Authors Who Do and Don’t Set Their Fiction in One Place

A writer’s imagination can travel the world or stay mostly in a specific locale. And readers like both approaches.

Some authors are known for situating many of their novels and stories in one town, city, region, or state. Charles Dickens: London. James Joyce: Dublin. L.M. Montgomery: Prince Edward Island. Stephen King: Maine. Nathaniel Hawthorne: Massachusetts. Edith Wharton: New York City. Anne Tyler: Baltimore. Anne Rice: New Orleans. William Faulkner: Mississippi (the fictional Yoknapatawpha County inspired by the real Lafayette County). Of course, those and other locale-centric authors occasionally vary their settings — as did Dickens with his mid-book sending of Martin Chuzzlewit to America, Hawthorne when he put The Marble Faun in Italy, and Wharton when she focused on Massachusetts resident Ethan Frome.

There are also writers who set many of their novels in either of two places, as Fannie Flagg does with small towns in Missouri and Alabama (where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — born on this date, January 15, in 1929 — first became widely known during the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott).

Other authors bounce around to lots of locales in their fiction. A prime example is James Michener, who wrote novels titled Alaska, Caribbean, Hawaii, Mexico, Poland, Texas, etc. Henry James set much of his fiction in the U.S., England, France, or Italy. Terry McMillan has placed her novels in places such as Michigan, Phoenix, Jamaica, and San Francisco. And, in different books, Lee Child’s roaming Jack Reacher character visits Georgia, Texas, New York City, Colorado, South Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, France, and elsewhere.

The toggling can be in one novel, too, as when Donna Tartt places The Goldfinch protagonist Theo Decker in New York City, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam — even as her previous book, The Little Friend, stays in Mississippi.

Some advantages of different settings? Many readers relish “seeing” new places, and authors might be refreshed and invigorated not to be in a geographical “rut.” Heck, the plot, prose, and characters can end up being less predictable because of the new locales. And readers can be nicely surprised — I know I was when Wilkie Collins yanked A Rogue’s Life protagonist Frank Softly out of England and put him on a ship to Australia.

Among the advantages of using the same place in multiple books? Authors know the terrain well and thus their fiction can seem more authentic. Also, they’re able to spend more time on plot, prose, and characters instead of countless hours researching and visiting new locales. Meanwhile, the better writers who focus on one place are obviously “traveling” in other ways — through the realm of human emotions.

Of course, the further back in time authors lived, the harder it was for them to get to other places and to do research. From what I’ve heard, there were few computers or jumbo jets available to Jane Austen…

Who are your favorite past and present authors who have repeatedly used one locale, or who have used different locales in different works? Any other thoughts on this topic?

(There are no California references in this blog post because I recently wrote a piece about literature set in that state.)

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

A Novel Exploding With Themes (and Some Grenades)

As regular readers of this literature blog know, my “modus operandi” is writing themed pieces rather than, say, book reviews. Almost every time I read a novel, it gives me an idea for a theme, and then I try to remember various other novels that also fit into that theme.

Well, I just read a book that reminded me of MANY themes I’ve written about in the past. So I thought I’d go with that this week.

The novel is Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, an author (recommended by several people credited in the comments section) I finally tried last month. Michener’s 1947 book checked off so many previously discussed themes that I decided to list ten of them, along with some other novels that fit those themes.

1. Tales is among a relatively small group of debut novels that became VERY popular bestsellers. A notable recent example: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (originally Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in England).

2. Michener is one of those authors whose first novel was published at a relatively advanced age — in his case, 40. But even that was several decades short of Harriet Doerr’s age (74) when her Stones for Ibarra debut came out.

3. Tales is among the many novels that are semi-autobiographical with a heavy dose of fictionalizing (Michener was a U.S. Navy man in the South Pacific during World War II). There have been countless other semi-autobiographical novels, but I’ll name just one: Saul Bellow’s Herzog, which I also read this month.

4. Michener’s book is one of those “fish out of water”/”culture shock” novels that place characters in unfamiliar settings — in this case, American soldiers based on South Pacific islands. Another of the numerous “fish out of water” novels is Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky (Americans in North Africa).

5. Tales is among the war novels by military veterans who give readers a “you are there” feeling and don’t sugarcoat what warfare is like. Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front is one of the most obvious examples.

