Novels That Seem Like the ‘Children’ of Previous Novels

This will be a post about “literary parentage.”

Have you ever read a novel and felt it was sort of the child of two other books or two other authors? Not that the novel was plagiarized by any means, but that it was seemingly influenced by — or at least reminded you of — a previous pair of works or writers. And I realize that the authors of the more recent novels may not have even read the earlier novels.

All this occurred to me last week while reading the low-key but absorbing Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (pictured above). The Nobel Prize winner — best known for his also-subtle The Remains of the Day — is a very original author whose sci-fi-ish Never Let Me Go is a very original novel, so it’s not a criticism when I say I felt I was reading an interesting amalgam of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and the fiction of Henry James.

Naturally, I then thought of the “literary parentage” other novels evoke. For instance, John Irving’s The Cider House Rules — with its orphanage, its sweep, its social consciousness, its feminist aspects, etc. — feels a bit like the child of books by Charles Dickens and Margaret Atwood. How’s that for DNA? (With the D being Dickens and the A being Atwood.)

A.S. (Antonia Susan) Byatt’s fabulous novel Possession reminds a reader of the poetry/stalking elements of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire and the academic-gets-into-an-unexpected-romance theme of Alison Lurie’s Foreign Affairs. (Ms. Lurie died at age 94 this past Thursday, December 3 — a day after I finished writing this post.)

Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress? With its depiction of living in a racist society and its California detective-noir vibe, it at times seems like an amalgam of novels by James Baldwin and Raymond Chandler.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, full of hilariously cutting anti-war/anti-military satire, brings to mind Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, which features deeply humanized characters with grave illnesses/disabilities, evokes earlier novels such as Johanna Spyri’s Heidi and Nicholas Sparks’ A Walk to Remember.

And the child-of-a-traumatizing-mother, emerging-from-her-loner-shell Eleanor of Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine feels like a cross between Ove of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove and Ms. Valancy Stirling of L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle.

Any “literary parentage” examples 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — my 200th since moving the column from the newspaper where it started — is here.

69 thoughts on “Novels That Seem Like the ‘Children’ of Previous Novels

  1. I love your idea of literary parenthood. I remember that when I read The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, it reminded me of Dreiser’s American Tragedy, which in turn has similarities to Stendahl’s The Black and the Red. In the non-fiction category, I just read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. His writing seems heavily influenced by James Baldwin.

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    • Thank you, Carol, for those excellent examples of books/authors that reminded you of previous books/authors! I’ve read both Dreiser and Stendhal, and hadn’t thought of the connection, but I can see it now that you mentioned it. And James Baldwin’s writing is terrific and powerful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Then there are the books which come into existence in reaction to prior books: No “Shamela” without “Pamela”. Sorta like ‘answer songs’ of the literary category. Without Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life” there could be no “It Wasn’t God Who made Honky Tonk Angels”, which proved to be the most durable of all songs recorded by Kitty Wells. Among the most famous of literary answer-songs– “Gulliver’s Travels”, by Jonathan Swift, chiefly a satire on Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe”, and the entire sub-genre of traveler’s tales popular at the time.

    Sometimes it’s a matter of style– “Why Are We in Vietnam? “by William Mailer is a borrowing of the prose stylings of William Burroughs, without the baggage of Mr. Burrough’s peculiar obsessions– though other peculiar obsessions, such as grizzly bear hunting, are featured therein.

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  3. Great post! It reminded me not so much of literary parents but ancestors. I think “The Age of Innocence” by Edith Wharton is the ancestor of “Bonfire of the Vanities” by Tom Wolfe. Both novels are about New York society, set one hundred years apart.

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    • Thank you, vanaltman! That’s an excellent Wharton-Wolfe connection! Edith Wharton definitely focused on New York society in a number of her novels (“Ethan Frome” is a major exception), and knew that society from the inside as someone from a wealthy family. As you might be aware of, the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” originally referred to the family Wharton grew up in; her maiden name was Jones.

