Feminism in Fiction

This look at feminism in post-1900 literature has two timely inspirations: Margaret Atwood and…Donald Trump.

I just read The Testaments, Ms. Atwood’s excellent 2019 sequel to 1985’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And sore loser Trump is about to (hopefully) leave the White House this Wednesday, January 20.

Trump has been rightly criticized for many things during his dumpster fire of a presidency. The lies, the criminality, the incompetence, the cruelty, the blatant racism, the homophobia, and more. So, it can get a bit lost just how misogynist Trump and his ilk have also been.

There are the more than 20 credible pre-presidency rape and other sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, the crudely sexist remarks, the pathetically few women he named to top administration positions, etc. Of course, amid Trump’s toxic machismo, the females in Trump’s mostly male orbit have been awful in their own right — including wife Melania, daughter Ivanka, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, former education secretary Betsy DeVos, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and others. Complicit, complicit, complicit.

The fictional Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments feels like an extreme (?) version of the far-right Trump/far-right Republican/far-right evangelical vision for America. Atwood’s authoritarian fictional republic has made women second-class citizens — stripping the older ones of their former professions, not allowing the younger ones to have intellectual jobs, forcing teen girls into marriages with much older men, and other patriarchal outrages that of course include Gilead’s handmaid system of child-bearers with no rights. There’s also all kinds of corruption and violence. One of Atwood’s accomplishments in both The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments is creating unforgettable women characters who either fight against the system (overtly or subtly) or come to grudgingly accept it (under duress). Also impressive is that Atwood is near the top of her writing game in the sequel despite her turning 80 the year it was published. My only significant criticism of The Testaments is that its nail-biting conclusion is too short.

Anyway, I’m limiting this piece to post-1900 literature with feminist elements because I covered many earlier novels with such elements in this 2018 post. There are many novels I can discuss, but I’ll focus on just a few.

The title alone of Buchi Emecheta’s Second Class Citizen tells the reader that the 1974 novel will have feminist aspects. Its protagonist, Adah, is a smart and resourceful woman who battles sexism from society and her husband in an effort to get the education she desires and do the work she wants to do. She moves from Nigeria to England, but both places are frequently not hospitable for ambitious women. Racism is in the mix as well.

Both sexism and racism are also faced by characters in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982).

Women taking leadership roles is obviously a feminist thing, and we see that in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. That novel’s leader is Lauren Oya Olamina, whose take-charge personality is sorely needed in a society that has crumbled due to climate change, huge economic inequality, and corporate greed. (Do those three mega-problems ring a bell? This prescient science-fiction book was published in 1993.) Lauren even founds a new religion of sorts!

Eliza Sommers, the Chilean protagonist in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune, goes to mid-19th-century California against her parents’ wishes and even spends much of the 1998 novel disguised as a man in order to live more freely.

Looking back at a 1910-published novel, Colette’s The Vagabond features music-hall dancer Renee Nere and the very familiar push-and-pull on her life between work and romance.

There are also feminist novels that at least partly focus on the right of women to make independent decisions about sexual matters — with two examples being Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and Rita Mae Brown’s lesbian-focused Rubyfruit Jungle. Both, coincidentally, published in 1973. Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987) also deals compellingly with a lesbian relationship, albeit more-closeted in this case.

Women working in traditionally “male” professions is another mark of feminist novels, with Ms. Flagg offering a great example of that with the women World War II pilots in 2013’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. (I wish “Women” rather than “Girl” was in that title, but “Girl” might have been used ironically.) There’s also a memorable Russian female WWII pilot in Kate Quinn’s The Huntress (2019).

Plus Claire Fraser of Diana Gabaldon’s 1991-launched Outlander series of time-travel novels is a medical doctor in both the 1960s (when that was relatively unusual for a woman) and during the 1700s (when that virtually never happened).