6. Michener’s book is among the famous novels that are edgier than many readers expect them to be. Also the case with Herman Melville’s Pierre.

7. Tales is a very multicultural book, surprisingly so for its time. A more recent novel with that welcome element: Zadie Smith’s White Teeth.

8. Tales is basically a collection of short stories that coalesce into a novel — an interesting sub-genre of fiction. Another example: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

9. Michener’s book is among the novels that have won the Pulitzer Prize. So many other excellent ones: Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch

10. Tales is among the fictional works that inspired a production more famous than the book itself. In this case, the Broadway musical South Pacific (based on just a couple sections of Tales) and two South Pacific movies (one theatrically released and the other created for TV). Daphne du Maurier’s short story “The Birds,” made into the iconic Hitchcock film, is among the other works somewhat overshadowed by subsequent adaptations.

What are some other novels that fit into the above ten categories? Any thoughts about Michener books you may have read, as well as his authorial abilities in general? As many of you know, Michener went on to write many more books — including long, heavily researched, often geographically specific novels such as Hawaii, The Source, Centennial, Chesapeake, Space, Texas, Alaska, and Mexico.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, which will probably be published during the first quarter of 2017. But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson. 

Feel-Good Fiction Can Temporarily ‘Trump’ Bad Feelings

While many of us plan to oppose the Donald Trump presidency in all kinds of ways, we also occasionally need some escape from the awful news of his election. Toward that end, I’ve come up with a number of novels and short stories that might serve that purpose.

Those feel-good works contain happy endings and/or inspirational content and/or loving relationships and/or very funny material and/or other positive things. They may also include downbeat moments and some of the angst we feel in real life, but they leave us feeling mostly optimistic about the human condition.

Most of Fannie Flagg’s novels are pretty darn sunny (while not ignoring racism, sexism, violence, and other harsh things) — with perhaps the sunniest of all A Redbird Christmas. That book doesn’t start in an upbeat way, but, when an ill man living alone in wintry Chicago moves to a small Alabama town, things eventually get quite cheery while skirting the swamp of too much sappiness and sentimentality.

Also opening in a grim way and then making readers feel wonderful is L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle, about a young woman whose life gets infinitely better after being told she’ll die soon. Some very comical scenes, too.

Finding blissful romance is a part of both The Blue Castle and A Redbird Christmas, and in other novels such as Terry McMillan’s How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The bliss may or may not last in the unwritten future after the novels end, but it’s sure nice to see in its initial stages.

Then there’s the release of endorphins you’ll experience when laughing through the pages of Charles Dickens’ funniest novel, The Posthumous Papers of The Pickwick Club. Also hilarious are Colette’s Claudine at School, Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals, P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves/Bertie Wooster novels and stories, etc.

The pleasures of being a kid growing up in a small town are nostalgically conveyed in Ray Bradbury’s mostly heartwarming Dandelion Wine. There’s also nostalgia, and some sentimentality, in James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips and its story of a beloved teacher. Another teacher tale, E.R. Braithwaite’s To Sir, With Love, has its inspirational moments, too, as the protagonist’s students eventually take to his unorthodox classroom approach. (Braithwaite is still alive at 104!)

David Lodge’s Paradise News promises nice things in its very title before telling the story of an Englishman finding love during a stay in Hawaii. The titles of John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and Steve Martin’s The Pleasure of My Company also accurately promise some happy happenings within.

Then there are utopian novels, such as Edward Bellamy’s time-traveling Looking Backward, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, and Aldous Huxley’s Island — the last book a sort of counterpoint to that author’s dystopian Brave New World.

There are also novels that mix the downbeat and upbeat, but the upbeat moments are so wonderful that readers finish the books feeling more good than bad. Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one famous example (the iconic Jane-Rochester romance certainly helps), and Jane Austen’s novels are also sort of in that category.

Some feel-good novels are depressing for almost the entire book before a mostly idyllic ending helps redeem things. Such is the case with (Ms.) Lionel Shriver’s exceptional So Much For That, which has a tropical-island conclusion that radiates lovely vibes.

Heck, even totally downbeat novels can leave us with some positive feelings if we see things like resilience, kindness in difficult circumstances, and so on.

Short stories? Those that would bring a smile to your face include Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” Herman Melville’s “I and My Chimney,” O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost,” and (until the ending) Bret Harte’s “The Luck of Roaring Camp,” to name just a few.