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  4. First of all, Dave,I would like to thank you for all the great books you mentioned here above and, frankly speaking, for me, this is quite a challenging question! When I saw your Cider House Rules I immediately thought of CHILDREN, which brought me to Mr. Pip by Lloyd. There is a white man, who takes charge of the indigenious children as a teacher. These children were left unattended during the war in Bougainville /Papua New Guinea and he reads with them Great Expectations and gives Matilda the hope to live. Of course, the teacher is a man, but Matilda’s mother is an absolutely important character in this book, so we also have the feminist side.
    Many thanks to you all for your very helpful comments.
    Best regards Martina

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome, Martina, and thank you for the comment! Such an interesting connection you made — and that novels in general can make. And I’m a fan of novels that mention other novels in their pages and make them part of the story. 🙂

      Best regards to you, too!

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      • Good morning, Dave and many thanks for your kind words! In the meantime I had another idea, which derives from the marvellous book SHANTARAM, by Gregory Roberts, which I am reading now, and which shows how a trip can change our lives, like the philosophical book NIGHT TRAIN TO LISBON, by the Swiss writer Pasqual Mercier. This period givs us a lot of time to read:)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, Martina, and good morning to you, too! I appreciate the mentions of the Roberts and Mercier works — both now on my to-read list. 🙂

          Travel can indeed be life-changing, whether subtly or overtly. It certainly helps make people more open-minded and tolerant and knowledgeable, if they will let it.

          And I hear you about the pandemic opening up more time to read, as we spend less time on certain other things — including travel. 😦 Earlier in the pandemic, starting in the spring, I read all of Diana Gabaldon’s (lengthy) “Outlander” novels — a wonderful experience. Not the deepest of literature, but deep enough. 🙂

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          • I very much hope that you will have less problems than last time when going to the library:) There is one very impressive sentence in P. Mercier’s book which, more or less goes as follows: If it is true that we can live only a very small part of what is in us, what hapens with the rest?
            Roberts seem to love Bombay, its smells, sounds, heat, but it’s the village in the North, where he or the main character starts to be.
            I very much agree with what you say about travelling, so we have the possibility to make the world come to us! 🙂 I don’t know the writer of the”Outlander”, but I have taken note and seen that it’s also about religion. First, as you may remember I will read the cat’s eye! I am very slow because I read books in several languages.
            I very much appreciate your sugestions and advice:)

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            • I hope so, too, Martina! I have my strategy set: carry a list of books I want in alphabetical order by author, so I can go up and down the aisles in a logical rather than haphazard way during the 30-minute time limit. 🙂

              That’s a profound quote by Mercier, and a very thought-provoking question he poses.

              Yes, “Outlander” has some religious aspects, though a larger theme is time-travel adventure and romance.

              VERY impressive that you read books in several languages!

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              • I read Mercier’s “Night Train to Lisbon”, and found it intriguing, intentionally intriguing, while reading through it, but after, found I had been waiting for something or someone or some thought that had never arrived, and by that time, the benches in the Visitor’s Lounge were making my scrawny backside sore.

                The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything lies elsewhere, though I’ve read it’s really 42. Go figger.

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      • Good post Dave. I don’t have anybody new to add as to DNA of other writers. I am also a big fan of writers mentioning other writers in their books. Bukowski, Fante, and Rand to mention a few. I plan on getting a few books of Chuck Palahniuk’s influences.I do have Haunted by him of which I haven’t read yet.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘North and South’ strikes me as the child of Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’—the dark unapproachable hero who belongs to a different and powerful world observed/belittled by an intelligent and self-determined heroine. In a very different setting of course (industrial and violent) but one equally marked by pride and prejudice. The other parent is Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Shirley’ (published just five years before ‘North and South’), which made the leap to examine the new manufacturing world and the mindset of the bosses and proletariat.

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    • Thank you, Dog-eared blogger! I like that example a lot — and well-described!