Women having control over their own bodies is certainly an aspect of feminism, meaning novels that sympathetically look at abortion fit this post’s theme. One example is John Irving’s The Cider House Rules from 1985 — the same publication year as The Handmaid’s Tale.

Your favorite 20th- or 21st-century novels with feminist elements?

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 — about my town’s reaction to the Trump-incited white riot at the U.S. Capitol building — is here.

The ’21 Club of Anniversaries for Famous Novels

Some well-known novels are reaching round-number anniversaries in 2021 — as in 25 years (published in 1996), 50 years (1971), 75 years (1946), 100 years (1921), 150 years (1871), and 200 years (1821).

I’ll mostly mention novels I’ve read, and a few I haven’t. Let’s begin…

Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood’s rare foray into historical fiction, came out in 1996. It takes a gripping look at a 19th-century double murder in Canada — and how guilty or not the sentenced-to-life-in-prison Grace Marks was as an accomplice.

Hard to believe it was that long ago, but also published in 1996 was A Game of Thrones — the first installment of George R.R. Martin’s best-selling A Song of Ice and Fire series that later became a TV phenomenon. It’s the only novel I’ve read in the series, and I found it compelling after struggling a bit to get into it.

Among the notable ’96 novels I haven’t read are David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary.

A half-century ago, we had William Peter Blatty’s 1971 horror novel The Exorcist — a widely read book turned into a smash-hit movie. Also Ernest J. Gaines’ The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, which covers nearly a century of history through the eyes of an African-American woman — and also inspired a highly popular film, in that case for TV. Plus, E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel, a thinly veiled retelling of the Rosenberg case from the vantage point of the couple’s children; Hunter S. Thompson’s riotous, semi-autobiographical Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; and Erich Maria Remarque’s posthumously published Shadows in Paradise.

Also in ’71 were John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, the first sequel to the Rabbit, Run novel I had mixed feelings about (a bit too much toxic masculinity); and Herman Wouk’s epic The Winds of War, which I haven’t read but I sure did like that author’s earlier The Caine Mutiny and Marjorie Morningstar.

Memorable releases in 1946 — the birth year of despicable white-riot inciter Trump — included Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a novel about a Huey Long-like politician, rampant corruption, and more; Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding, starring a 12-year-old tomboy; and Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek. I’ve read the first two, not the third.

In 1921, parts of Marcel Proust’s opus In Search of Lost Time were released — as were L.M. Montgomery’s World War I-themed Rilla of Ingleside, one of the best Anne of Green Gables sequels; Crome Yellow, Aldous Huxley’s somewhat-interesting debut novel; and Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Alice Adams.

It was in 1871, 150 years ago, that George Eliot’s masterpiece Middlemarch was published. Clearly her best book in terms of scope, characterizations, and social analysis — and you’ll rarely read a better dissection of troubled marriages. But I do think several of Eliot’s slightly less masterpiece-y novels — including The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda — pack an equal or greater emotional wallop.

Also released in 1871 were Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, the memorable sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland; Henry James’ debut novel Watch and Ward (published by a magazine in 1871 but not in book form until 1878); and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Men.

I haven’t read any 1821 novels, which included Kenilworth by Sir Walter Scott and The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper — two authors whose other books I’ve liked a lot. But, hey, Fyodor Dostoevsky was born that year — and Madame Bovary writer Gustave Flaubert, too.

Any novels with round-number 2021 anniversaries you’d like to discuss? (Including those I mentioned and those I didn’t.)

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — about parking, leaf blowers, the Georgia runoffs, Trump, and more — is here.

My Fiction-Blog Stats in a Stranger-Than-Fiction Year

Thanks so much, everyone, for reading my literature blog and posting thousands of interesting comments in 2020! 🙂 As the devastating months of COVID hopefully start to fade in the rearview mirror, I thought I’d do a statistical look-back today before returning to my usual fare next Sunday.

Last year, this 2014-launched blog had 28,825 views, 14,124 visitors (the most ever), 4,530 comments, and 3,401 likes. The number of followers reached 4,930.