Obviously, there are tons of other feel-good novels and stories I haven’t mentioned. What are some of your favorites?

And…Happy Thanksgiving!

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished writing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

One Novel Stands Out, But Why?

What is it that makes a many-novel author become known mostly for one novel?

Maybe that book is their best, even though they’ve written a number of other good or great books. Maybe it’s because that most-known novel became famous partly because it was turned into a popular movie. Maybe the publisher marketed that one book more than the others. Maybe there’s no discernible reason.

I was thinking about all that last week when reading Fannie Flagg’s Standing in the Rainbow — a funny, sunny, sentimental, heartwarming novel that also seriously addresses sexism, racism, homophobia, infidelity, death, etc. And the 2002 book — which spans more than five decades of life in a small Missouri town — includes a drunk-with-power politician whose presidential campaign in some ways eerily presages the vile Donald Trump’s divisive White House run.

Flagg has also authored other excellent novels (several set in Alabama) — including A Redbird Christmas, Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, I Still Dream About You, and The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion. But when the general reader thinks of Flagg, what mostly comes to mind is Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe — which probably is the author’s best novel, and was made into a beloved major motion picture. Still, Flagg’s other books deserve to have much higher profiles.

Of course, Flagg’s fans know and love her novels, and the same can be said for the fans of other multi-book authors associated mostly with one novel.

Those other authors? Let me name just a few, in alphabetical order:

— Margaret Atwood’s most famous book by far is The Handmaid’s Tale, but she has also authored more than a dozen other superb novels — including Cat’s Eye, The Robber Bride, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin, and Oryx and Crake.

— Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop is that author’s book most assigned in high school and college courses, but she also wrote other compelling novels such as O Pioneers!, The Song of the Lark, and My Antonia.

— Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World far outstrips his other books in popularity, but his novels such as Antic Hay, Point Counter Point, and Island are well worth the read, too.

— Herman Melville is of course best known for Moby-Dick, but he penned a number of other fine novels such as Typee, Redburn, White-Jacket, Pierre, and Billy Budd. Plus the riveting short stories “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and “Benito Cereno” are almost long enough to be novellas.

— L.M. Montgomery is mostly associated with the memorable Anne of Green Gables, but she also attracted readers with compelling works such as the various Anne sequels, the Emily trilogy, and The Blue Castle.

Can you name other authors who wrote a number of very good novels yet are mostly known for just one of those books? Why the disproportionate focus on that one novel?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

Mental Illness in Fiction

There’s a lot of mental illness in the world, and there’s a lot of mental illness in literature.

And why not? Fiction frequently reflects real life (albeit often in a heightened way) and many readers have suffered from depression, bipolar disorder, etc. — or have family members, friends, and coworkers with various such conditions.

Mental illness — which of course ranges from mild to severe — can also help give literature the important elements of drama, heartbreak, curiosity-evoking content, cliffhanger situations, etc. Will characters with mental illness harm themselves or others? Can they function well in society, perhaps with the help of medication and/or therapy? How much does income level determine how people with mental illness are treated? Do the characters live at home or in a facility? Are some of them misdiagnosed? Do characters who know characters with mental illness act resentfully, compassionately, or both ways in their interactions? Heck, people with mental illness can’t help the fact that their brain chemistry has wired them differently — yet the resulting behavior is still not easy for family and friends.

One of the most famous novels dealing with mental illness is Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, set in a psychiatric ward. Known to many for its movie version, the book includes the sobering scenario of ward residents being treated harshly by Nurse Ratched.

Indeed, literature has many examples of the mentally ill not getting much compassion. For instance, the far-from-affluent Connie Ramos of Marge Piercy’s part-sci-fi novel Woman on the Edge of Time is institutionalized despite probably not being mentally ill at all — just legitimately angry at, and stressed with, what life has dealt her.

But there are other instances of characters being treated kindly by mental-health professionals — often in cases where the family has the money to pay for superior care. One example is in Jamie’s Children by Susan Moore Jordan, whose Niall character gets some darn good help that might help him save a relationship and create a music career.

