is.

Any fictional racist characters you’d like to 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 award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for The latest piece — about the police murder of George Floyd and various news that’s local to my town — is here.