Secondary Characters of Color Can Be First in Reader Hearts

On October 2, 1967 — 55 years ago today — Thurgood Marshall was sworn in as a U.S. Supreme Court justice, becoming the first African American chosen for that prestigious position following a long career as a prominent civil-rights advocate. Still, though Marshall had more smarts, accomplishments, and moral stature than virtually anyone to ever serve on the Supreme Court, he was always an Associate Justice — never Chief Justice — before retiring in 1991.

The anniversary of Marshall’s 1967 elevation made me think of supporting characters of color in novels, so I’m going to do a post about that after having written about various lead characters of color in a number of previous posts over the years.

I just read The Judge’s List, another ultra-compelling legal thriller by John Grisham, and a memorable supporting character — the 2021 novel’s co-star, really, to Florida Board on Judicial Conduct investigator Lacy Stoltz — is an African-American woman named Jeri Crosby. Her professor father was murdered by a serial killer who’s also a sitting judge (!), and she’s spent over two decades trying to out that psychopath — slowly making more progress in her brilliant amateur investigation than any police department in the various states where the crimes were committed. It’s noteworthy that Grisham makes Crosby’s color almost irrelevant; some white authors focus too hard on a “minority” character’s race and/or ethnicity. Ms. Crosby is basically depicted as a fascinating person dealing with lots of trauma, which definitely gets upped when the serial killer starts pursuing HER.

Speaking of thrillers, a key Black supporting character in Lee Child’s riveting Jack Reacher debut novel Killing Floor is Oscar Finlay, the intellectual chief of detectives in a southern town. (By the way, he’s played to perfection by Malcolm Goodwin in the Reacher TV series that began earlier this year. I haven’t watched any episodes in their entirety, but HAVE seen many clips on YouTube, and the show is absolute catnip for fans of Child’s books — with Alan Ritchson totally embodying Reacher himself.)

Sticking with crime fiction for one more example, we have J.K. Rowling’s first Cormoran Strike novel The Cuckoo’s Calling. The two major supporting characters of color in that excellent book are supermodel Lulu Landry and fashion designer Guy Somé.

In the general-fiction realm, the parents of teen-girl protagonist Starr Carter are quite well-drawn in Angie Thomas’ intense The Hate U Give. Lisa is Starr’s strict but loving mom who works as a nurse, while dad Maverick is an outspoken grocery store owner with a striking past.

Turning to more literary fiction, we have the eccentric, independent Pilate Dead in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon; the feisty and rebellious but insecure biracial teen Irie Jones in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth; the saddened-by-life-and-marriage Elizabeth Grimes in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain; and Queequeg the charismatic harpooner in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

Among the many other supporting characters of color who leave a strong impression are scientist/professor Ovid Byron of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Brenda Peoples the real-estate partner with political aspirations in Fannie Flagg’s I Still Dream About You, and — to circle back to the courtroom and a Grisham novel — the memorable Judge Harry Roosevelt in The Client.

Any thoughts or examples related to 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a bad firefighting deal with a wealthy neighboring town — is here.

How the West Was Done

Zane Grey (Oregon Historical Society Research Library).

I’m not a big fan of western novels, movies, and TV series — those book and screen creations set in the American West, often during the 1800s, often populated with outlaws, sheriffs, cowboys, gunfights, horses, saloons, etc. — and of course more than a few times featuring lone, laconic strangers riding into town. Sure, such creations frequently offer excitement, courage, the pioneering spirit, and so on, but they can also be off-putting.

Why? A predominant focus on white men, even though there were many cowboys of color in the real 19th-century American West. Brutality toward, and repulsive stereotyping of, Native Americans. Rampant sexism — whether in the form of condescending chivalry or macho viciousness. Also, many western creations can be rather formulaic.

But there have been some western novels I’ve found compelling, and usually it was because they were sort of anti-westerns satirizing/criticizing the genre or turning some conventions on their head.

Among the novels I’ve liked a lot are Charles Portis’ True Grit and Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune. They attracted me for several reasons — including the fact that they both star female characters: teen Mattie Ross in the first novel and Eliza Sommers in the second. The half-Chilean Eliza is also not a totally white heroine.

