Looking at Lots of Literary Lineage

Most authors have some kind of literary lineage. Their work might be quite distinctive, but clearly they’ve been influenced by some writers who came before.

I thought about this the past few days while reading Louis Auchincloss (pictured above) for the first time — namely his compelling novel The Lady of Situations starring the brainy, crafty, ambitious, strong-minded, money-conscious Natica Chauncey as she navigates an intensely patriarchal and class-stratified time.

It’s pretty obvious that Auchincloss took some cues from authors such as Jane Austen, Henry James, and Edith Wharton while also putting his own, more-modern stamp on things. There’s the upper-class milieu (though certain characters like Natica are a bit on the outside looking in) and there’s Auchincloss’ comfort with and insider knowledge of that milieu — even as there’s some satirizing of the rich going on. Specifically, The Lady of the Situations reminds me more than a little of Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, with Natica a nicer version of Undine Spragg.

Meanwhile, my brief mention of Jane Austen reminds me that she was influenced by earlier authors such as Fanny Burney.

Moving to other literature, we can see a magic-realism line from Jorge Luis Borges to Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Isabel Allende.

I read Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth just before The Lady of Situations, and I must say I found that novel about South American hero Simon Bolivar’s last days often tedious and repetitive, albeit wonderfully written. I much prefer Garcia Marquez’s other work, including of course One Hundred Years of Solitude.

More lineage examples:

Fyodor Dostoevsky famously was said to have said, “We all came out of Gogol’s ‘Overcoat,'” referring to Nikolai Gogol’s influential short story “The Overcoat.” Alexander Pushkin also influenced subsequent Russian authors, as well as non-Russian authors.

In 19th-century France, Emile Zola took some cues from the earlier Honore de Balzac; they both created multi-book sagas in which many of the same characters appeared in different novels despite those realism-infused books not being “series” per se.

The sprawling mix of humor, earnestness, and social consciousness in John Irving’s work is partly reminiscent of Charles Dickens.

When it comes to novels of the past few decades with a strong social-conscience component, one can see Barbara Kingsolver following in some of Margaret Atwood’s footsteps.

In the creepy horror genre, there’s a trajectory from E.T.A. Hoffmann to Edgar Allan Poe to H.P. Lovecraft to Shirley Jackson to Stephen King.

A number of Cormac McCarthy’s novels show him to be a “southern gothic” disciple of William Faulkner. In a more comedic southern vein, we see certain Erskine Caldwell elements in the later work of Charles Portis.

Agatha Christie of course influenced many a subsequent mystery writer — and, in the science-fiction realm, there’s a path from Mary Shelley to Jules Verne to H.G. Wells to countless 20th-century authors ranging from Isaac Asimov to Octavia E. Butler.

Literary lineage can often be indirect and subtle and not exact, but it’s there.

I obviously just scratched the surface in this post. Any lineage examples you’d like to mention and discuss?

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 discusses too-high buildings and a possible return of public pre-K in my town — is here.

Novels That Blast Off the Shelf

The childhood home of Buzz Aldrin, the second astronaut to walk on the moon, a few blocks from my apartment in Montclair, New Jersey. (Photo by me.)

With today the 53rd anniversary of Apollo 11 returning to Earth after its famous moon mission, I thought of novels that include space travel. Most of those books are of course in the science-fiction category — a genre I haven’t read that widely in even as I was a big fan of the first four Star Trek series during a former time when I watched TV. But I guess I’ve enjoyed enough novels that include space travel to write a short blog post about them. 🙂

The most recent one I’ve read is Andy Weir’s The Martian, about a human stranded on Mars who uses his ingenuity to try to survive. The novel is…ingenious, and often a page-turner.

I also liked H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon (yes, “in” not “on”) — which is rather underrated in the Wells sci-fi canon but quite interesting. How the novel’s characters get to the moon, and what they find there, is memorable.

Arthur C. Clarke’s iconic novel 2001: A Space Odyssey is not as mind-blowing as the movie version, but it’s still a great read. HAL the computer!

Ray Bradbury’s short-stories-as-novel The Martian Chronicles is an evocative work that launched the author into the realm of literary renown.

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is one of the impressive career highlights from an author who wrote, co-wrote, and edited more than 500 books.

A photo I took of Isaac Asimov in 1986, at a press event announcing he would start a syndicated newspaper column.

Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is very funny at times but overall I can take it or leave it.

Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers is gripping in spots but too militaristic for my tastes. It did inspire the title of a great song by the progressive-rock band Yes:

Space-travel novels can of course fire the imagination and take readers where they’ve never gone before. And given that few humans have traveled in space and none have visited other planets, books in this genre allow authors a certain latitude in making things up. 🙂 (Hopefully informed by some scientific knowledge and research. 🙂 )

Any space-travel novels you’d like to mention?

The plaque in front of Buzz Aldrin’s childhood home. (Photo by me.)

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 includes an arts theme — is here.

From Heavy to Light Is More Than Alright

Reading an intense novel is great. Reading a lighter novel is also great. Alternating between the two can be ideal. Our brains tend to crave variety, and can use a bit of a relaxation break.

My latest pairing, not planned per se, was first reading John Grisham’s legal thriller A Time for Mercy. An emotionally wrenching novel about a teen who kills a brutish cop who had been living with — and abusing — the teen, the teen’s younger sister, and their mother. Eventually followed by a dramatic trial.

Then I turned to Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris, about a racehorse named Perestroika who escapes her stall, roams part of the French capital, meets an interesting array of other animals, and then also meets a boy. Of course, so-called “light” novels are often not totally light; Smiley’s poignant book has some serious things to say about animal-human relationships, family, loneliness, death, and more.

Coincidentally, both novels were published in 2020.

Next on my to-read pile is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth, which I expect will not be light. 🙂

My other literary juxtapositions are almost too numerous to mention. I’ve read a George Eliot novel and then a Janet Evanovich book starring Stephanie Plum, a Dostoevsky novel and then a Terry McMillan book, a Mary Shelley novel and then a Sue Grafton alphabet mystery, a Toni Morrison novel and then a P.G. Wodehouse novel featuring Jeeves, a W. Somerset Maugham novel and then a Discworld book by Terry Pratchett, an Isabel Allende novel and then a Jack Reacher thriller by Lee Child, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and then Twain’s Tom Sawyer (a reread), John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and then Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, etc. Yes, a specific author can be on both sides of the literary spectrum.

In case you’re wondering, I keep an in-order list of novels I’ve read. Perhaps I have OCD: Obsessive Canon Delineation. 🙂

Again, lighter novels are often not totally light — just as intense books can also have sunnier/funnier moments. Many lighter novels do have happy endings, which can be comforting once in a while.

What have been some of your consecutive reads that veer from weighty to less so? Do you consciously or subconsciously try to change things up as you choose novels?

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 unopened town pools and more — is here.

In Praise of Pre-19th-Century Literature

This is an edited and updated version of a post I wrote in 2013:

The novel “came of age” in the 1800s, but that of course doesn’t mean there weren’t excellent literary works before then.

Among fiction’s memorable quite-old titles is The Sorrows of Young Werther. Goethe’s 1774 novel — about a sensitive, self-involved guy pining after an unattainable woman — is surprising in certain ways. Some of the best 18th-century novels are long and kind of clunky, but Werther is short, smoothly written, and seemingly simple while packing a lot of wisdom per square inch.

And Goethe wrote Werther at the quite-young age of 24!

Other quite readable 18th-century novels include Voltaire’s incandescent Candide (1759) and Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels (1726). Both are satirical works and adventure stories, meaning a reader can of course enjoy them on one or both levels.

Also quite readable is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Not surprising given how compelling the tale of a shipwrecked character can be.

Defoe, with Moll Flanders (1722), also proved that 18th-century novels can be satisfying despite prose that might be rather long-winded, plots that might be a bit creaky, and/or narrative that might be kind of awkward. I also put in this category Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (which, like much of Werther, is in the form of letters) and Henry Fielding’s somewhat choppy but very entertaining Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones. Those three books are from 1740, 1742, and 1749, respectively.

Also humorous is Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), but, for whatever reason, I found parts of it rather tedious.

Another book I liked a lot was Fanny Burney’s excellent 1778 novel Evelina about a memorable young woman. (The memorable Burney’s portrait is on top of this post.)

And I shouldn’t forget to mention Miguel de Cervantes’ earlier Don Quixote (1605-1615), which many consider the first modern novel. It’s deep, engaging, and often comic.

Then there’s Murasaki Shikibu’s 1,000-year-old novel The Tale of Genji, which ranges from interesting to somewhat boring.

