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.