In the young-adult-fiction realm, the 19th-century portion of Louis Sachar’s Holes novel features a white Texan named Kate Barlow who becomes a deadly and charismatic outlaw after the Black farmer she loves is killed by racists.

Then there’s Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, one of the most violent literary novels ever written as it depicts the homicidal barbarity of a gang of white men in the 19th-century West who ruthlessly slaughter male and female Native Americans, Mexican Americans, and others. No whitewashing of white misdeeds here, and the writing is amazing, but it’s an ultra-painful read.

There are also some nasty goings-on in McCarthy’s absorbing Border Trilogy (All the Pretty Horses, The Crossing, Cities of the Plain) — but not at the carnage level of Blood Meridian.

Among other western books I’ve enjoyed is The Prairie — the 1827 installment of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” novels quintet best known for The Last of the Mohicans. Protagonist Natty Bumppo is a mostly likable guy whose attributes include having relatively tolerant views about Native Americans for a man of his time.

I also enjoyed some of The Virginian, Owen Wister’s influential 1902 novel responsible for a number of the tropes that would later appear in other western novels (including many written by the ultra-prolific Zane Grey) as well as in western movies and TV series. Derivative in those later creations, kind of original in Wister’s book.

The idea for this post occurred to me while reading Zane Grey for the first time last week. I looked for his most famous work — Riders of the Purple Sage — at my local library, but, after not finding it there, chose another Grey novel at random: the Nevada-based Boulder Dam. Turned out to be set in the post-frontier 1930s, so not a classic western, but it was quite a page-turner. Still, it had some of the disturbing flaws of certain western novels — disdain for Native Americans (Grey vilely called them “savage red-skinned tribes” in the prologue), racial slurs against African Americans, and false insinuations that only white men are capable of doing great things. Also, to repeat a word from my second paragraph, the novel was rather formulaic and featured a young male protagonist (Lynn Weston) who, while appealing, perodically didn’t seem believable as a character creation.

I haven’t read Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, Jack Schaefer’s Shane, or Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, but saw the compelling movie versions of the latter two.

Which reminds me that film icon John Wayne of course appeared in various westerns (including the first movie version of the aforementioned True Grit) while usually playing brave, “manly” characters even as he didn’t serve in World War II in real life. There is some dispute about whether the right-wing Wayne deliberately avoided enlisting or made an attempt to do so but wasn’t selected because of his age (over 30 at the time), his movie stardom, and his having a family. Yup, the actors who played fictional cowboys were often not so courageous in real life.

Your thoughts on the western genre? Novels in that realm you’ve liked or not liked?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the tone-deaf hiring of a communications person by my town’s school district — is here.

Doubling Down on Double Meanings of Book Titles

Titles of novels can be interesting for various reasons, including occasionally having more than one meaning.

Take the book I’m currently reading — Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars. Its main character, Elma York, is a brilliant mathematician who’s among the novel’s “calculating stars.” The apocalyptic work’s story line is also about sending rockets into outer space, where I hear there are stars. Perhaps “calculating stars,” if those heavenly bodies had anything to do with sending a meteorite crashing down at the start of Kowal’s book — obliterating much of America’s East Coast and setting off a cascade of climate change that could imperil the entire planet.

Tracy Chevalier’s historical novel Remarkable Creatures stars Mary Anning, a 19th-century amateur British paleontologist expert at finding and identifying fossils of dinosaurs (remarkable creatures indeed). This brilliant working-class woman and her friend Elizabeth are themselves remarkable creatures (humans) for the work they do and how they deal with sexist, condescending male scientists.

Elma York also deals with plenty of infuriating sexism in the 1950s as she attempts to become an astronaut in The Calculating Stars.

Then we have Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, which features Dellarobia Turnbow’s attempted flight from an unsatisfying marriage and is also about climate change affecting the flight behavior of monarch butterflies. But no space flight here. 🙂

The title of (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That is of course a phrase referencing a feeling of resignation. Given the novel’s strong focus on the problematic U.S. medical system, the title can also refer to how expensive health care often is for individual Americans (yes, “so much for that” care).