The top-15 places where views came from were 1) the United States (15,845), 2) the United Kingdom (4,008), 3) India (1,661), 4) Australia (1,436), 5) Canada (912), 6) Spain (361), 7) Germany (348), 8) Kuwait (297), 9) China (270), 10) the Philippines (268), 11) France (227), 12) Finland (199), 13) Nigeria (153), 14) Italy (151), and 15) Pakistan (127). Plus 125 other countries, thanks in large part to the worldwide reach of the WordPress blog platform.

Surprisingly, the most-read post in 2020 was from 2018 — “Strong Female Characters in 19th-Century Fiction.” Or maybe not so surprising, given the endless fascination with novels by Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, George Eliot, Louisa May Alcott, Wilkie Collins, and others who created women protagonists who overtly or subtly defied the patriarchal norms of the 1800s.

Four of my five most-read 2020 posts had a sociopolitical bent: “Writers Who’ve Rightly Criticized the Far-Right Trump,” “When Novelists Display Intolerance,” “Wishing Trump’s Assault on the Post Office Were Fictional,” and “Racist Characters Bring the Hate to Some Literature.” Even though the majority of my lit posts are not sociopolitical.

The most-read 2020 piece that wasn’t sociopolitical? “The ’60s Live On. The 1860s, That Is” — which looked at the amazing group of novels published during that long-ago decade. War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Great Expectations, and various other classics.

Lastly, even though this week’s piece is not my usual thematic post, I did want to mention that I just read and enjoyed Swedish author Jonas Jonasson’s The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared — recommended by two regular commenters here (Susan and Martina Ramsauer) and three people I know from outside this blog (Allia Zobel Nolan, LJ Anderson, and Larry Esteves). It’s an offbeat novel with a lots of humor and suspense, and it was eye-opening to see which real-life famous leaders centenarian protagonist Allan Karlsson encountered while in various countries during his younger years.

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 — a 2020 year-in-review — is here.

Many ‘First World’ Characters Are Not Secondary in the ‘Third World’

One problematic literary trope over the centuries involves “first world” characters spending time in “third world” countries and having much bigger roles than the residents, who often serve as little more than “colorful” background.

It can be frustrating seeing white Americans or white Europeans star in those novels, get fleshed out more three-dimensionally than the people they’re amid, and too often act in patronizing or even racist ways toward the visited countries’ citizens — although novels of the past few decades, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s masterful The Poisonwood Bible, are thankfully likelier to take a critical view of, or satirize, this alleged “superiority.”

That said, some “first world in the third world” novels can of course still be damn good, and some of their European or American protagonists are decent people who at least treat the residents somewhat respectfully.

I thought about this subject the past few days while reading Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano — an often-compelling, emotional, melancholy novel containing wonderfully rich prose. But dampening my pleasure a bit was the white-people-in-Mexico thing (with several “first world” bases covered by Lowry’s major characters: mopey alcoholic Geoffrey from England, his adventurous half-brother Hugh from England, former film actress/Geoffrey’s ex-wife Yvonne from the United States, and film director Jacques from France). Still, one can acknowledge that the 1947-published/1930s-set book was “of its time” and that Lowry (pictured above) gave some Mexican characters, such as physician Arturo Diaz Vigil, secondary roles a bit beyond the bare minimum.

There’s also the American-south-of-the-border trope in such novels as Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses, featuring Texas teen John Grady Cole and his dramatic experiences in Mexico; James Michener’s Mexico, in which American journalist Norman Clay at least has some Hispanic blood; and Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, starring the rather nutso U.S. dad Allie Fox who yanks his family from Massachusetts to Honduras. All excellent books, but…

American or European characters in Africa? We have nasty Georgia evangelical Nathan Price, in the aforementioned The Poisonwood Bible, dragging his wife and four daughters to what was then the Belgian Congo to try to arrogantly convert the populace to Christianity; troubled New York couple Kit and Port enduring some disquieting experiences in North Africa in Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky; three Englishmen traveling to East Africa to meet the imposing 2,000-plus-year-old (white) title character in H. Rider Haggard’s mesmerizing She; and that voyage along the Congo River in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness that would inspire the movie Apocalypse Now (in which the setting was transferred to Vietnam). On the part-fictional (?) memoir front, there’s Out of Africa by Danish author Karen Blixen.