      I haven’t read “North and South” (the only Elizabeth Gaskell novel I’ve gotten to is “Cranford”) but I’ve read “P&P” and “Shirley.” And interesting that Gaskell has the connection of having known Charlotte Bronte and written a famous biography of her.

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  6. What a super, thought-provoking post, Dave, thank you. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes, by Mark Twain:
    “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.” This helps me push on with making art (in whatever form) even though it feels like there is nothing new to say. I had never thought about it in the context of novels, but it is obvious now!!

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    • Thank you, Liz, for your kind words about the post! And that’s a GREAT quote by Twain, and so true. There is absolutely nothing to write that hasn’t been written in one form or another; the genius is being “original” within that reality/framework.

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  7. You’ve got the little grey cells working overtime here! I’m currently reading ‘The Turn of the Screw’ by Henry James and I’ve been studying an extract from ‘The woman in White’ by Wilkie Collins with some of my students. I’m going to put forward a progressive 19th century coupling that produced ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill. Of course this is cheating a little as the very reason for the existence of Hill’s novella is for the influence of the whole genre of Victorian Gothic Horror.
    You pose an interesting question here because of course authors are very much influenced by what they read. Would it be possible to identify the lineage of an author’s influences through the DNA of their characters and words? I certainly think there must be something in it!

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    • Thank you, Sarah! I haven’t read “The Woman in Black,” but just googled a description and can see how it might be “descended” from “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Woman in White.” Come to think of it, the low-key/subtle spookiness of “The Turn of the Screw” might also have had some influence on Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House.”

      Fascinating question in your second paragraph! If there are any mathematician/novelist types out there, they might enjoy doing research of that sort. 🙂

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      • I have to say I only read The Turn of the Screw in daylight. The subtlety you mention is quite a craft. I’m a newcomer to Shirley Jackson’s work but I’m now more aware of how influential she has been to others – I’m going to hazard a guess at Stephen King here, amongst others. And I suppose the grandfather of them all is Edgar Allen Poe!

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        • Reading “The Turn of the Screw” only in daylight sounds wise, Sarah. 🙂

          You’re right about Shirley Jackson being influential. I think Stephen King has indeed cited her as such, though much of his fiction is less subtle than her fiction. Still, some King novels — such as “From a Buick 8” — are subtle indeed.

          And, yes, Poe was an enormous influence on a number of later writers — including H.P. Lovecraft, too.

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          • I was much braver in my youth and read horror stories then – I think it’s a rite of passage and I suppose some stick with it and others discover Empire line dresses. My forays into King’s work are the seminal horror ones – Pet Sematary, Christine and so on. I should perhaps read some of his short stories.

            So of course I’ve been pondering your question for much of the day! I’ve found a sib-pair with uncertain parentage, although I’m sure there are a few contenders. I was thinking that ‘The Picture of Dorian Grey’ and ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ have many similarities – not least because they’re written around the same time – and are most likely directly descended from ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley. The themes of science, religion and the human condition are what struck me as linking the three.

            Perhaps we could add Mr Stoker to this and put forward ‘Dracula’? Whilst ‘Dorian Grey’ is a fairly straightforward narrative (if memory serves – please correct me if I’m wrong!), the others are narrated by a character (J&H), provide diary entries (Dracula) and personal accounts (Frankenstein). I like the concept of the reliable narrator (or not!) and these three tales deal with this in their own way.

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            • Thank you, Sarah! Horror has never been my favorite genre, even as a teen, but it’s “fun” to delve into it here and there. (For instance, I think I’ve read about 15 Stephen King novels over the decades.)

              Mary Shelley transcends the horror genre with “Frankenstein” — which is also sci-fi, philosophy, etc., as you allude to. She was a MAJOR pioneer who influenced many subsequent writers. I can definitely see the connections between “Frankenstein” and the later “Dracula,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” I’ve read all four novels, but a while ago, so I’m not remembering their narrative structures. 🙂

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            • Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley began writing “Frankenstein” on a dark and stormy night by Lake Como, in the company of Dr, Polidori, Shelley and Byron. They gave each other the challenge of writing something similar after having inspired themselves to the contest by reading aloud “Phantasmagoria”, a collection of German Gothic tales translated into French. So, in a tortured way perhaps, her “Frankenstein” owes a debt to those Germans.