Walter Mosley’s mystery A Red Death has a title that evokes both bloodshed and the era it’s set in — the “Red Scare” time when vile right-wing Senator Joe McCarthy targeted communists, alleged communists, and other innocent liberal-leaning people.

Colleen McCullough’s 18th-century-set Morgan’s Run has a title that evokes both a place and Richard Morgan’s dismaying run of bad luck that included being slammed with bogus criminal charges and shipped to an Australian penal colony. But his run of dramatic experiences has positive moments, too.

Jane Smiley’s Perestroika in Paris is about a French race horse named Perestroika who roams the City of Light after getting loose from her stable. The adventurous animal is aptly named because she ends up “restructuring” her life and the lives of several other critters and humans. The Russian word “perestroika,” which became well known under the leadership of the late Mikhail Gorbachev, means “restructuring.”

Philippa Gregory’s novel Earthly Joys has a title that refers to gardening/landscaping and…sex.

Lisa Genova’s Still Alice stars brilliant Harvard professor Dr. Alice Howland, who is STILL Alice even after her mind is devastated by early-onset Alzheimer’s. Another title interpretation might be a bit of a stretch, but, as the disease advances, parts of Alice’s once-active mind become increasingly dormant (as in still).

And, in a different form of titular double meaning, Jack London gave the semi-autobiographical protagonist in his novel Martin Eden that name so it would have the initials “me.”

Any other multiple-meaning titles 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a large, welcome promise of state money to help fix my town’s old school buildings — is here.

Dislike the Protagonist, Like the Novel

From the miniseries based on The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair novel.

When we dislike or have mixed feelings about a novel’s protagonist, the author usually has to work harder to attract and keep the reader’s interest. Obviously, it’s easier for the public to love a book whose main character is a great human being. Yet there are many cases where novels with less-than-admirable lead players are well worth our attention. Why? Let’s offer some examples that show some of the ways.

The latest example for me is The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (which I’ve read 90% of so far). Swiss writer Joel Dicker’s translated-from-the-French, U.S.-set novel stars Marcus Goldman — a brash, abrasive, egotistical, rabidly ambitious, at-times-mean young author. But the book remains appealing for the most part, because the mystery plot is wrenchingly compelling and the majority of secondary characters are well-drawn, with some likable. Plus Goldman himself has some positive qualities — including doggedness, a measure of courage, and a measure of integrity as he demonstrates his loyalty to Quebert when that novel’s second-most-prominent character is accused of a long-ago murder in a small New England town hardly as idyllic as it first seems. Also, Goldman has some insecurity beneath his obnoxious exterior.

Of course, there are often reasons why a person develops into someone less than likable. In the case of Marcus, his pushy nutcase of a mother might have had something to do with it. The fictional Goldman family is from…Montclair — the New Jersey town where I live! 😲

Speaking of murder, Crime and Punishment protagonist Raskolnikov is undeniably guilty of a double homicide. But Fyodor Dostoevsky’s iconic novel is compulsively readable because it’s brilliantly written, has a riveting hallucinatory vibe, and contains tons of psychological nuance. Plus we feel at least somewhat sympathetic to Raskolnikov because he becomes guilt-ridden, depressed, and haunted.

The title of the novel I read immediately before Dicker’s book — The Brethren by John Grisham — refers to three former judges who are less-than-savory men. They’re all in the same prison for serious crimes, and are running a nasty scam from inside jail to try to get hush money from prominent closeted gay men in various parts of the U.S. — a scheme helped by a low-life lawyer on the outside. While the corrupt “Brethren” have a good quality or two, they’re jerks overall. But the book has Grisham’s usual page-turning allure, helped by a separate yet interrelated story line involving a Central Intelligence Agency-backed presidential candidate.

More memorable novels with unlikable main characters? Among them are The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy, House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III, and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. In that last book, protagonist Ignatius J. Reilly is buffoonishly hilarious enough for a reader to feel better about him than he might deserve.

Any novels you’d like to mention that fit this theme?

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci visiting my town before it even existed 🙂 — is here.

Characters Who Are Among Literature’s Laboring Luminaries

Upton Sinclair

Tomorrow, September 5, is Labor Day in the United States. (Workers are also celebrated in many other countries on May 1 each year.) I thought I’d mark the American occasion by mentioning just a few of the many memorable workers in literature.