Asian countries such as China and Japan are obviously now among the planet’s most developed nations, and China is a superpower, but those places used to be considered “third world” by the West. So, novels such as W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil (set in 1920s Hong Kong and China) and James Clavell’s Shogun (circa-1600 Japan) fit this blog post’s theme. Both of those compelling books have English protagonists.

Of course, many African and Latin American countries are also more industrialized today than at the time books such as She (1886) and Heart of Darkness (1902) were published.

Any “first world in the third world” novels you’d like to mention? And you’re of course welcome to discuss this blog post’s general 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 Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which eases up on the satire for a week to take a positive look at various things in my town — is here.

The Wordplay’s the Thing

Some novels are full of puns, quips, humorous asides, made-up words, generally weird language, etc. All of that can be overdone, but it can also be fun. And those books can have serious moments, too.

One novel with a wordplay bonanza is Ali Smith’s There But For The, which I read last week. It’s a quirky book that opens with a dinner guest locking himself in a room for what will be weeks and weeks — angering the homeowner who hosted the meal — before the novel spins into depicting various people who knew the interloper. The turns of phrase come fast and furious, but there are also poignant sections — most notably one focusing on a very sick women in her 80s. Not sure I can strongly recommend the novel — it was a trial to read at times — but the author certainly deserves props for originality.

Another novel with plenty of wordplay is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a speculative-fiction work that combines laugh-out-loud humor, eco-consciousness, genetic engineering, and the post-apocalypse in an unusual but heady mix. The book includes an online game called Extinctathon, a company with the name AnooYoo, etc.

The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (pen name of Brian O’Nolan) not only has a wacky plot but also some offbeat language flourishes. Two examples: “I am completely half-afraid to think” and “It is nearly an insoluble pancake, a conundrum of inscrutable potentialities, a snorter.”

Quite a “snorter” (whatever the heck that means) is Jasper Fforde’s novel The Eyre Affair, in which a “literary detective” uses a “Prose Portal” to pursue a criminal inside the pages of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The detective’s name — Thursday Next — gives you an idea of Fforde’s enjoyable language shenanigans.

Among the many other novels with dazzling wordplay are Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, and Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals (one of the books in that author’s Discworld series), to name just a few.

Last but not least, there are the Lewis Carroll classics Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Language fun galore, and the latter book includes the iconic poem “Jabberwocky” — which starts and ends with this nonsensical verse:

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe”

Your favorite novels with lots of wordplay?

A note: Last week, in my comedic literary version of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” one of my poetic couplets read:

“The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads”

I’m feeling a little guilty about that turn of phrase. I was trying to be funny, and the poem’s structure didn’t leave much room for nuance, so I wanted to reaffirm here that I LOVE Dostoyevsky’s brilliant, often disturbing work — even if it’s not exactly children’s fare. Heck, Crime and Punishment is one of my three or four favorite novels ever, and much of The Brothers Karamazov is also amazing — to name his two most famous titles.

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 — which contains FAIL and SAFE but has nothing to do with the “Fail Safe” novel and film 🙂 — is here.