Other literary works containing characters with mental illness, possible mental illness, depression, severe social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, etc. — or who are “eccentric” or “slow” — include Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (“madwoman in the attic” Bertha), Jean Rhys’ Jane Eyre prequel Wide Sargasso Sea (a more sympathetic Bertha as a younger woman), Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote (comically delusional title character), Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther (despairing title character), Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (psychologically sick Raskolnikov), and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (reclusive Boo Radley).

Also: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (shell-shocked war veteran Septimus Smith), F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (had-a-breakdown Nicole Diver), Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping (spacey Sylvie), Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (dual-personality title character), Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor (beleaguered Lucy Ashton), Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (depressed/suicidal Esther Greenwood), Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden (schizophrenic Deborah Blau), Shakespeare’s Hamlet (possibly psychotic title character), and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper” (hallucinating/patronized-by-husband female narrator).

Several of the above fictional works were semi-autobiographical.

One of the most famous examples of an author who struggled with mental illness was Janet Frame, whose scheduled lobotomy was canceled when a collection of her stories won a prestigious literary prize in New Zealand.

Then there are works featuring characters on the autism spectrum — a neuro-developmental condition, not a mental illness. One such person is Christopher of Mark Haddon’s novel-turned-play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

What are your favorite novels featuring characters who are or may be mentally ill? Any thoughts on the way that’s depicted in literature?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’ve finished and am now rewriting/polishing a book called Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Writers, but am still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

A Ghost Post

When one thinks of the supernatural in literature, one immediately thinks of ghost stories. Yet some non-ghost tales and novels also have moments of a paranormal nature. This post will discuss both kinds of works.

Supernatural fiction is of course appealing for a variety of reasons. It offers vicarious thrills (we’re not experiencing the spookiness in real life), piques our curiosity about how characters will react to the scares, sparks our interest in how inventive authors will be in creating the eeriness, etc.

I got to thinking about all this not by seeing the current Ghostbusters movie but by reading The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton. A really good collection, including “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell” tale that memorably chronicles a household with the specter of a dead servant still hanging around.

Then there’s The Turn of the Screw by Wharton’s friend Henry James, whose novel makes readers wonder about the age-old question posed by many ghost stories: Are the apparitions real or are they the products of anxious characters’ imaginations? Heck, the alarming eyes that appear in the dead of night in Wharton’s “The Eyes” are just the protagonist’s conscience, aren’t they? Aren’t they?

Sometimes, phantasms are partly played for laughs, as in Oscar Wilde’s hilarious yet poignant story “The Canterville Ghost” — whose title character can be rather bumbling when it comes to frightening people. Or with the funnier of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter ghosts — including Nearly Headless Nick (named Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington when alive) and poetry-spouting Peeves the Poltergeist (“oh Potter, you rotter…”).

In other recent fiction, Stephen King’s work has periodically been ghostly in addition to being in the genres of horror, etc. One example is his low-key, spine-tingling novel From a Buick 8, in which a supernatural car is a sort of portal to another world.

There are more haunted houses than haunted cars in literature, and one of them is the mansion in Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. Strange noises and presences seem to dwell in that dwelling — and one character might be getting “possessed” by the house — but the story is told with such skillful understatement that readers are not sure what to think.

Or how about Peter Straub’s aptly named Ghost Story, in which the past psychologically and literally haunts a group of old men who might be getting targeted for something they did wrong in their youth? The grapes of wraith and all that…

A mild-mannered but also-vengeful specter appears in Edith Wharton’s story “Afterward,” a cautionary tale about what happens when a businessman gets a little too greedy. Which reminds me of the spooky visits in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, though Marley’s ghost never sings the reggae tune “No, Scrooge Guy, No Cry.”

Then there are the understandably vengeful, long-dead dogs in Wharton’s chilling tale “Kerfol.” (Yes, animals can be ghosts, too.)

But, as noted before, the supernatural can be just a part of “general interest” works. For instance, think of the magic realism novels — such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits (yes…SPIRITS!) — that have humans occasionally fly and do other strange things.

Think also of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, which is realistic in its way yet has the famous, pivotal scene in which a despairing Edward Rochester calls Jane’s name and she hears him despite being too far away to hear him.

Even “lighter” novels can have seemingly supernatural moments. For instance, Fannie Flagg’s heartwarming A Redbird Christmas has a crucial scene in which a girl’s life is saved because it snows in just one small southern Alabama town as scores of redbirds descend. If that seems confusing, read the delightful novel — it will all make sense.