One of the most famous is Jurgis Rudkus — because he and other characters in The Jungle, and the descriptions of horrid workplace conditions in that 1906 Upton Sinclair novel, spurred President Theodore Roosevelt to push Congress to improve sanitary conditions in meat-packing plants. Of course, the better-than-nothing-but-inadequate legislation was more about making food safer for consumers than about also improving things for workers toiling under greedy/rotten bosses, but… The beleaguered Rudkus is a first-generation immigrant, representing how some of the most exploited employees are new to the country.

Speaking of people doing very difficult jobs under very difficult conditions, we have the French mineworkers Etienne Lantier and Catherine Maheu in Emile Zola’s novel Germinal (1885). A strike against bad ownership, a tragic mine disaster, and more place the admirable, likable characters in dramatic situations.

The titular English carpenter of another 19th-century novel, George Eliot’s Adam Bede (1859), is hardworking, strong, smart, stoic, and moral — but a bit holier-than-thou and not always the best judge of character.

Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, a 20th-century (1998) historical novel set in the 17th century, stars another hard worker: royal gardener John Tradescant — partly based on a real person.

When you’re a 20th-century physician in the 18th century, the work is often much more challenging given the primitive state of medicine. Such is the case with Dr. Claire Fraser in Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling Outlander series (the first novel published in 1991 and the ninth in 2021, with one more to come).

Being a waiter/waitress is usually a demanding job, and one example of such a character is Samad Miah Iqbal of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000).

Then there’s Violet Brown — the delightful, brainy, resourceful, ultra-efficient secretary to the novel’s main character in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna (2009).

I’d like to conclude by thanking labor unions, which — while not always perfect — have done so much for employees in the face of too many less-than-caring supervisors and companies.

Any memorable workers in literature 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about the start of school and a wasteful planned hiring — is here.

When Farmers Are the Focus of Fiction

From the trailer for the movie version of Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres novel. (Screen shot by me.)

One might think novels fully or partly set on farms would tend to be low-key or even boring. Far from true, of course, because human emotions are complex and events can be quite dramatic whether the milieu is rural, suburban, or urban.

Yes, novels featuring farmers often include family discord, marital problems, characters fleeing rural life, backbreaking work, awful weather, money troubles, takeovers by agribusiness, etc. And it almost goes without saying that there are uplifting times, too.

A Thousand Acres, which I read last week, is a prime example of a “farm novel” with multiple layers. Jane Smiley’s Iowa-set book focuses on the fraught relationship between three adult sisters and the even more fraught relationship between that trio and their publicly respected but privately despicable widowed farmer father. It’s painful to read about the dark moments the Cook family goes through, but well worth the effort as the King Lear-influenced novel gets more riveting with each chapter after a slow start. A skillfully written and psychologically nuanced book much deserving of its 1992 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Also set in Iowa farm country is W.P. Kinsella’s novel Shoeless Joe, better known for inspiring the movie Field of Dreams. More about baseball and father-son bonds than farming, but the rural setting is indelible.

Over in Tennessee, Dellarobia Turnbow of Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior is a farm woman dissatisfied with her marriage and life in general who tries to do something about that — even as the novel’s overarching theme is about the sadly disastrous effects of climate change. Not surprisingly, Kingsolver had a rural upbringing (in Kentucky).

Willa Cather spent some of her childhood on the Nebraska prairie, which is the partial setting of perhaps her best novel: My Antonia. Antonia Shimerda is a farm woman, and the book’s main character is her friend-from-childhood Jim Burden, who moves to the city but continues to feel a strong pull toward his rural roots.

The title character of John Edward Williams’ Stoner novel also leaves the farm (William Stoner becomes a University of Missouri literature professor). But, as is the case with Jim Burden, his farm upbringing has a big formative influence on him.

In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford’s first marriage is to a farmer. Things do not end well.

R.D. Blackmore’s Lorna Doone focuses on farmer John Ridd and his risky love for Lorna in 17th-century England. The book’s long-ago time frame is a reminder that there was of course more farmland when the world was less populated, meaning a larger percentage of older novels have a rural setting.