Twas the Write Before Christmas

My literary version of Clement Clarke Moore’s famous poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”:

Twas 12 days before Christmas, and all through the nook
Few things are more stirring than reading a book
The novels are stacked by the chimney with care
To read or reread, like the stellar Jane Eyre
The children are nestled all snug in their beds
Too young for Dostoyevsky to mess with their heads
My wife at her desk and the cat in my lap
To read George Eliot beats taking a nap

Then outside the window there arose such a clatter
As if Jack Reacher had made all the bad guys scatter
To that window I raced (I did not totter)
As fast as Voldemort chased Harry Potter

The moon shone down on Outlander-ish snow
Evoking ghostly visions of Edgar A. Poe

When what to my wondering eyes’ insistence
Appeared Ruth the librarian and eight assistants
Ruth read Tolstoy’s novels so lively and quick
I knew in a moment she wasn’t St. Nick
Her book faves came faster than Zadie Smith quips
She laughed and she shouted and said with her lips:

“Now, Hobbit! Now, Huck Finn! Now, Rob Roy and Moby!
On, Zora! On, Liane! On, Jhumpa and Toni!
To the top of to-read lists! Best-seller lists, too!
Whether dead or alive, they belong in your queue!”

The wind took book pages and made them fly
Up into the air: The Sheltering Sky
On top of the house the library team rose
Their cart full of fiction: Remarque-able prose

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
“Colette’s Claudine at School is such a fun goof”
As I drew in my head, and spun all around,
Down the chimney plunged Ruth, not Ezra Pound
Sue Grafton mysteries that had come in the mail
Stephen King novels streaked with ashes and hail
Even more books that Ruth had flung on her back
Including The Scarlet Letter in “A” big Nat-pack

Those books, how they twinkled! The titles so many!
Atwood and Baldwin and Louise (last name Penny)
Marquez magic realism and valet Jeeves
And Lily Bart in Mirth — any reader grieves

Ruth knows William Faulkner put a pipe in his mouth
And To Kill a Mockingbird is set in the South
And Winnie the Pooh has a little round belly
And Don Quixote “lived” before Mary Shelley
And Thomas Hardy was hardly a jolly old elf
And Of Human Bondage was based on Maugham himself

But don’t read Agatha Christie prior to bed
To avoid waking up feeling nothing but dread

Ruth, as The Pathfinder, decides on a path
Fills stockings with novels, like The Grapes of Wrath
She then mutters Vonnegut’s phrase “So it goes”
And back up the chimney the librarian rose
She sprang again on the cart, and gave a whistle
And away that crew flew like a sci-fi missile

But I heard Ruth exclaim, before she soared out of sight
The Great Gatsby is better than Tender Is the Night”

Apologies for omitting many authors (and novels by those authors) I’ve read. I ran out of Clement Clarke Moore poem lines to change. 🙂 Among those I wish I could have included: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Louisa May Alcott, Isabel Allende, Isaac Asimov, Jane Austen, Fredrik Backman, Honore de Balzac, Ray Bradbury, Rita Mae Brown, Fanny Burney, Octavia Butler, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, Ralph Ellison, Buchi Emecheta, Louise Erdrich, Henry Fielding, Jack Finney, Fannie Flagg, Jonathan Franzen, Lisa Genova, Nikolai Gogol, John Grisham, Ernest Hemingway, Hermann Hesse, James Hilton, Khaled Hosseini, Victor Hugo, Aldous Huxley, John Irving, Shirley Jackson, Henry James, James Joyce, Barbara Kingsolver, Stieg Larsson, D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Jack London, Daphne du Maurier, Cormac McCarthy, Carson McCullers, James Michener, L.M. Montgomery, Elsa Morante, Walter Mosley, Haruki Murakami, George Orwell, Kate Quinn, Rosamunde Pilcher, Alexander Pushkin, Anne Rice, Philip Roth, Arundhati Roy, Richard Russo, Dorothy Sayers, Lionel Shriver, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Martin Cruz Smith, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Rabindranath Tagore, Amy Tan, Donna Tartt, Angie Thomas, Anne Tyler, Jules Verne, Alice Walker, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Herman Wouk, Richard Wright, Emile Zola, etc., etc.!

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 — about such topics as my town’s delay in reopening schools amid the COVID resurgence — is here.

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.