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  8. What an amazing post and so many great examples. Finn’s The Woman in the Window is certainly a child of both The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. And, as for plagiarism, it certainly committed that in relation to Denzil’s Saving April. I know you mean different authors, but I have recently finished Hardy’s The Woodlanders and it just shocked me how many parallels the were between it and Hardy’s very own Far from the Madding Crowd. The same ideas. I know it is the same author, but I was still very surprised. I have always considered Ishiguro “an original author”, but that was before I started reading so much Japanese literature and drawing certain strong thematic and stylistic connections. Putting it mildly, the result was not in Ishiguro’s favour 🙂

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    • Thank you, Diana, for the kind words and interesting comment!

      Glad you brought up the related point that different novels by the same author can have many parallels. That can come off as repetitive or as brilliant variations on a theme; it depends. 🙂

      And I was fascinated to hear about the influence of Japanese literature on the work of Kazuo Ishiguro, who of course is of Japanese descent but was raised in England. So I guess he’s not as original as I thought. I’ve only read two of his novels, and very little Japanese literature (one Haruki Murakami novel and Murasaki Shikibu’s 1,000-year-old “The Tale of Genji”), so I’m no expert in that respect. 🙂

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      • Ishiguro is one of my favourite authors, but for a Nobel Prize Winner in Literature, his literary work is rather uneven in quality. I can’t see how this could be argued. I won’t say that Ishiguro is unoriginal re ideas per se, but regarding his work stylistically, contextually, broadly thematically, I view his books now in a very different light.

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        • Thanks for that further explanation, Diana!

          One does wonder why some authors win the Nobel and others don’t. It’s an absolute shame that a deserving writer such as Margaret Atwood, to cite one example, hasn’t received that prestigious prize.

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  9. You have the best questions, Dave. And of course, I will digress…. It seems that the story of humanity has not changed over the centuries, except for the generational nuances of a specific time. Love, hope, resilience vs hate, despair and rejection are compelling topics simply because we have all experienced these emotions during our lifetime. I especially appreciated that you used the word “children” – for that is what we are: children of children looking for ways in which to relate and connect. I think of Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations” and Somerset Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” which I read as a teenagers and still are firmly embedded in my memory. Each had a unique way of demonstrating the bondage of a human spirit. I think that I have mentioned this before – I believe that books help us to navigate difficult and complex emotions that visit every generation. I will continue to think about your posts as I enter a new week….

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    • Thank you, Clanmother! You’re so right that people and their emotions have not truly changed over time, even as there are some surface-y differences. (Just like people and their emotions are basically the same across cultures and countries.) Which can explain, among other things, how some novels remind us of other novels!

      “Great Expectations” and “Of Human Bondage” are indeed the kind of novels that stay in memory. Nice that you read both in your teens! I read the Dickens one young but the Maugham one not until a few years ago. I still can’t quite get over the “Of Human Bondage” protagonist’s infatuation with that waitress, but many humans do dumb things for a while. (Another similarity across time and cultures. 🙂 )

      Last but not least, I totally agree that “books help us to navigate difficult and complex emotions that visit every generation” — whether we realize books are doing that or it’s a more subtle thing.

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      • Dave great post. Truly. So many great books mentioned in it too. I’m just drawn here to what Rebecca says about emotions and what you do too in your commnet. It’s so true really. The generations may change, time may pass, centuries go by but the things people feel don’t. I think it is why I love reading books set in the past and why I choose to write them set in the past. It’s like abridge to the past, that deep down people were not so different. .