Heck, even my densely populated state of New Jersey had lots of open space a century ago, and rural NJ is the setting for Albert Payson Terhune’s His Dog — about a struggling farmer whose life changes enormously when he takes in an amazing canine.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath opens in Oklahoma — where a devastating drought, The Great Depression, and rapacious agribusiness force the Joad family off their farm. They head to California, where roving farm workers such as themselves are treated horribly by rich landowners.

Another book with a farm setting is E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, beloved by many younger readers (and many older ones, too).

Then there’s George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a satirical fable that can hardly be called a “farm novel.” But there IS the word “Farm” in the title. 🙂

Any farm-set novels you’d like to mention? (Including ones set outside the United States; my post is mostly U.S.-centric.)

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a way-too-pricey bridge replacement — is here.

This Fiction Isn’t Stranger Than Truth

The former Ogre-in-Chief. (Photo by Seth Wenig/Associated Press.)

A successful novelist and her agent meet for lunch, and the author mentions an idea she has for the main character in her next book.

“Get this,” says the novelist. “The protagonist is a former President of the United States who illegally brings sensitive White House documents to his palatial resort home in Florida, where the papers could be eaten by retired crocodiles in nearby condos.”

“He took those important papers with him after leaving office? Ridiculous plot device,” replies the agent. “No ex-POTUS would ever do that. Suspension of belief is one thing, but that’s more bonkers than Yonkers.”

“Where some of those crocodiles retired from. How about if I make the novel science fiction? After all, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury wrote Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

“That’s what decent-minded Floridians said when Donald Trump headed to their state in 2020,” recalls the agent. “Still, I’m not convinced your protagonist is credible.”

“Also,” the author pushes on, “my protagonist disputes the results of the presidential election he clearly lost by a wide margin, and most members of his political party disgustingly support that brazen undemocratic nonsense.”

“Readers will laugh in your face at something that implausible. And many won’t be wearing COVID-prevention masks…”

“How about if I make the novel a fantasy? You know, like The Lord of the Rings, only the rings are very tiny because the protagonist has very tiny hands.”

“Hmm…tell me more.”

“The ex-POTUS aligns himself with an evil Sauron-like figure named Putt-in, who shares the former President’s penchant for golf instead of work — though Putt-in does find the time to invade a neighboring golf course.”

“I just can’t accept the idea of a former U.S. president vile enough to ride AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ so quickly there’d be no time for Satan to prepare a welcoming brunch of toasted bagels. VERY toasted bagels.”

“Maybe YOU should write a novel,” replies the author. “Anyway, my proposed protagonist is also a misogynistic brute guilty of multiple instances of sexual misconduct yet always avoids criminal prosecution and always avoids losing support from most members of his political party. He’s as Teflon as the pots and pans he never cooks with because he never cooks.”

“What’s gotten into you?” asks the agent. “Your previous characters were all so three-dimensional. Even The Fifth Dimension music group that made a cameo in one of your novels shed two dimensions to fit in.”

“I think I have enough ‘cred’ with my readers to pull off this ex-POTUS character — who’s also virulently racist and anti-LGBTQ, insults people with disabilities, lies constantly, doesn’t read books, is cheap and money-grasping despite being an alleged billionaire, etc.”

“Are you prepared to risk your career like Liz Cheney did?”

“You remind me that my protagonist also successfully urged his supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol building to try to get his reelection loss overturned — yet is still nowhere near being jailed for his treasonously fake ‘Stop the Steal’ claims.”

“Is there anything I can do to convince you to ‘Stop the Spiel’ about this novel and not write it?”

“I feel I must write it, even though a protagonist that dishonorable could never exist in real life.”

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about a local Starbucks unionizing and future plans for my town’s problematic Municipal Building — is here.

Time to Talk Time-Travel Titles

Connie Willis

When it comes to reading fiction, many of us have a guilty pleasure or three. One of mine is time-travel novels.

Yes, few of those novels are great literature, though some come close. But even mediocre time-travel books attract my interest. That’s because the genre can fire the imagination as well as offer wish-fulfillment (who among us hasn’t dreamt of visiting the past or future?). I’m also curious how the protagonist will fit in with the visited time, and whether she or he will be “found out” as someone not of that time. Some time-travel novels also grab readers by cleverly taking unexpected approaches to their temporal leaps, and/or by making strong sociopolitical points, and/or by including real-life famous people in cameos or major roles.