Novelists Who Navigated From Newspapers

What did some novelists do before they became novelists? I assume they ate and breathed, but some also worked as full-time or contributing newspaper writers.

Makes sense. If somebody had a propensity and aptitude for writing, newspapers were one of the logical places to start — at least in the days before those print publications struggled and became thought of as “old media.” Newspaper writers learned to write fast, rewrite fast, write clearly, do research, and be accurate — well, much of the time. 🙂 They met people from all walks of life, and saw how those people thought and spoke. They visited different places. Heck, they even got used to low pay — also the lot of the many novelists who don’t hit it big. So, all in all, newspaper work could be good training for becoming a novelist.

Why did certain writers make the switch (even as some continued working for newspapers after penning novels)? Among the reasons: the chance to be more creative, use more of one’s imagination, experience longer-form writing, be more of one’s own boss, and perhaps find fame and fortune.

I’ll now proceed to offer a list (by no means complete) of newspaper writers who became novelists — mentioning them chronologically by their birth years.

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) worked as a journalist during part of the 1830s — covering Parliament, election campaigns, and more in England.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) wrote for a Nevada newspaper and later The Sacramento (Calif.) Union in the 1860s. A funny anecdote relating to Twain’s Union stint is at the end of this blog post.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912), author of the influential 1897 novel Dracula, was a theater critic for Ireland’s Dublin Evening Mail in the 1870s.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote articles for London’s The Pall Mall Gazette in the 1890s before authoring his first novel, The Time Machine.

L.M. Montgomery (1874-1942), best known for Anne of Green Gables (1908), wrote early-1890s nonfiction content for The Daily Patriot in Charlottetown on Canada’s Prince Edward Island.

P.G. Wodehouse (1881-1975), creator of the Jeeves novels and stories, wrote a column called “By the Way” for The Globe of London from 1901 to 1909.

Rebecca West (1892-1983) was a journalist for feminist and leftist newspapers and also wrote for dailies such as the New York Herald Tribune, the New York American, and The Daily Telegraph of London.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) worked as a reporter for The Kansas City Star just after high school. (According to Wikipedia, he “relied on the Star‘s style guide as a foundation for his writing: ‘Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English…'”)

Margaret Mitchell (1900-1949) wrote news stories, feature articles, and some book reviews for The Atlanta Journal starting in 1922. She left the Georgia newspaper in 1926, a decade before Gone With the Wind was published.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014) became a newspaper journalist starting in the late 1940s — first writing for El Universal, then El Heraldo, then El Espectador in Colombia. He wrote stories, columns, and film criticism — all well before his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) was associate editor of the English-language weekly newspaper The Arab Observer in Cairo, Egypt, in the early 1960s, and later did freelance writing for The Ghanaian Times. (Angelou didn’t become a novelist per se, but of course wrote memoirs with a literary bent, poetry, children’s books, etc.)

Charles Portis (1933-2020) — best known for his 1968 novel True Grit — was a reporter for newspapers in Tennessee, Arkansas (where he also wrote a column), and New York City (the Herald Tribune) before leaving journalism in 1964 and turning to fiction.

Anna Quindlen (1953-) was a reporter and then Pulitzer Prize-winning opinion columnist for The New York Times before concentrating on novel writing. (I took the photo of Ms. Quindlen that’s atop this blog post after she spoke at a Newspaper Features Council meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1991 — the year her first novel came out.)

Carl Hiaasen (1953-) is a syndicated Miami Herald columnist who still writes those columns as he churns out his many part-comedic thrillers set in Florida. He was a reporter before becoming a columnist.

Stieg Larsson (1954-2004) was a journalist in Sweden before and while penning his best-selling, posthumously published Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, etc.).

Geraldine Brooks (1955-) was a reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and then a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal. The native of Australia is best known for her Pulitzer-winning 2005 novel March, about the harrowing Civil War experiences of the father from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

Connie Schultz (1957-) is a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist whose first novel, The Daughters of Erietown, was published earlier this year. She was a reporter before becoming a columnist.