And I haven’t even discussed the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, Ambrose Bierce, H.P. Lovecraft, etc.!

What are your favorite ghost stories? What are your favorite non-ghost works with occasional supernatural moments?

I’ll be skipping a July 31 post (vacation!) but will return Aug. 7.

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

When Gender Enters a Blender in Literature

I like a lot of literature in which women display so-called “masculine” behavior and men display so-called “feminine” behavior.

That not only applies to recent fiction written during a time when gender roles are thankfully becoming less defined, but also applies to older lit by the occasional authors who weren’t totally rigid about gender roles in an era when that kind of tolerance was considered “out there.” Sometimes, older lit was dismissive of the gender-role flexibility it was depicting; other times, it was more sincere.

Why do I like it when female and male characters are not put in gender boxes? Besides the fact that gender roles should be more fluid, that fluidity can make for stories that are more interesting, unconventional, etc.

Two works I read this summer exemplify how compelling all this can be. One of them was Julia Alvarez’s superb novel In the Time of the Butterflies (1994), a part-fictionalized tale of four real-life sisters who riskily (three were murdered) became prominent in the effort to depose despicable dictator Rafael Trujillo — ruler of the Dominican Republic from 1930 until he was assassinated himself in 1961. The other work was Bret Harte’s memorable short story “The Luck of Roaring Camp” (1868), in which hard-bitten California Gold Rushers act maternally with a baby born in an all-male camp (the mother died in childbirth).

I read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White a couple of decades ago, but still vividly recall one of its most original characters: Marian Halcombe, who was depicted as kind of “masculine” even as her main attributes were intelligence, resourcefulness, and bravery displayed while helping unravel the 1859 novel’s mystery.

There’s the also-brave Judith Hutter in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Deerslayer — which, despite being published in 1841 and set in the 1740s, has her be the one to propose marriage to frontiersman Natty Bumppo.

In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Ma Joad becomes the decision-maker (and her husband takes a more subsidiary role) as intense hardship befalls their family.

Then there are novels in which women run for high political office — as does the title character in Robert L. Haught’s engaging Here’s Clare (2014) when she seeks the California governorship. (I’m now reading the 2016 sequel, Clare’s New Leaf.) Of course, politics is less of a male’s world than it used to be, but still unfortunately a majority-men realm.

Or novels in which women work in other professions many still tend to associate with men — as does the Sheila character who runs a New Orleans bar in the memorable Grail Nights (2015) by Amanda Moores (wife of commenter jhNY).

When it comes to female characters who are girls, there are many examples of “tomboys”: Scout Finch of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), Jo March of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Maggie Tulliver of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss (1860), Frankie Addams of Carson McCullers’ The Member of the Wedding (1946), and Idgie Threadgoode of Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987), among others. Some grow out of their “tomboy” ways, some don’t; some are definitely or seemingly gay, some aren’t.

Adult males who don’t fit the conventional masculine mold? The gentle giant King of Elizabeth Berg’s Open House (2000) cooks like a chef and has had just one sexual experience as he approaches middle age. And there’s the also-gentle Forney Hull, who works in a library in Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is (1995).

Heck, being gentle is not that unusual a male trait, but there’s still an expectation that many male characters will be macho, sexist, domineering, sports-talking people reluctant to share their feelings.

Other male characters defy the “conventional wisdom” by being much better parents than their wives; one example is Subhash of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland (2013).

Young fictional males acting in non-stereotypical ways include Paul Irving, the sweet, daydreaming boy in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea (1909) who eventually becomes a published poet; and John Grimes, the sensitive teen protagonist in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953).

(In Baldwin’s novel, John’s nice-guy biological father Richard died because of police racism that’s still tragically with us in 2016 as trigger-happy white cops yet again shot and murdered defenseless African-Americans — this time, Alton Sterling of Louisiana and Philando Castile of Minnesota, after which there was retaliatory violence against police in Dallas.)

Sadly, many female and male characters are thwarted when trying to break free of gender boxes. For instance, the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s riveting 1892 story “The Yellow Wallpaper” just wants to work and have some mental stimulation, but — like many 19th-century women — has to deal with monotony and oppression at the hands of her patronizing husband and society in general.

What are some of your favorite literary works that scramble gender expectations?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.