Some pre-19th-century writers of course excelled at plays and/or poetry. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Dante, John Milton, Alexander Pope, and Moliere, to name a few.

Great pre-1800s literature is interesting for reasons besides the quality of the work itself. We see the roots of — and influences on — later fiction. We also get a fascinating sense of long-ago life. And we feel gratitude that more recent fiction is no longer mostly written by a bunch of white guys. 🙂

What are your favorite literary works from before the 19th century?

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 July 4th and more — is here.

Six Justices, Unfit, Talk Lit

Two-thirds of this group are ultra-conservative zealots.

The six far-right Republican justices on the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court have made dreadful ruling after dreadful ruling — gutting abortion rights, gun safety, environmental protections, limits on corporate power, and more. All against the wishes of the vast majority of Americans. Now those rogue wreckers of democracy have turned their narrow minds to literature, and it ain’t pretty.

Justice #1: “I heard John Irving’s novel The Cider House Rules has a pro-choice theme. We need to ban it, burn it, or both.”

Justice #2: “Yes! Didn’t Irving also create Rip Van Winkle?”

Justice #3: “That was Washington Irving, brother of basketball player Kyrie Irving, who refused to get vaccinated against COVID — thus standing up for freedom.” 

One of the three liberal, decent-minded Supreme Court justices: “Freedom to be a selfish idiot.”

Justice #4: “Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom includes a character who played basketball in her youth, but, more importantly, that novel is thick enough to stop a bullet.”

Justice #5: “True! ‘The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a…book.'”

Justice #6: “I love Ayn Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged Because He Was Packing Heat.”

Justice #1: “Speaking of heat, climate change is over-warming the planet — among other disastrous effects — so I’m very proud that our Court’s recent ruling will make things even worse.” 

Justice #2: “Yay! If the Earth dies, liberals die — while conservatives get raptured into Heaven, aka a Trump rally. Each rally featuring the man who picked three of us for the Court is appropriately held at least 25,000 miles from a public library.”

Justice #3: “I do have one climate-change regret. As noted in Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Flight Behavior, Monarch butterflies are being hurt. My sympathies go to any species with an authoritarian name.”

Justice #4: “Mine, too! But I wish King Solomon’s Mimes would say something.”

Justice #5: “H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s MINES!”

Justice #6: “Oh. Anyway, as a proud racist I love the title of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White even though it’s unfortunately not a racist novel. I was also disappointed with W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Turned out to be a fiction classic when I thought it was a how-to for men wanting to rob women of their rights.”

Justice #1: “That reminds me that we need to sue Margaret Atwood for plagiarizing our 2022 views in The Handmaid’s Tale.”

One of the three liberal, decent-minded Supreme Court justices: “Um…that novel was published in 1985, when Republicans were already far right but didn’t yet need to hold War and Peace in their left hands to keep from toppling over.”

Justice #2: “Coming before Tolstoy’s opus was Gogol’s Dead Souls. We six on the Court resemble that title!”

Justice #3: “We actually have souls?”

Justice #4: “Don’t forget The Big Sleep!”

Justice #5: “The Raymond Chandler novel that uses a colorful phrase for death? We on the Court are doing our part by condemning women to die from botched back-alley abortions, condemning more children to die in school massacres, condemning many to die from worsening climate change…”

Justice #6: “Yes, the future is bright! Perhaps we can next end same-sex marriage, which would thrill our fellow anti-gay citizen, novelist Orson Scott Card. And when we ruin the economy, Orson can lay off one of his three names.”

Justice #1: “What about also ending interracial marriage? I didn’t like seeing that kind of union in Octavia E. Butler’s novel Kindred.”

Justice #2: “An excellent idea if it weren’t for the fact that one of us six Supreme Court fanatics is a Black man married to a white woman.”

Justice #3: “Surely H.G. Wells can write a sequel to The Time Machine to undo that 1987 marriage.”

Justice #4: “The author of that 1895 novel died in 1946, so his writing days are over. Our Court has turned the clock back many decades for Americans, but we can’t make Wells alive again.”

Justice #5: “You have a point there, as do the first and third words of Aldous Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point.”

Justice #6: “But there are many Wells Fargo banks alive in 2022!”

One of the three liberal, decent-minded Supreme Court justices: “We serve with A Confederacy of Dunces.”

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 U.S. Supreme Court’s appalling anti-women abortion decision, Independence Day, and my local high school’s commencement — is here.