Leonard Pitts Jr. (1957-) is also a Pulitzer-winning syndicated columnist who has authored four novels while continuing his Miami Herald-based column. He was previously a music critic.

Here’s the promised Twain-related anecdote, also mentioned in my 2012 memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional, that I heard at the 1993 National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference in Portland, Oregon. Herb Caen, the famed San Francisco Chronicle gossip columnist who had previously worked for The Sacramento Union, said the Union kept the desk ostensibly used by Twain. When someone expressed interest in buying it, the newspaper parted with it for $200. “We sold dozens,” Caen chuckled.

Any journalists-turned-novelists you’d like to discuss?

I spoke about my past career covering cartoonists (and columnists) in the latest podcast hosted by masterful Vancouver, Canada-based interviewer/conversationalist Rebecca Budd, who also writes several blogs and often comments here as Clanmother. Link below. You’ll hear my memories of, and thoughts about, these comic creators I knew: Charles M. Schulz (“Peanuts”), Gary Larson (“The Far Side”), Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”), Milt Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”), Garry Trudeau (“Doonesbury”), Lynn Johnston (“For Better or For Worse”), and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”). Some of those memories and thoughts are also in my aforementioned Comic (and Column) Confessional book.

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 — about two local champion soccer teams, my town’s ambitious mayor, and Thanksgiving — is here.

Some Novels Are Built on Characters Feeling Guilt

Guilt. It’s a five-letter word that feels like a four-letter word.

Many fictional protagonists suffer from guilt, which can make their lives difficult and give a novel plenty of drama. Those characters often evoke our sympathy, mainly because someone who feels guilt has a conscience. Of course, the action or actions that cause people to feel guilt range from deliberate to accidental, which can affect what we think of those erring folk.

I just read William Kennedy’s mesmerizing/melancholy Ironweed, whose main character’s entire life changes because of guilt. Once a very good turn-of-the-20th-century Major League baseball player, Francis Phelan has become a homeless alcoholic wandering the streets of Albany, New York, in 1938. Things went downhill after a perhaps-drunk-that-day Francis accidentally dropped and killed his infant son. The young father, who also killed a strikebreaker around that time, never forgave himself and proceeded to leave his wife Annie and two other kids and allow his life to go to hell. One feels a mix of pity and “why didn’t you try to deal with things better?” for Francis — who was forgiven by Annie, their son, and (to an extent) their daughter.

Phelan’s companion in homelessness, former singer Helen Archer, began her downward spiral after an awful betrayal by her mother. But that mom feels no guilt, even on her deathbed.

(Above are Meryl Streep as Helen and Jack Nicholson as Francis in the 1987 Ironweed movie.)

Moving to other novels and characters, Raskolnikov experiences a huge amount of guilt after committing murder in Crime and Punishment — even as he had delusional hopes he wouldn’t feel that way. Few authors have ever depicted guilt as feverishly as Fyodor Dostoyevsky did via his classic novel’s nerve-wracked protagonist.

Like Francis, a haunted Eve Gardiner becomes a guilt-ridden alcoholic in Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network. Eve was an adept English spy during World War I who thought — upon regaining consciousness after being tortured — that she had betrayed a fellow spy. She believes this for decades, until…

In Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, the title character felt guilt about the bus accident that left his late wife Sonja paralyzed from the waist down. Ove didn’t cause the accident (revealed in the novel’s back story); he had noticed that the bus driver had alcohol on his breath when he and Sonja first boarded but didn’t say anything. Unlike Francis (whose guilt was of course more direct), Ove stuck loyally and lovingly with his wife until Sonja died years after making the best of her radically changed life by becoming a beloved teacher.

Sophie of Sophie’s Choice lives for years with almost unbearable guilt over a choice she made while in Nazi captivity. There is also plenty of survivor’s guilt in William Styron’s novel, or virtually any Holocaust/post-Holocaust novel.