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        • Thank you, Shehanne! So glad you liked the post. 🙂

          Rebecca’s comment was indeed insightful — and eloquent, as were your “a bridge to the past” words.

          I totally agree that emotions in long-ago novels are quite recognizable to the 21st-century reader. One reason why, say, Jane Austen remains so popular today. I can definitely see the appeal of reading novels from the past, and setting novels (such as yours) in the past. 🙂

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          • It’s a wonderful post. And you’re right re Austen. P & P was the first book of hers I read and I thought, ‘Oh this will be a plod given when this was written.’ And there it sparkled off the page. The opening line gives the book at a glance which I aye believe opening lines should do. Then there was all the stuff when Darcy first appears and the ripple it causes largely cos of his fortune. And I thought how true. Not cos folks are outright greedy but cos it helps matters considerably in life and we still make, ‘Oh stick in with them’ comments like that today. And she is the mother of Regency romance talking children.

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          • Heck, emotions in longer-ago Ancient Egyptian love poetry are quite recognizable!

            But what’s hard to really get now about then– any then– is the literal physical context. The smells, for example, of a world without plastic, without refrigeration, without synthetics. This thought occurred to me one day when I was thinking about the turn of the 20th century. Oiled leather, wool, tin and wood,enamel paint in a hot room, canvas, boiled food. Even though that world persists in its remnants among us, as a whole, it is lost, and we can’t get there from here. And of course, the ideas and fads and controversies that occupied the popular imagination of the time– any time– can mostly be glimpsed by ourselves only from a point of view of our own time too.

            Yet, perhaps surprisingly, the human emotions we will always have with us.

            An aside re another sort of physical context: how few women would have fainted from shock and deep emotion in 19th century novels, if only there had been no corsets?

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            • Excellent points, jhNY, and so well said! Human emotions are indeed pretty much the same now vs. then, but many other things were different — as you astutely noted: the smells, the lack of synthetics, the customs, the fads, and…the corsets. Ridiculous what many women were basically forced to wear in “olden times.”

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    • Isn’t it a great post Rebecca. And I love this comment and what you say re Of Human Bondage and Great Expectations. And you are right. They do both demonstrate that but in different ways. I’m very fond of both these books.

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    • It’s interesting that your theme concerns parentage, children, orphans, and connection. These were major universal tropes in the Ishiguro novel. I also find belonging, friendship, trust, and betrayal very universal themes; when these crash headlong into a brave new world of technology, the effect is chilling and heartbreaking on so many levels. The question of whether there really is anything new under the sun, can be answered in several ways. One is that an individual writer, as Clanmother so eloquently states, presents “human bondage of the spirit” to an individual reader. The connection is unpredictably unique, but it’s also universal. So whether a novel is derivative (the child) of a previous author’s (parent) work, or reflects a particular culture, the effect it has on us is the result of that author’s skill in imagining for us ‘new’ ways to connect with universal themes ‘original’ to ancient, classical, and medieval poems, plays and literature. These all “help us to navigate difficult and complex emotions that visit every generation.” Paying homage to a ‘parent’ is their just due 🙂 If I tried to sort out influences, the chain might be infinite. What an excellent thread, Dave!!

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    • And yes, your amalgam description is great! Ishiguro’s subtlety, tone and pacing are very Jamesian, yet without the verbosity 🙂 Huxley’s vivid, chilling technocracy is a great contrast complement to James’ quiet horror. I felt both in this story.

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      • Terrific/elegantly expressed comments, Mary Jo!

        I totally agree that “Ishiguro’s subtlety, tone and pacing are very Jamesian, yet without the verbosity.” James could go a bit overboard with the prose, especially in his later novels. And, per your Huxley reference, there’s something very effective about depicting a “brave new world” (certainly not a happy new world) in a low-key way.

        Yes, while nothing written in modern times is truly original, the specific connection between each author and each reader is unique in its way amid the universality. And there is of course a spectrum that runs from derivative to as original as a writer can get within the context of it being impossible to be TOTALLY original.

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