My most recent foray into time-travel fiction, this past week, was Connie Willis’ novel Blackout — which stars several historians from 2060 who go back to World War II-era England to observe people and events, even as the 2060 society’s time-travel system starts exhibiting some glitches that put the historians in added danger. Among the points Willis makes amid the absorbing plot threads is that “average people” (in this case, English citizens of the 1940s) can exhibit a lot of bravery or at least stoicism, and that history unfolds somewhat differently than the way it’s chronicled. Plus there’s the inevitable question of whether going back in time might change history.

One of the memorable fiction works relating to that last possibility is Ray Bradbury’s iconic short story “A Sound of Thunder.”

Re time-travel fiction as a sociopolitical device, excellent examples include Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In Butler’s novel, the vicious evil of American slavery is depicted via the experiences of a 20th-century Black woman yanked back to the pre-Civil War south, while Twain uses his seriocomic time-travel book to satirize deadly militarism.

The Looking Backward novel by Twain contemporary Edward Bellamy puts a lens on the dystopian nature of much of late-19th-century life by making the year 2000 a utopian time. (Our real 21st century turned out differently. 😦 ) H.G. Wells is much more pessimistic about the (distant) future in The Time Machine.

Many other time-travel books offer readers pure entertainment and/or edge-of-the-seat adventure and/or mystery and/or passionate romance. Among them are Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and its eight sequels co-starring 20th-century doctor Claire Fraser in the 1700s, Jack Finney’s New York City-set Time and Again, and Darryl Brock’s baseball-themed If I Never Get Back — all terrific novels.

Other titles I’ve read with a lot or some time-travel elements include Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Daphne du Maurier’s The House on the Strand, Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Karl Alexander’s Time After Time, Marlys Millhiser’s The Mirror, Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Caroline D. Emerson’s The Magic Tunnel, and Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” to name a few.

Any time-travel works 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 every Thursday. The latest piece — about my town’s sorry public pool situation — is here.

Authors Assisting Authors

Susan Glaspell

Last week I discussed writers being influenced by other writers. This week, I’ll talk about writers who helped other writers get published, discovered, or rediscovered.

Novelist, journalist, actress, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Susan Glaspell (1874-1948) is unfortunately almost forgotten these days. She’s best known for her powerful feminist play Trifles that she also turned into a short story called “A Jury of Her Peers,” and for co-founding the Provincetown Players theatrical organization that launched the career of…Eugene O’Neill.

A mesmerizing, superbly acted, half-hour screen version of “A Jury of Her Peers” from 1980:

Poet and shipping-line heiress Nancy Cunard (1896-1965) established The Hours Press — which gave playwright, novelist, and poet Samuel Beckett a major early break by publishing a poem of his. Later, in 1934, Cunard edited and published a massive collection of African-American writers that featured Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, W.E.B Du Bois, and others. (Many in the collection were already known.)

Walker Percy made his name with novels such as The Moviegoer, but is also remembered for helping get John Kennedy Toole’s novel A Confederacy of Dunces posthumously published in 1980. That was after Toole’s mother Thelma’s Herculean years-long effort to get her son’s manuscript noticed following his 1969 suicide. The novel went on to win the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

In the 19th century, Charles Dickens gave a big assist to a pre-famous Wilkie Collins by running a Collins short story in Dickens’ literary magazine Household Words. Collins and the 12-years-older Dickens became close friends.

One writer can also help another writer posthumously. Alice Walker revived interest in the aforementioned mostly forgotten Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) in various ways — including her 1975 piece about Hurston in Ms. magazine. Walker even replaced the headstone on the uncared-for grave of the Their Eyes Were Watching God author.

Of course, various authors review the work of other authors — with several commenters here doing that so ably on their WordPress blogs. 🙂

Any examples or thoughts relating to 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for every Thursday. The latest piece — about a rude Township Council and more — is here.

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 every Thursday. The latest piece — which discusses too-high buildings and a possible return of public pre-K in my town — is here.