Obviously, there can be guilt over adultery or other kinds of problematic romantic affairs — as felt, for instance, by Christabel LaMotte in A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.

And what about parental guilt when a mom or dad (more often the mom) feels they are not spending enough time with their kids because of career-related responsibilities? One example is Claire in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series going through long days of intensive medical training while her daughter Brianna is young.

There can also be guilt over shabbily treating a friend. That’s the case for the young Amir, in Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, who does not do right by faithful childhood pal Hassan. There is some measure of atonement, though hardly enough, for Amir later in the novel.

Finally, there’s of course guilt over acting cowardly — as in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim. In some cases, the protagonists might at least partly make up for that by behaving bravely later on.

Novels you’ve read with characters feeling guilt?

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 — about the effect of Covid on my town — is here.

It’s Hard to Err in the Decade of ‘Eyre’

Last week, I discussed the 1940s as a stellar decade for novels. This week, I’ll jump back a century to perhaps an even more stellar literary period: the 1840s. The Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, William Thackeray, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, Herman Melville, James Fenimore Cooper, Nikolai Gogol, early Fyodor Dostoevsky…

The novel as a medium truly came into its own in the 1840s — no previous decade had such a large and varied array of what would become fiction classics.

Let’s start with the astonishing two-year run by Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte. Charlotte’s 1847 Jane Eyre — my favorite novel — is of course the gripping story of an independent-minded orphan who becomes a governess and falls mutually in love with her employer Edward Rochester. Published later that same year was Emily’s Wuthering Heights — a highly original and tempestuous tale of romance, obsession, and cruelty. Following in 1848 was Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, the compelling early feminist novel chronicling a woman’s escape from a bad marriage. Anne (Agnes Grey/1847) and Charlotte (Shirley/1849) also wrote other, not-as-memorable novels in that decade.

(Pictured above are Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 Wuthering Heights movie.)

For Charles Dickens, the 1840s was his most productive decade — churning out one absorbing novel after another — even as several of his most-admired books (including A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations) would come later. My Dickens favorites from the ’40s include The Old Curiosity Shop (1841), A Christmas Carol (1843), Martin Chuzzlewit (1844), and Dombey and Son (1848).

Another English author, Willam Thackeray, wrote 1848’s Vanity Fair — starring the smart, witty, manipulative, unforgettable Becky Sharp.

Over in France, Alexandre Dumas blazed through the 1840s with novels such as his highly entertaining The Three Musketeers and the riveting revenge saga The Count of Monte Cristo. Both books were finished in 1844 — how’s that for an authorial year? There was also his less-known-but-great Georges (1843), the one Dumas novel that reflected the author’s part-African heritage; and Twenty Years After (1845), the satisfying first sequel to The Three Musketeers.

Another French author, Balzac, penned most of his best novels in the 1830s, but the excellent Cousin Bette and The Black Sheep came out in 1846 and 1842, respectively.

Over in the U.S., Herman Melville wrote several very good semi-autobiographical sea novels in the 1840s before authoring 1851’s extremely good Moby-Dick. They included Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Redburn (1849).

Two of James Fenimore Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” quintet came out early in that decade: The Pathfinder (1840) and The Deerslayer (1841). Cooper did not write the five novels chronologically; for instance, The Deerslayer — which I think is the best of the series — is set from 1740 to 1755 while the previously written The Last of the Mohicans (1826) takes place later (in 1757).

In Russia, Nikolai Gogol’s eye-opening Dead Souls came out in 1842. Fyodor Dostoevsky started his novel-writing career with 1846’s Poor Folk; the masterpieces Crime and Punishment (1866) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880) would arrive quite a few years later. I haven’t yet read Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (1840).

Don’t worry, next week’s post won’t focus on the 1740s — though Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Joseph Andrews (1742) were pretty darn good. 🙂

Your favorite novels of the 1840s?

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 — about the election and more — is here.